Area NFL draft picks take different paths

Ex-N.C. State lineman Josh Harris expects to start for the Titans. Ex-Wake Forest safety Josh Gattis ends up coaching.

Staff writerApril 22, 2010 

The futures of 255 football players will change in the next three days at the NFL draft in New York.

There will be overnight millionaires, celebrated on ESPN's primetime broadcast of the first round tonight, and minimum-wage rookies, culled in the overshadowed rounds where scouts earn their money and championships are won.

There are 13 draft hopefuls from N.C. State, North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest who will spend the next three days waiting, or praying, to hear their names.

Three years ago, two homegrown prospects from the Big Four - N.C. State's Leroy Harris of Raleigh and Wake Forest's Josh Gattis of Durham - patiently played the draft waiting game.

Harris, a center for the Wolfpack, went in the fourth round (115th overall) to the Tennessee Titans. Gattis, a safety for the Demon Deacons, went in the fifth round (150th) to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

They are two of the 153 draft picks from the Big Four schools from 1990 to 2009 and a cross-section of how life in the NFL can split in different directions.

Harris, entering his fourth season with the Titans, is on the precipice of a life-changing season. Gattis, after one season in the NFL, is starting his coaching career as a graduate assistant at UNC.

While the latest crop of area prospects, with UNC's Cam Thomas and Wake's Brandon Ghee likely the first two to go, wait to learn their draft fates, history suggests they'll get about five years in the NFL.

Their stories are just beginning to unfold. This is what happened to Harris and Gattis:

Waiting his turn

Leroy Harris has always lived his life ahead of schedule. The 6-foot-3, 302-pound lineman was a husband and father before he graduated from N.C. State.

At 25, he opened his own business, a daycare center in Nashville, Tenn.

But with the Titans, Harris was drafted in April 2007 and promptly told to wait. With All-Pro Kevin Mawae entrenched at center, there was no room in the starting lineup for Harris. Save for a spot start in the 2008 playoffs, Harris has served as an apprentice.

That's about to change this season. Harris is expected to start at left guard, next to center Eugene Amano. The situation couldn't be better for Harris, who's in the final year of his rookie contract.

The Titans have the NFL's top rusher, former East Carolina running back Chris Johnson, and they have a similar zone-blocking scheme that Harris played in at State. Tennessee assistant coach Marty Galbraith also worked with Harris at State.

"I ended up in a great spot," Harris said. "I'm on the right team in the right system. It's funny how things work out."

Harris, who made $460,000 in 2009, according to USA Today, is also on the verge of a big payday. Tennessee just signed Amano to a five-year deal worth a reported $25.7 million.

That kind of capital would certainly help Harris' second job, his drop-in daycare business that has five employees, but that's not Harris' focus for the 2010 season.

"I try not to think about a contract because in this league, you can be gone in one play," Harris said.

The daycare business is close to Harris' heart. He has two young sons, Leroy Harris III, 4, and Christian Leroy Harris, 10 months, and has been preparing for life after football since he decided to return to State for his senior season in 2006 and complete his degree in sports management.

"I always wanted to be an entrepreneur," Harris said. "You can't always rely on football."

'Nothing guaranteed'

Josh Gattis wanted to be a football coach, he just didn't think he would be one at age 26.

If you told him before the 2007 draft, he would be out of the NFL within three years, he said he wouldn't have believed you.

"I would have laughed," Gattis said.

In college, Gattis helped complete the transformation of a Wake program from a doormat in the late 1990s to the ACC champions.

A three-year starter at free safety, Gattis was fast and smart, albeit slightly undersized at 6 feet 1 and 212 pounds. In 2006, he had five interceptions and 73 tackles as senior and led the Deacs to their first ACC title since 1970.

Gattis was good in college, and he knew it.

Then the Jaguars took him in the fifth round, he signed a four-year contract and thought his professional life was about to take off. Instead, he didn't make it out of training camp.

"You have to understand that you go from being a star to being just a guy again," Gattis said. "Mentally, it can play a toll on a lot of guys. I was too used guys patting me on the back."

Gattis landed on his feet with the Chicago Bears and spent the 2007 season there. He played in four games, all on special teams, and thought he had a future in Chicago. In training camp in 2008, he tore his right pectoral muscle for the second time in four years and took an injury settlement from the Bears.

Before the 2009 season, he worked out for the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans, but came to a harsh realization.

"Nobody wants to think the end is there," Gattis said. "That's the thing you understand once you get in the league, you realize guys come and go. There's nothing guaranteed about it."

Gattis thought about a second chance in Canada or the United Football League but decided to get into coaching. He reached out to Ken Browning and Andre Williams, two members of the UNC staff with ties to Northern Durham High School, and will enroll in graduate school at UNC in the summer.

"I still feel like I can play, but from a realistic standpoint, you have to play the cards in your hand," Gattis said.

It's a good hand for Gattis, just not the one he thought he would have.

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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