SAINT FRANCIS FALL PRACTICE
First practice: Today, 8 a.m.
Last season: 9-3, lost to No. 1 University of the Cumberlands 28-14 in NAIA Championship Series.
First game: Sept. 4 vs. Missouri Baptist, 7 p.m., Bishop D'Arcy Stadium.
Saint Francis senior Keith Harris is the last one standing.
As a senior at Elmhurst High School, Harris was in the final class to graduate before the school was shuttered in 2010. He was named prom king while starting at linebacker for the Trojans for three seasons.
Now, it is believed he is the final player competing in college football from Elmhurst.
It's a fact that hasn't escaped him.
“I feel like I got to keep the name alive,” said Harris, who begins fall practice today with the rest of his Cougars teammates. “A lot of people that I know ask how I feel about my high school being closed. It sucks not being able to go back to where you established yourself.”
Harris helped Elmhurst break a 45-game losing streak in Week 1 of the 2009 season, a 21-13 victory over Northrop.
It was the only victory at the varsity level that he experienced in high school, yet plenty of lessons were learned both on and off the field.
“Going from a losing record to winning so many games (at Saint Francis), it was different at first, but you get used to it,” said Harris.
Saint Francis has also gotten used to Harris at outside linebacker. After red-shirting in the 2010 season, the 6-foot-1, 232-pound senior has evolved from a special teams ace to a Preseason NAIA All-American entering 2014. Last season, Harris started all 12 games at outside linebacker, leading the Cougars in tackles for loss with 15 while accumulating 78 tackles, third on the team.
Harris was honored by being selected to the All-Mid-States Football Association Mideast League First Team.
Last fall in camp, Harris was trying to earn a spot in the lineup. This year, he comes back as one of the top returning defensive stalwarts along with senior cornerback Kory Stamps and linebacker Kyle Mathewson from Churubusco.
Despite the rise in status, Harris is treating this year's fall camp the same as previous seasons.
“It is always a battle every year,” Harris said. “You have got to fight for a spot and prove yourself always.”
While not necessarily a verbal leader, Harris puts his mark on the team as an upperclassmen in other ways. Many of his teammates came to Saint Francis from programs that rarely lost at the high school level. Having to face adversity was a rarity.
When tough times strike the Cougars, Harris feels like he is in a position to help after so many struggles at Elmhurst.
“A lot of people come from winning schools, they don't understand how it is to lose a game and stay strong and move on,” Harris said. “You need to forget that. Coming from a losing school, I learned to say, 'OK, we lost, but we got to come back strong.'”
Harris stays in touch with his Elmhurst teammates and understands he is carrying what amounts to a dying flame. Eventually, the fire is going to go out, and there will no longer be a Trojan in the college football ranks.
But Harris always finds a silver lining.
“It's kind of hard,” Harris said. “But at the same time, everybody is there cheering me on (because of it).”