Jacksonville's Harris has had an impressive climb to the top

Ozzie Newsome said after the session that he would return to Baltimore and be a better general manager. Jerry Reese said others make it clear to him that he is judged as a black GM as much as simply a GM. Rick Smith said that providing leadership is his central role. Rod Graves emphasized the importance of valuing his family as much as his job.

James Harris saluted the owners who hired each of these black general managers as visionaries.

Newsome (Baltimore Ravens), Reese (New York Giants), Smith (Houston Texans), Graves (Arizona Cardinals) and Harris (Jacksonville Jaguars) were the featured guests at a diversity forum on Tuesday afternoon at the NFL offices in New York that became a free-wheeling discussion on who they are, what they do and how being the league's only black general managers influences their work.

Harris's title is vice president/player personnel, but he is, essentially, the Jaguars GM.

And among this unique group, Harris stands alone in the depth of his diversity and football experience. The mountain he scaled to reach this distinctive tier in pro football is enormous.

Harris turns 61 in July.

He grew up in Monroe, La., and played quarterback for coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling. Harris was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1969 (part of O.J. Simpson's class) and played for the Rams and Chargers before retiring in 1982.

Harris paid close attention to the teachings of then Chargers coach Don Coryell and his assistants, including Joe Gibbs. Harris thought he was primed for an NFL coaching job once he retired.

"But I couldn't get a job," Harris recalled. "I couldn't get an interview. Couldn't get one on the college level, either. For the first couple of years, I was aggressive. For three years after that, I just kind of lost hope it would happen."

Ray Perkins, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, gave Harris his first shot. Perkins hired Harris in 1987 as a West Coast scout.

Perkins, says Harris, qualifies as a visionary.

But so does Harris.

He grew up in the thick of segregation, in racism, toiling in cotton fields in Monroe. As a black quarterback in the NFL long before McNabb and Young and Russell, he fought through hate mail and a lack of fair opportunities and doubts on his intelligence. He battled college and pro teams that demanded he move from quarterback to another position.

James Harris stood tall among the group of five general managers, as affable, as insightful, as patient as any of them. A man who has every right to be bitter at every turn does not show a hint of it.

From the Bucs to the Jets to the Ravens, Harris worked his way up in personnel to his current spot with the Jaguars.

"I'm just like anybody else, I'm human, and I think about what has gone on, I have my moments," Harris said. "But coach Robinson taught me about preparation. Being prepared solves a lot of problems. Coach Robinson helped develop that edge in me. I try to help develop it in others."

Harris was asked about rumors that he does not get along with Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio and that the squabble intensified over Del Rio's decision to start David Garrard over Byron Leftwich nine days before the 2007 season opener.

"I see those stories, too, and I don't understand where they come from," Harris said. "They are not accurate. You are going to have disagreements with your coach. We work through them. Jack and I have not had a lot of disagreements. I am responsible for personnel. But we make decisions as a group. And they are Jaguar decisions.

"Jack made the decision to go with David and I was concerned about the timing of it. Jack made the call and it was a good call for us. There should not have been as big a to-do about it as there was. The scouting department, the coaches, management, ownership, we're all a team. We'll all make Jaguars decisions that help to make us better."

There is not a man in this league who knows how to work within the framework of a team better than Harris. Not one who can trump his story of overcoming inequality, of perseverance. Harris is a living bridge of NFL diversity that links the early, prime entry of black quarterbacks to the modern standing.

He began with a 5-11 season as GM in Jacksonville but since has posted records of 9-7, 12-4, 8-8 and 11-5.

Harris sees exciting possibilities for the Jaguars this fall in his sixth season.

Among the plentiful offseason Jaguars moves that Harris has helped orchestrate, the Jaguars extended Del Rio's contract through the 2012 season, grabbed receivers Joey Porter from Oakland and Troy Williamson from Minnesota, nabbed cornerback Drayton Florence from San Diego, gained defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from Washington and moved up in the draft to swipe Florida defensive end Derrick Harvey.

The Jaguars were a playoff team last season that won a postseason game at Pittsburgh before losing at New England.

"We had an offseason plan, we executed the plan and we feel like we have upgraded our team," Harris said. "I was a player that hated to lose. I would spend a lot of time after a loss trying to figure out what I could have done better. The lost chances, those are the moments you live with and learn from most.

"So, that's what I look for in players. Guys who hate to lose. Guys who are tough. Guys who want to play in the fourth quarter. Some guys do their jobs. But there is a difference when you get that player who does his job plus gives you everything he's got."

Harris lost a few valuable football chances in his lifetime, but gained plenty of them, too. He is a huge part of the NFL's treasure and diversity.

He does not make a fuss over it.

That is only one reason why he blended in so nicely with the four other GMs on the panel. But, really, in so many important ways, he stands alone.

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