Editor’s Note: Skyline Sports‘ senior writer Colter Nuanez is on the board of directors for the Montana Football Hall of Fame and is a primary writer of inductee bios. Former Montana star Tuff Harris was one of the inaugural inductees to the Hall of Fame in 2016.
The legend of “Tuff” has grown quite literally since the day Chester David Harris was born in Crow Agency, Montana in the winter of 1983. Harris’s father was of Crow and Cheyenne decent while his mother was Bulgarian; but, she had grown up on a reservation all her life. Tuff says, “My upbringing was great even if a little unusual, in that Crows and Cheyennes did not always get along and I was both.”
Harris earned the nickname Tuff by beating the odds and surviving a bout with childhood pneumonia that nearly cost him his life as a newborn. By the time he was a fifth grader, he decided he would someday play in the NFL, a notion his peers scoffed at, yet a vision Harris always kept close to his heart.
“My friends laughed at me and thought I was crazy,” Harris told the Glasgow Courier in 2010. “I was from the reservation. I couldn’t play in the NFL.”
By the time Tuff reached high school, his reputation began to spread around the state. During his two years at Lodge Grass, Harris looked like he might be the next in a long line of memorable Montana Native American basketball players. By his junior season, he etched his name in Treasure State lore forever as a track star.
Harris transferred from Lodge Grass to Colstrip before his junior year. In the spring of 2001, Harris ripped off a 10.77 seconds in the fastest 100 meters in the history of the state, helping the Colts to the Class A state title in the process.
The following winter, he averaged 17 points per game alongside future Griz hoops standout Kevin Criswell before abruptly quitting the team, further strengthening his reputation as an enigma. In the spring of 2002, Harris again led Colstrip to the state title on the track, earning a scholarship to Montana as a sprinter.
“I remember being at the (Midland Roundtable) Top 10 track meet in Billings in 2002 just watching the high jump and Tuff passes all the way until 5-foot-6. As he’s getting ready to jump, he hears over the loud speaker the last call for the 100 meters,” said Andrew Schmidt, a former Montana Grizzlies’ running back two years younger than Harris who is now a lawyer and football agent based out of Denver. “Tuff goes, ‘Oh shoot, I’m in that event’. He runs over to the starting blocks, wins the 100, comes back over and places in the high jump then goes and wins the long jump. All in the span of about 15 minutes. That’s the first time I saw him and I was so impressed with him.”
Despite his track prowess, Harris held dreams of playing on Sundays instead of chasing gold medals. He wanted to try his hand at wide receiver, so he walked on to Joe Glenn’s last Grizzly football team in 2002 and redshirted. When he was not practicing on the scout team, Harris could often be found humbling fellow students with highlight-reel dunks at UM’s student recreation center.
When he was on the gridiron, he was making strides by the day. By 2003 — Bobby Hauck’s first season at the helm — Harris had switched positions, yet still earned a starting spot at cornerback, a job he would not relinquish during his time at Montana.
From his ability to lock down receivers to his prodigious ball skills to his pizzazz as a punt returner, those who witnessed Harris’ athletic prowess first-hand were almost always left captivated, both by his impressive accomplishments and the ease in which he seemed to achieve them. Whether it was playing man-to-man defense in Kraig Paulson’s team-oriented defense or returning punts at an All-America level, Harris made everything look like smooth and expected.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of good athletes and players and Tuff is as freaky as they get,” said former UM safety Shann Schillinger from Baker who became a sixth-round selection in the 2010 NFL Draft, a four-year NFL veteran and is now Montana’s safeties coach. “I remember watching him in high school and some of the things he could do (Schillinger went to Baker). He was one of the most natural athlete I’ve ever seen in my life.
“Everything came so easy to him. Jumping off his right or left foot and catching a ball, tracking a punt, playing intramural basketball, everything was easy and natural for him. At the time, I wish I would have appreciated it more because I was too young and didn’t realize it. Now that I’ve been in the NFL and been a coach, I realize not many dudes can do what he can do.”
Harris first became a Griz star as a sophomore in 2004. In an FCS semifinal game against Sam Houston State, Harris intercepted a pass and returned it 74 yards to set up a Grizzly score as Montana advanced to its fifth national title game in less than a decade. By 2005, Harris was turning heads in a variety of ways.
“One day during practice, Bobby (Hauck) was pissed that all our punt returners were muffing all the punts so during stretching, he walked up and down yelling, ‘anyone who wants to try to catch a punt, give it a try,’” said Schmidt, a redshirt freshman from Bozeman at the time. “Tuff says, ‘Never done it before but I will try it.’ The next week, he returns one for a touchdown.”
Harris assumed punt return duties in mid-October of his junior season in 2005. His first game fielding kicks, he returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown in a UM win over Portland State. He went on to average nearly 13 yards per punt return and earn first-team All-Big Sky Conference honors at the position.
By 2006, he was an All-America returner. He took two to the house, including one against Northern Colorado to help the Griz sew up their seventh straight BSC title. Harris ended his time at UM with Big Sky Conference records for return yards in a season (667), longest punt return scoring play (94 yards) and a team record of most return yards in a game (147) while scoring a total of five touchdowns despite never receiving an offensive touch.
By 2007, he had turned his dream into a reality with a roster spot with the Miami Dolphins. On December 30 of that year, he made his NFL debut. He bounced around thereafter, spending time on the practice squads for the New Orleans Saints, Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers before retiring in August of 2010.
On August 12, Harris will be among 13 of the inaugural inductees for the newly formed Montana Football Hall of Fame.
Since his retirement from football, Harris has devoted his life to humanitarian work, particularly to help those who still live on the reservation. He started a non-profit organization called One Heart that aids in developing leadership qualities and improving the quality of life on the Crow Reservation.
“We believe everyone is a leader, but not everyone will rise to that,” Harris told the Glasgow Courier in 2014. “For those who do, we want to partner with them, develop them and get them ready to lead.”
“If you can get enough people as leaders and mentors over the course of time, you can change a community,” Harris said. “On the reservation, there’s a lot of things that need to be changed and that’s the process I’ve been given to try and figure out.”
Harris was unavailable for an interview for this story because he is in Guatemala on a Christian mission. His humanitarianism is the next chapter to a legend that continues to grow.
During Hauck’s seven seasons at the helm, nine Grizzlies heard their names called in the NFL Draft. Hauck recruits like safety Colt Anderson, running backs Chase Reynolds, wide receiver Marc Mariani, defensive end Kroy Biermann and cornerback Trumaine Johnson are still making a living playing on Sundays. Many of his contemporaries will tell you he is the most unique talent of them all.
“Tuff, the guy was 100 percent pure athlete,” said Schmidt, who played at UM from 2004 until 2008. “He could have played whatever he wanted at Montana and started. I played with a lot of athletic guys and he is far and away the best and it’s not particularly close.”
Photos courtesy of Montana athletics and Harris family.