Thirty-one months after his last snap for the Vikings and about nine months after brain surgery, Mike Harris is living a full life.
After spending four NFL seasons throwing behemoths to the ground, the 29-year-old former offensive lineman is now focused on picking up people. Harris stays busy volunteering at Let’s Go Fishing in Eden Prairie, dabbling in jiujitsu and, as of this summer, coaching offensive linemen at Hopkins High School.
“Just got my name tag [Friday],” Harris said. “So, yeah, it’s official.”
A couple of years ago, Harris didn’t have much of a plan. There isn’t an NFL player, let alone an established starter, who could envision an abrupt end to his playing career like what Harris experienced. Three months after signing a one-year, $2 million extension with the Vikings, Harris was diagnosed with a brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in June 2016. The Mayo Clinic says AVMs are “rare and affect less than 1 percent of the population.”
“That was a blood vessel hemorrhage in a small, small spot in my brain,” said Harris, whose blurry vision was the first symptom. “I was taking trips down to Mayo Clinic every week. They wanted me to sit out a year.”
Time didn’t heal Harris, who said he underwent “tons of MRIs” before ultimately filing retirement papers and undergoing an operation around Thanksgiving. A gamma knife, a noninvasive radiation therapy, cauterized his troublesome blood vessel and left him with a minuscule chance of a recurrence.
“The whole procedure took about 20 minutes. It was quick. It was painless,” Harris said. “I’m just happy to be done. I thank those nurses and doctors down at Mayo, and the training staff for the Vikings — [athletic trainer Eric Sugarman] and all them. They took care of me. It was one of the scariest times of my life.”
Harris has found a new direction quickly.
He has lost about 30 pounds since his playing days, staying active through his Lifetime gym, personal trainer, pickup basketball games and spring softball. Harris lives with his girlfriend, Melissa, in Edina, where he is jumping into a ketogenic diet to reinforce his health.
Doctors have just advised him he can no longer take the head trauma an NFL career can cause. As a former high school letterman in football, basketball and track and field in Duarte, Calif., Harris, who has a history degree from UCLA, said he didn’t consider leaving sports altogether.
His leap into coaching became a reality through Zach Makray, an employee at Hopkins basketball and Mauer Sports Nutrition. Makray is also the childhood friend of former Vikings guard Brandon Fusco, who connected Makray and Harris during their playing days with the Vikings.
After Harris retired from the NFL, Makray asked him one day what he wanted to do next.
“The first thing that popped up was coaching,” Makray said. “That’s just a testament to how unselfish he is and how much he wants to work with kids and give them the same opportunity he had growing up.”
So Harris took a volunteer coaching job under Hopkins basketball head coach Ken Novak. A winter coaching Hopkins’ power forwards and centers quickly led to Novak’s recommendation to head football coach John DenHartog.
“He’s a great guy. The kids really liked him,” Novak said. “The number one thing is he seems to be able to build relationships with kids. He’s got a good demeanor, pays attention to detail but he doesn’t go nuts and be a yeller or screamer.”
DenHartog needed an offensive line coach, and Harris was the perfect fit.
“Unfortunately, I can’t hit anybody, I can’t do what I love — knocking guys around, playing offensive line,” Harris said. “But I’m honored to coach it and take my experience, my training and pass it along.”
Harris hopes this is a first step in his coaching career. He did get some flashbacks during June’s Legends Football Camp at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he coached Hopkins offensive linemen against high schools from Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“It was like I was in training camp again, because we stayed in dorms,” Harris said. “That was fun.”
The Vikings no longer stay in the Mankato dorms for training camp. Harris came away “speechless” after recently visiting the team’s swanky new headquarters in Eagan. He wanted to pick up some coaching tips, but Harris also left TCO Performance Center with his heart warmed after General Manager Rick Spielman, coach Mike Zimmer and his former teammates embraced him on sight.
So through coaching, Harris wants to start a new career while teaching his lessons in resiliency.
“My football career is over,” Harris said. “But I have a whole lot of life in front of me.”