Harold Landry led the nation in sacks in 2016, but the pass rusher has taken his game to a new level, hoping to leave future NFL quarterbacks without a prayer
By Judy Battista | Published Sept. 20, 2017
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- When Harold Landry was 11 or 12, his youth league baseball team was trailing in the championship game, 5-2. As Landry got older, he developed into a fine pitcher, so talented that some colleges tried to woo him by suggesting he could play both baseball and football. But on that day in a small North Carolina town not far from Fort Bragg, battling an opponent that had already beaten his team twice that season, Landry was primarily a slugger, befitting a boy who would eventually grow to be 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds.
As Landry's father remembers it, his son blasted a three-run home run to tie the game. When he came up again, with the game still tied and two teammates already on base, the opponent pitched to him again. Landry's shot landed over the fence again and prompted his dad to tell him something prophetic.
"I told him if he didn't do anything else in sports, that was enough for me," said Landry's dad, Harold Jr.
It was not enough for his son. Within five years, the younger Landry had forsaken baseball to concentrate on football. It was the first serious step to where Landry is now: just a few credits from his degree in communications as a senior defensive end at Boston College, as college football's defending sacks leader (16.5 in 2016) and fumble forcer (7), a pre-season All-American pick, and a possible first-round draft selection who is already drawing comparisons to some of the NFL's elite pass rushers.
In between, there were workouts with soldiers, wavering on his college choice, a fortuitous pairing with a legendary defensive coach, a fiancée and baby, and an agonizing decision to forestall his entry into the NFL.
"The men are so big!" said Doreen Landry, who is already concerned about her son's future opponents and is happy with his decision to stay in school. "He'll have his degree and be able to get a good job."
Likely a very, very good job, the kind of job that Landry himself didn't realize might be within reach until he was in the middle of the 2016 season for the Eagles, topping a 4.5 sack sophomore year with the 16.5 sack attention-grabber that prompted those first whispers about a draft day star turn.
As a child, Landry was the type who did his homework and never caused a problem, beyond the ferocious fights he had with his older sister, Jencie. When he was still a toddler, his parents worried he would never start talking, but once he did, he did not stop. He is the noisy one, his mom Doreen says, ebullient in his conversation, the kind who had multiple plans for how he would propose to his girlfriend when one after another fell apart (rain washed out a plan to have a billboard painted, a hurricane wiped out the beautiful view he had hoped to use as a backdrop during a hike, fears that nobody would notice if he proposed in a restaurant nixed that idea).
Growing up in Spring Lake, N.C. (population: about 13,000), which abuts Fort Bragg, Landry was so committed to sports even as a kid that he was never late to a practice or a game. It was an early indicator of his personality -- once Landry decided he was going to do something, he was going to do it, even, his mom said, if it meant bugging the heck out of his parents to take him somewhere to get it done.
Landry admits he played football early on in high school because that's what everyone around did. His father loved the game, so he loved it, too. But by the 11th grade, football became his focus. He played tight end and defensive end, and had already figured out that while offense was fun, he was more of a natural defensive player and it was what could take him further.
"In high school my motivation was I just never wanted to let my mom and dad down," Landry said. "I wanted to impress them. I just went to work every day. I felt like I was supposed to do that, like it was my job to do that."
In a spare room of the family's home there was a weight set, and Landry spent the summer before his senior year of high school in there practically all the time. He wrote everything down -- the number of sit-ups, the number of lifts, the number of suicide sprints and jumps he did in the backyard. His dad baked him a lot of chicken that summer, and Landry washed it down with milk. He had a friend who could get him onto the base at Fort Bragg, so he would sneak into the weight room to use their equipment and do workouts with soldiers.
"My senior year is when I really took flight," he said. "I was so dominant."
It helped that at his practices he was lining up against Lamont Gaillard, now the center for the Georgia Bulldogs. Boston College saw Landry as a "twitchy" player, but nothing remarkable, maybe someone who was being under-recruited. Still, the Eagles were the first team to offer a scholarship -- Landry had hoped it would be Clemson -- and when he returned to the hotel with his parents during their first visit to the leafy campus just six miles west of Boston, he told them he was going to commit.
His parents wanted him to wait to see what else came along (his mom was hoping for North Carolina State because it was so close to home) but Landry stuck with Boston College even after he wavered when Clemson, Ohio State and Miami finally came calling, the later offers so plentiful that Doreen Landry says their mail delivery person hated them. Landry, though, felt embraced by the family atmosphere at the Jesuit school and the fact he would be playing immediately. His mom has come to like the fact that being away from home meant fewer distractions from old friends.
"I was just so excited to have my first offer," Landry said. "I came up here on my visit, they showed me so much love, it wasn't even like talking about football all the time. It was about life. It was a different feeling up here than I had at any other school."
Also part of his thinking: Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.
"When I was getting recruited, they weren't like they were when Matt Ryan was here, they were building up again," Landry said. "When you think about Boston College, seeing Luke Kuechly came here and left here in three years and accomplished what he did, I was like, 'If he did it, I think I can do it, too.' "
Landry played in every game as a freshman and his coming-out moment appeared to arrive against Florida State early in his sophomore year, when he had a career-high 11 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. That was the game that made his mom realize he was really good. But many more like it didn't follow and he finished his sophomore season with 4.5 sacks.
And then Paul Pasqualoni decided not to coach J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney any longer, and moved back near his family in Connecticut. Pasqualoni is the gruff, meticulous legend whose greatest success came as Syracuse's head coach. But he also wended his way through NFL stops that saw him tutor quarterback crushers like Jason Taylor, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware and Watt. He resigned after one season as the Houston Texans' defensive line coach following the 2015 season and joined Steve Addazio's staff at Boston College.