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.”
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.”