2007 ACC Football Legend: North Carolina's Harris Barton
Oct. 25, 2007
By Wilt Browning
In retrospect, Harris Barton says he wasn't smart enough to have been admitted to the University of North Carolina without the help of very impressive high school football credentials in Georgia where he grew big and strong.
But he was smart enough to listen to his father, Paul Harris.
College football coaches began to take notice of the big kid from Sandy Springs, Ga., early in his high school career. And, by the time of his senior season at Dunwoody High School, more than 100 of them - including coaches representing Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Southern Cal - had come calling. There were so many, indeed, that the young Barton had his choice of where he would attend college.
Well, sort of.
"When it was time to decide," Barton said, "Dad said I could go anywhere I wanted with just two restrictions.
"He didn't want me to go to a California school because he said if I went out there I'd never come home. So, that left out Southern Cal and UCLA.
"Then he said he didn't want me going to a Georgia school because if I did, I'd never leave home. Well, that left out Georgia and Georgia Tech."
Steadily, father and son whittled the amazing list of suitors to just five, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Florida State and North Carolina. North Carolina was no stranger to recruiting blue-chip athletes such as Barton was at the time, though usually in basketball and not always successfully in football.
"North Carolina just seemed a good fit for me because when I signed, a future pro career was not even a consideration. There were no plans on my part to play pro ball."
And so it was that the Harris men, father and son, climbed into the family car then loaded with all the things the incoming freshman would need between July and Christmas, made their way to Interstate 85 North and headed for Chapel Hill.
It was somewhere along that busy ribbon of asphalt and concrete that the father offered his son a bit more advice. It had been quiet in the car as they motored along perhaps somewhere in South Carolina.
"Harris, I want you to remember something when you get to Chapel Hill," the elder Harris said.
"What's that, dad?" Harris said, pushing the monotony of the drive from his consciousness.
"I want you to remember that, in my opinion, there are three reasons people go to college. One is to party, one is for sports, and one is for academics."
"Probably true," the young Barton agreed, perhaps wondering where this conversation was going.
"Well, son, I think most people can do two of the three very well," his father said. "I think you can party and play sports just fine, but you wouldn't be much with the books. You can party and do your studies OK, but your sports career would suffer. Of course you can play sports and study hard, but your partying wouldn't be much.
"The point is," he said, pausing only a second perhaps for emphasis, "you need to decide which two you'll put everything into and which one you'll leave out.
"Harris," he said, being more pointed now, "I know you'll choose the two that are best for you."
"You know," Harris said recently, "I wasn't smart enough to get into Carolina if it hadn't been for sports. Carolina's very difficult to get into if you're from out of state as a non-athlete. But once I got there, I knew I wanted to make the best of it."
The quick confirmation is that this self-assessed so-so high school student became both an Academic All-American and a football All-American at UNC. He wasn't as widely known as a party animal.
"I decided to take school seriously. I took classes I never thought I'd be taking. I took full advantage of the tutor program they provided for athletes. And I practically lived in study hall," Barton remembers.
Still not certain he would play the game at the professional level, Barton hoped for admission to UNC's highly regarded School of Business and a future career in the financial world.
But Barton's football skills were flourishing. He was a starter on the offensive line for each of his four varsity seasons. He had arrived as a possible defensive lineman but was switched to center early in his first summer of practice at Carolina. It was not an enviable assignment; everybody's All-American defensive tackle, William Fuller, regularly glared menacingly at the kid from Georgia from across the line of scrimmage.
"One of the coaches noticed that my hands were pretty quick and so were my feet and they moved me to left tackle," Barton said. There he found a home and there the pro scouts found him. Now, through four seasons with the Tar Heels, he had only to contend with the likes of William "The Refrigerator" Perry or his brother Michael Dean Perry when Carolina played Clemson, for example.
He did his job so well that the San Francisco 49ers chose him with the 22nd pick in the first round of the 1987 NFL draft, which brought about yet another test of his father's admonition from all those summers earlier.
"I was fortunate to have played in a great, great city, on a great team, for a great coach and for a great owner. It couldn't have been better.
"So, maybe I played two years too long," added Barton who was a fixture with San Francisco in a career that stretched from 1987 through 1996 and included three Super Bowl victories.
When the end came, Barton could look back on a playing career that had begun when he was just five years old and had wound its way through Atlanta's Hebrew Academy, Dunwoody High School and the University of North Carolina. "It started in Pop Warner football with the Sandy Springs Rams - we didn't win a game all year - and when I retired I had played for 29 years," Barton said. "Until I was 34, I had never had a summer vacation. Then I got one and I said, `Wow! This is pretty cool!'"
It was then that Barton made one more discovery. His father also had been right about California. Harris stayed.
"This is home, like Dad knew it probably would be," said Barton, now a fixture in Palo Alto. "I'll never come back."
Nor, perhaps, is there any need to because Barton also watched his dream of being a player in the financial world come true. After retirement, he and close friend and fellow 49er teammate Ronnie Lott entered the highly competitive venture capital world. Today their company manages more than $2 billion in capital worldwide.
"It'll definitely keep you awake at night. Sometimes it's worse than looking at William Perry across the line."
The one sad element is that neither his mother nor his father lived to see the middle chapters of their son's life.
There is, however, the consolation that his father knew what he was talking about all along.
Wilt Browning is a special contributor to theACC.com. He spent more than 40 years as a sports editor and columnist in the Southeast. He worked for the Greenville News, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Charlotte Observer, the Greensboro News & Record and the Asheville Citizen-Times. His numerous awards include five North Carolina Sports Writer of the Year honors. He is also the author of five books, including Come Quittin' Time which was released this summer.
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