Gators in NFL: Jets’ Harrison overcame years of bullying to achieve dreams

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New York Jets center Jonotthan Harrison (78) endured years of bullying while growing up in central Florida, but refused to let any of it stop him from achieving his goals. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Jonotthan Harrison has not forgotten a single punch or kick, the brutal pushing and shoving, the sudden tackles to the ground with his classmates piling on top of him.

There was also the constant and flat-out mean name calling. And all the laughing. So much laughing — at his expense.

The New York Jets center endured years of bullying while growing up in central Florida, but refused to let those painful moments stop him from achieving his goals.

“I can get along with anybody,” Harrison said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But for whatever reason, people found me to be an easy target to mess with, pick on or whatever, whether they thought it was playful or not.”

The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Harrison hardly looks like the type of guy anyone would dare mess with.

From fifth grade through high school, though, it was a different story — one he often shares in schools on days off from practice to bring awareness to bullying and try to prevent it from happening to other youngsters.

“It was a journey and I realized toward the end of high school that it kind of toughened me up on the inside,” the 27-year-old Harrison said. “You know, if I could go through all that and still come out on top, so to speak, all those people that bullied me and did whatever, they’re still in my hometown. They haven’t done anything with their lives, so now I’m very thankful for my parents’ guidance growing up and for where it’s helped me get to.”

Harrison’s mother Jennifer and stepfather Robert Vorasky were travel nurses when he was young, so the family often bounced around south Florida. When Harrison reached fifth grade, his parents bought a home in the city of Mascotte in Lake County, Florida, with the intentions of providing stability.

But Harrison quickly realized he was in for some major challenges.

“I was the only person of my color in my class and they didn’t throw racial slurs at me, but coincidentally, we’d go out to recess and everyone would gang up on me on the soccer field,” he recalled. “They would trip me, they’d throw the ball at me. Me being an only child, I didn’t have any siblings to talk to, didn’t have any siblings to toughen me up or anything like that. So, there were times I’d go home emotional to my mom.

“It sounds bad, but it is what it is.”

In middle school, Harrison tipped the scales at more than 200 pounds, so he exceeded the weight limit to join athletic teams. Instead, he discovered the school band and played the guitar and French horn. He was pretty good at both, too, but that didn’t matter to some of the school’s jocks.

“It was like, ‘Oh, here’s this ‘big, squishy kid,’ let’s tackle him and let’s pick on him a little bit,'” Harrison said. “So, on my way to lunch, I’d get tackled every single day. My books would go flying, I’d get scraped up, my shirt ripped up, whatever.

“Everybody would just laugh, and I’d just pick myself up and keep going.”

At South Lake High School, it was more of the same. Some kids also came up with an undesirable nickname: “Big Baby.”

“They would say, ‘Oh, you’re just like a big baby,'” Harrison said. “It kind of stuck with me all the way through college, but it was a different ‘Big Baby’ at that point. I eventually became like a cool ‘Big Baby,’ but at the time, it was belittling and all I wanted to do was fit in.”

Harrison would share some stories with his parents, but his mother would occasionally hear from his friends about other troubles with which her son was dealing.

“He didn’t want to hurt me,” Jennifer Harrison said in a telephone interview. “He didn’t want to see my pain, too, because I think he realized it made me so sad when he was hurting, too.”

She would frequently address Jonotthan’s issues with his teachers and school officials. At home, she provided her son comfort — and valuable advice.

“Be greater than your enemies,” Harrison recalled her telling him. “Don’t stoop down to their level. You could really hurt somebody if you retaliated because you’re 200-plus pounds and they’re still under 200 pounds.”

Jennifer Harrison acknowledged it was tough to ask her son to not retaliate. She knew it frustrated him, but she made it clear she understood what he was going through.

“I told him, if you fight back, you would just be fueling the fire that these kids are trying to spark in you,” she said, “and you don’t want that.”

Instead, Harrison kept brushing himself off and moving forward.

He joined the football team in high school and became a star offensive lineman. That paved his way to a scholarship to the University of Florida.

“I honestly believe that is one of the things that motivated him to be such a good football player,” Jennifer Harrison said. “That was his license to hit back. Maybe some good came out of it in that way. I saw his passion in football and I just said, ‘Wow, he’s finally able to hit back legitimately,’ and I think that gave him his strength and his oomph in football.”

Harrison was also a model student with a double major who graduated with degrees in criminology and anthropology, and set his sights on becoming a homicide detective after his playing days.

“It’s a pleasure to sit back and watch what he is doing now and how he has overcome that in his life and turn it around into something good,” Jennifer Harrison said. “I know it could have turned the other way.

“It could have been more negative.”

Harrison went undrafted in 2014, but signed with Indianapolis and started 23 games over the next three seasons. He signed with New York last year and played in eight games, including one start, before re-signing with the Jets last offseason.

Harrison is set to start his third consecutive game at center, and could remain in that spot the rest of the season.

“I’ve had people reach back out and act like everything’s cool now,” Harrison said. “I’m like, ‘Hey, bro. You don’t remember? I remember you throwing rocks at me when I rode my bike. I remember when we were playing football and all you guys turned and we got into this huge brawl in my backyard and nobody had my back. I remember all those times.’ It kind of sounds bad, but I kind of laugh at times because it’s like, if you were just nicer, you know what I mean?

“I didn’t do anything to deserve that, but you felt the need to do that, and look at life now.”

That’s what drives him to be so active in anti-bullying campaigns in conjunction with the Jets. He’ll go to a school and sit at lunch with a child who has experienced bullying, trading stories and bonding.

“My whole message is: You will be all right and you will come out on the other end stronger, as long as you allow yourself to,” he said. “If you allow whatever’s influencing you to get to you and get under your skin, yeah, it’s going to cripple you. It’s going to cripple you emotionally, cripple you mentally and psychologically.

“But if you take that and you just keep, not fighting back but keep standing up to whatever that influence may be, you’ll realize over time that it makes you stronger on the inside and it gives you the confidence necessary to go through life.”

Notes: The Jets placed safety Marcus Maye on injured reserve, ending an injury-plagued season for the 2017 second-round draft pick out of the University of Florida.

Maye played in just six games because of various ailments, the most recent being thumb and shoulder injuries. After a solid rookie season, he missed the first three games this year with a foot injury. Maye broke his right thumb in Week 6 and sat out just one game despite having a pin inserted into his hand. He then missed New York’s 27-13 loss to New England last Sunday.

Coach Todd Bowles said during the week that surgery could be an option for Maye, who had a franchise-record 104-yard interception return against Denver in Week 5. It also set the NFL mark for the longest INT return without scoring.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I am miffed and disappointed at the same time in my perceived innuendo of this author. Yes, kids can be cruel and down right mean towards any perceived soft target in any school or any location. Yes any location! They are not sociopaths or any other label you wish give them but rather kids acting inappropriately in obviously unsupervised situations. Harrison is to be applauded that he got through what would appear, based on face value and acceptance as true and accurate, a very tough childhood. Best of luck for his future.

  2. Where were the adults in these situations? Examples should have been made and things righted. This young man took the right path and used it to fuel his desire to leave the situation. Some that are weaker may have retaliated less so with disastrous results.

  3. I did not know this about Harrison – just knew that he was an outstanding offensive lineman for the Gators. Love his perserverance and tenacity. Bullying should never be tolerated but is widespread in our schools and neighborhoods. Many bullies DO grow up to be sociopaths, while some learn from their wrong behaviors. Lack of respect and caring for others is all too common. This is an epidemic failure by parents to teach values. I pray that Harrison continues to have a great NFL career, and when he retires, law enforcement. At least he will have our backs, though we did not have his.