J-Shun Harris II didn’t even know it happened.
During the IU football team’s Oct. 28 game at Maryland, the Hoosiers had just gotten a safety against the Terrapins and Harris went back to his usual position to return the kick.
Everything seemed fairly normal as he fielded the ball. But as he walked back to the sidelines, he heard an all-too familiar popping sound in his knee.
However, even after head trainer Kyle Blackman had him put a knee brace on, Harris remained confident. He had done fine with some cutting drills on the sidelines and decided to go back out on the field to give it another shot, just to test it out.
Soon, Harris found himself crashing to the ground, his knee too weak to hold him up.
His worst fear had come true — he had torn his right ACL.
It wouldn’t be the first time Harris had experienced such an injury. In fact, it wouldn’t even be the second.
It marked the third time in his IU football career that Harris had torn an ACL, as well as the third time he had to live through the same recurring nightmare.
“It’s almost like déjà vu to be honest,” Harris said. “Hopefully it’s the end, but the past couple of years, it just seems like a dream that keeps happening.”
Yet, even after sitting out the rest of the 2017 season, Harris still has that same confidence. Once again, he’s working his way back on to the field to wear the cream and crimson for a fifth season in Bloomington.
But this time seems a little different from the last two. It’s less of a comeback for Harris and more of just the regular process of proving his playing days aren’t over yet, even though the football gods continuously seem to deal him bad hands time and time again.
At this point, it’s all mental.
“The mental part after the first one and second one was a little tough,” Harris said. “But this third one, once I made my mind up, I knew that once the mental part was out of the way, I was good to go.”
Harris’ third tear halted what was proving to be a very successful 2017 campaign for him as the Hoosiers’ punt returner. At the time of his injury, his punt return yardage ranked third in the Big Ten and 11th nationally, while his return average led the conference and was second nationally.
“Kid has been an absolute warrior to come back from the first two (ACL tears),” IU Coach Tom Allen said after announcing Harris’ injury at a press conference. “My heart breaks for him. He's just overcome so much.”
He also returned two punts for touchdowns and was twice named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week.
One of those touchdowns, against Georgia Southern on Sept. 23, particularly showed the kind of speed and agility Harris can utilize when healthy.
Watching film of that moment also gives Harris a much-needed boost of confidence, reminding him he’s still capable of making big plays.
Luckily for him, it’s also one of his mother’s favorite videos and she constantly pulls it up for them to watch when he comes home to Fishers, Indiana, to visit, including one visit just a couple weekends ago.
“She always gets really happy about it, so she pulled it up and we watched it again together,” Harris said. “I’ll continue to watch it just to learn different things and continue to give myself the affirmation that I can go out there. I’ve been through it before. I can go out there and do it again.”
As Harris continues to work his way to being back to full-speed on the field, one question still remains — why?
Why would somebody continue to bounce back and pursue the same sport that has featured so much pain and rehabilitation?
The answer is pretty simple for Harris.
“There’s something about this sport,” Harris said. “I was blessed with the opportunity to play here with a full ride. Just being a part of this atmosphere is hard to get rid of and so, it was a no-brainer.”
That’s not to say Harris’ decision to return wasn’t completely easy. Knowing that yet another long road to rehabilitation was ahead, he needed some encouragement from his support staff.
Number one on that list was the person that had motivated him through every one of his prior injuries — his mother.
“She’s 100 percent been my biggest fan,” Harris said. “I’m a momma’s boy, so I love her to death, of course. It’s helped to have that strong support staff behind me.”
He also received some words of encouragement from former assistant athletic trainer Collin Francis, who now works for the Baltimore Ravens and who grew close to Harris during his time at IU.
“He could see in my face that I was questioning a little bit, but I still wanted to,” Harris said. “He gave me that extra ‘yo, we’re doing this,’ so that helped out a lot.”
Now that returning for a fifth season has been decided and with his rehab nearly complete, Harris has turned his focus back solely to producing for the Hoosiers on the field this season.
He said he wants to get back to being that explosive punt returner that showed moments of brilliance at times last season.
“Being back there at punt returner, I want to go 100 percent, catch every ball, make every smart decision and get as much field position as possible,” Harris said. “On the receiving side, work hard and try to get out there and get some more reps.”
Having a twisted sort of expertise on tearing an ACL has robbed Harris of many things during his career. Last year, it kept him from finishing out a season in which he was on his way to being recognized as one of the most productive and dangerous special teams players in the country.
However, it’s also presented him with some unexpected perks. Looking at the big picture of things, Harris said he now realizes that he has an opportunity be a sort of inspiration for those who have gone through similar injuries themselves.
He’s out to show that, with some confidence and a little mental toughness, nothing can hold him back.
“If I can sacrifice that now to be a shining light for someone who has been through it,” Harris said. “For them to know that they can go through it and they will prosper through it if they keep the right mindset, then I get the joy out of that.”
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