Harris’ payoff is subtle. He was at the courthouse handling an identity fraud matter for his wife when he ran into a judge who was a player of his. Another time, inside a hospital, he ran into a doctor who was a former player. The boys he coached to be men are teachers, paramedics, business owners.
His oldest son, Tim Jr., 27, was a track star whose dramatic relay anchor leg enabled Booker T. to win a state title under Harris’ coaching. Tim Jr. graduated from the University of Miami and considered a career elsewhere. But he felt the same pull as his father and is now assistant coach and offensive coordinator.
“We’ve got kids making babies at age 15,” Tim Jr. said. “We want to change their perspective. We want to reverse the cycle. That’s his passion, and I want to follow in his footsteps.”
Harris worked in the UM football program for three years. He moved to West Kendall with wife Chonita, a school bus driver. Coach Al Golden asked him to stay, other colleges asked him to interview, but when he had the chance to resume coaching the Tornadoes, he took it.
“You’ve got to be where you can make the biggest impact,” he said.
Booker T. was founded in 1926 for black students. In 1967 it became an integrated middle school. In 1999, it reopened as a high school. Highway overpasses and ramps were built around the school and slashed through the heart of Overtown five decades ago. Players walk beneath stacks of traffic on their way to practice at Gibson Park.
During one of the crime sprees that convulsed Miami in the 1980s, vandals stood at a railing and dropped rocks on cars passing below. Most people want to get through or over Miami’s historic central city as quickly as possible. They’re thinking riots, poverty, housing projects, drugs. They don’t stop to learn about 116 years of stories or feel the neighborly vibe.
“There is so much negativity here once we cross that bridge – challenges way tougher than any on the football field,” said Tim Jr. “Booker T. is the one big positive. We have different factions in Overtown but they come together for Booker T.”
Nicholas Norris, a senior wide receiver, said the Tornadoes know that “when we play, the crime rate drops because everybody is watching the game.”
His goal is to earn a college degree and open an apparel store. Harris makes players write their dreams on index cards and review them when report cards come out.
“Coach is on me to be a leader,” Norris said. “He says, ‘You can’t just sit back and watch the show, you’ve got to direct it.’”
Harris, 48, was raised in a Northwest Seventh Street apartment in “The Swamp” neighborhood by his grandmother, Luvida Jackson, who died at age 84.
“My grandma was mean because she didn’t want you to think she was soft,” he said.
He was nicknamed “Ice” because he emulated George Gervin as a basketball player. He was called Mango Man when he peddled the fruit. He collected aluminum cans and sold hot dogs at Miami Stadium for spending money.
“It was different then because we were not allowed to hang out on the corner, doing nothing,” said Harris, recalling how he enjoyed watching semi-pro football games between the local Swamp Rats, Bucktown Buccaneers and Outcasts. “Those used to be team names. Now they’re gang names.”
He attended Booker T. Middle and Jackson High, earned a football scholarship to Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., boarded a plane for the first time, discovered snow, graduated and returned to coach and teach at Miami High. He was an assistant at state champ Northwestern. In seven seasons at Booker T., which had never made it past the second round of the playoffs before his arrival, he’s back in the state finals for a rematch against Bolles and he’s compiled an 83-10 record. The number he cites is the average of 16 players who advance to college each year.
Youngest son Treon, 17, is the Tornado quarterback. Son Brandon, 24, was a UM cornerback who plays for the NFL Houston Texans.
Brandon was on the winning Booker T. team in 2007, when the parking lot was packed upon the team caravan’s return at 3 a.m.
“It’s a close-knit community, like a small country town,” said Donaven Jackson, who drives the Jackson Brothers ice cream truck, which he painted orange and black in honor of his alma mater. He gives players discounts after victories. “The celebration went on for two days, everybody hugging. We had a parade.”
The school sits across the street from the TGK Detention Center, which is surrounded by razor wire. Harris refers to the jail as one of his “teaching tools.” That night nobody noticed it.
And the drivers in a hurry to get past Overtown didn’t see history in the making.
“By elevating the team, Coach Ice elevated Overtown,” said Antwan Ezell, who works at Gibson Park and predicts another celebration on Saturday. “He gave us something to be proud of.”