When Tim Harris was a kid growing up in Overtown, he and his friends used to hop the trains that rolled through the middle of the neighborhood.
“We’d ride it as far as we felt like walking back to where we started,” Harris said. Sometimes he daydreamed about staying on the train and alighting in a distant place.
But he always came home.
Thirty-five years later, Harris is still in Overtown, no longer the boy playing in its parks, taking shortcuts through Crab Alley, fetching mail-order Bibles for his grandmother, buying snacks at China Joe’s, watching movies at the Capital Theater.
Today, Harris is the unofficial king of Overtown. His Booker T. Washington High School football team won the state championship in 2007 and the beloved Tornadoes are pursuing another title Saturday night against Jacksonville Bolles in Orlando.
When Harris hangs out in Overtown these days, poking his head in the barbershop or eating at People’s Barbeque, he hears applause and cries of “Do it again, Ice!” and “Thank you, coach!”
He could have left for good but he always came back to home sweet home.
People might think the grass is greener on the other side of Overtown’s fences enclosing trash-strewn vacant lots. To Harris, Overtown is a garden and he’s a gardener, nurturing his perennials.
“We want our players to go out, get a college degree and come back powerful so they can show the kids behind them how to grow,” he said. “Everybody helps everybody and we’re stronger together.”
That’s how his team works. If one player receives a bad grade in class, or fails to wear the shirt and tie each Tornado must wear on Mondays, everybody runs suicides.
“Then they’re saying to their teammate, ‘What’s your problem? I don’t want to be running for you. How can I help you?’” Harris said, explaining his teaching methods at his office down a thoroughfare of a hall from the Booker T. gym. Harris watched game film while the noise from a girls’ basketball game bounced off the walls and a stream of players came by with questions on everything from homework to haircuts. A teacher appeared to discuss a misbehaving student. A booster club parent picked up orange and black car flags.
Harris multi-tasked with his customary serenity. He’s known for singing R&B tunes at school, at practice, in the car.
Harris’ job as an inner city coach isn’t full-time, it’s all-the-time.
He has paid utility bills when power is cut off at a player’s home. He has lent money for diapers to players who are young fathers. He has given rides to players living at homeless shelters. He has worked with probation officers to make sure his players are staying in line.
The Tornados are required to wear suits on road trips. Harris has a rack of donated suits for players to choose from. If a player’s family can’t afford groceries, the booster club chips in.
Harris knows plenty of high school coaches in other states who make $80,000-$100,000. He makes the standard Miami-Dade County Public Schools supplement of $2,800 on top of his $30,000 salary.
“You’ve got to really love what you’re doing and understand why you’re here,” he said. “If you realize you’re earning 10 cents per hour, you can’t let it bother you. Nobody is doing this for the financial rewards.”