YPSILANTI, Mich. — The Eastern Michigan football program enjoyed a season full of “firsts” in 2016.
Last year the Eagles finished with a 7-6 mark — the first time the program had a winning record for a season since 1995. EMU also earned a berth in the Bahamas Bowl — the school’s first bowl berth since 1987.
“It was a special year,” admitted Jeremiah Harris, a Lambertville native who plays on the Eagles’ defensive line. “We had talent, and we had great coaches — and the schedule wasn’t as tough as it was this year, which made getting to seven wins easier.
“It was amazing to be part of a program that did something that hadn’t been done in 29 years. … It was a great, great experience.”
That alone would make Eastern Michigan’s season bittersweet. But consider that the Eagles have suffered three overtime losses while playing seven games decided on the final drive of the contest on the way to a 4-7 record, and the result could be catastrophic for the program.
It has not been, though, and the attitude of Harris and his teammates is a big reason.
“It has been a roller coaster, but we’ve never lost hope,” said Harris, who was not able to play Tuesday against Bowling Green after suffering a leg injury the previous week. “Even when we lost, or we saw that our goal [of earning a second bowl berth] was slipping out of our hands with the seventh loss, we didn’t quit.
“We’re a resilient team that grinds. You would have never known we weren’t going to a bowl game if you watched our practice because of the way we worked and prepared.”
And Harris, a Bedford High graduate, has played a leading role in forging that resiliency, according to EMU coach Chris Creighton.
“He’s a team captain as a junior, and I don’t know if anything can speak louder than that in terms of the kind of person he is,” Creighton said of Harris. “He had my vote.
“He’s absolutely what we want our football program — on the field, off the field, in season, and out of season — to be about. He’s an outstanding human being.”
Harris entered Tuesday night’s season-ending home contest against Bowling Green with 45 tackles, seventh-best on the team. But Harris, an All-MAC, third-team choice last season, ranks among the league leaders this season with 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks to rank among the MAC leaders in both categories.
“Jeremiah is relentless; he has an awesome motor,” Creighton said. “He doesn’t make mistakes; he just doesn’t get out of what he’s supposed to do.”
That also holds true for special teams, where Harris managed to block two field goals last season. While some All-MAC players may chafe about playing on special teams, Harris scoffs at that notion.
“Anyone who talks like that doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “If the coach plays you in a particular position, you want to do the best you can. I look at it as an opportunity to help our team to keep the other team from scoring.”
Speaking of helping, Harris has made it a point to help other off the field. While he is a junior in terms of eligibility, he has a 3.43 grade-point average as a senior majoring in sport performance and fitness, and his off-field involvement put him on the watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy, an award given annual to the college football player who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement.
“We read to kids, we help out at a local place that delivers furniture to people in need,” Harris said. “We’ll play with kids who have special needs, and we’ll go help clean up playgrounds to help the community.
“There are so many opportunities to give back to the community.”
The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder knows that college football players have a numbers of responsibilities, combining school work, training, and practice with games. But Harris said he makes it a point to be involved.
“You have to have your priorities in order,” he said. “You have school and your studies, and you have football, but there are always time slots available. I like to use my time to help other people, to bless other people.”
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