From the south side of Chicago to Grand Forks, Tank Harris has made the adjustment to become a run-stopping force for UND
You can hear the excitement in Johnny Lomax’s voice when he talks about his son.
As a little kid, his son Jonathan had heavy hands. He thought he should go into boxing his hands were so heavy, he says.
“When we’d wrestle, his jabs would hurt,” Lomax said. “He would get in little fights when he was young but never any trouble. Jonathan always had ambition.”
Grand Forks doesn’t exactly know Jonathan, though. They know Tank.
Tank Harris grew up on the rough south side of Chicago, played just two games of defense in high school but has developed into a two-time all-Big Sky Conference nose guard for UND with a league-wide reputation for stuffing the run.
The 6-foot-3, 287-pound senior gained the nickname Tank by running into his family’s refrigerator as a kid.
“He’d eat a lot, and he was knocking over stuff,” Lomax said. “Thus became Tank. He was knocking over chairs with that little, short, squat stature. He was clumsy as a 5-year-old, and I guess it stuck with him.”
According to UND’s roster biographies, Harris had seven tackles as a senior in high school. He played almost exclusively at center on offense. He didn’t even start playing football until just before high school because his first love was baseball.
UND defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt, during his first recruiting cycle at UND in 2014, saw something unique and the potential in Harris out of Morgan Park High School, even though the recruitment was somewhat by chance with the staff focusing recruiting efforts on one of Harris’ prep teammates.
“The biggest thing was the body type,” Schmidt said. “Tank wouldn’t leave us alone for a while. He said, ‘Hey, man, this is what I want to do.’ We value kids we think are good players and show interest in us that want to go here. We knew he was a little bit of a project. We thought if he got in our strength and conditioning program here, he could develop. He didn’t have the advantages kids get at other schools. At Morgan Park, he didn’t have strength or nutrition.”
At first, Harris didn’t know what to think of North Dakota.
“When I heard of Grand Forks, I thought what is that?” Harris said. “They said they could teach me how to get after the quarterback and use that butt the right way. To be honest, I didn’t have a lot of Division I looks. My (high school) coaches were in and out every year. But I bought into Schmidt’s philosophy of defense. I wanted to play for him.”
So Harris opted to make the trek to Grand Forks, a place much different than his upbringing.
“Chicago was rough,” Harris said. “It made me the person I am now. Bend but don’t break. I’ve been through a lot of stuff that led me to this point … things that have helped me become the better man I am now.”
Lomax remembers one of the first conversations with Tank about North Dakota.
“Could anything be colder than Chicago?” Lomax asked his son.
“Yes sir,” Tank said.
But Grand Forks was a good change for Tank, Lomax said.
“He needed that,” Lomax said. “He needed to see places other than Chicago. It’s safe there. I told him, though, if he moves there, I’m not visiting past November. I came up for a spring game once and drove 45 miles an hour home through Minnesota and Wisconsin. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
Growing up in Chicago, one of Harris’ talents was the ability to bring all types together and to avoid the distractions of the street life.
“He worked his butt off in the classroom and worked his butt off on the practice field,” Lomax said. “He worked hard despite what was all around him. This is Chicago. Everyone knows what Chicago is known for. He was able to deal with both sides of the equation. He dealt with the gangbangers real cool. He dealt with the athletes real cool. He had no problems. He was straightforward. He said ‘I’m not into this. I got goals. I got ambitions.’ He was friends with everybody. No matter what gang or what athlete; they listened to him. Coaches used him as a liaison between different gangs. He was a leader like that.”
As for a recruiting philosophy, Schmidt said he doesn’t worry about bringing a kid from an urban area to a small college town in the Upper Midwest.
“You can’t just paint a brush over and say someone from the south side of Chicago won’t fit in Grand Forks,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt pointed out Harris and defensive line teammate Austin Cieslak fit in well together and with the community, despite the drastic difference in hometowns. Cieslak is from rural North Dakota in Hazen.
“You’d think a guy with the name Tank would be a rough guy,” Cieslak said. “But he’s one of the nicest guys in the world. He just works hard on the field and in the classroom. He does the right things.”
Harris, a criminal justice major, redshirted his first season in 2014 at UND. As a redshirt freshman, he played in 10 games and had 14 tackles.
As a sophomore, he was third team all-Big Sky. He started all 12 games and had 28 tackles on a team that made the FCS playoffs. Harris was the focal point on one of the best run defenses in the country in 2016.
As a junior, he earned second team all-Big Sky by starting 10 games and had a career-high 30 tackles, including 6.0 for loss.
Lomax is proud of what his son has accomplished at UND and how he’s been embraced in Grand Forks.
“He can go here, there or another country, but respect and honor are going to win out and he knows that,” Lomax said. “That was taught to him his whole life. He’s got that built in him. My father raised me that way, and I passed that down.”
UND head coach Bubba Schweigert also used the word ‘proud’ when discussing Harris.
“When you come from the area he comes from, to work hard to fit in here and become one of the leaders on our team, I’m really proud of Tank,” Schweigert said. “He’s done a lot off the field to embrace the community. It’s not an easy adjustment. I think the team and the fans respond to him because he has a lot of passion for the game and wants to do well. He loves playing and that’s infectious.”