To understand the chaos the moments after winning a national championship, freshman running back Najee Harris asked this SEC Country reporter in the locker room if I had seen freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa because he hadn’t gotten a chance to celebrate or talk with his roommate after delivering one of the best performances in championship history.
That was more than an hour after Tagovailoa completed a 41-yard touchdown pass on second-and-26 to freshman wide receiver DeVonta Smith in overtime to give the Crimson Tide a 26-23 win over Georgia.
In between searching for Tagovailoa, Harris stood at his locker with his phone in his right hand, opened it and saw a message from his former trainer in Antioch, Calif., Marcus Malu. The message from Malu to Harris read, “Love you bro!”
“Of course, it’s the first message I see,” Harris said with a beaming smile. “That’s my guy.”
Malu has been there for Harris since he was in the ninth grade. That’s when he took Harris into Malu Fitness, which was located on the corner of A Street and Walter Way, across from O’Reilly Auto Parts and Wheels Works and next door to Angel’s Hair Salon. It’s a stone’s throw away from a scruffy bar called ABC Rendezvous. Before Harris was a 5-star recruit in the 2017 class, Malu, who has since moved his gym into a shopping center in Antioch, was training him on a side street in a city where incomes are low and crime is rampant.
“A lot of people don’t know what went down behind closed doors,” Malu said. “They just don’t know. All of the years of heartaches and pain and the early mornings and the talks and the fights and the arguments about staying the course came full circle that night. It’s only the beginning. I can’t explain the feeling.”
Harris called Malu on FaceTime 3 hours after the championship game ended. Malu said he didn’t go to bed until 4 a.m. Little did he know, Harris was going to surprise Malu less than a week after leading Alabama with 64 rushing yards.
The running back returned home and gave the man he considers a big brother his game-worn jersey.
“All of the helmet stains, the turf stains — they’re still on it,” Malu said describing the jersey. “I didn’t know what to say. I made a joke to him earlier in the year about how it would be cool to get one of his jerseys so I could hang it up in the shop.
“And I see him when he gets home, and he says, ‘Here you go, bro. I just want to say that I love you. You earned it.’ I said, “Bro, this is your freaking national championship jersey.” And he said, “Yeah. You earned it.”
Harris admitted after the championship game that this season wasn’t what he expected when he enrolled at Alabama. Malu said Harris never envisioned himself playing special teams, but being in that situation this past year helped the talented freshman see a side of football that he had never experienced. Malu reminded Harris that lots of special teams players never have the opportunity to get a carry in a game or have a ball thrown their way, but they’re just as important to the team.
There were several points throughout the season where Harris was frustrated with playing time and wasn’t satisfied with seeing mop-up duty and special teams work. Malu knew that was the case, so he wouldn’t talk much with him when Harris was in that mood. Instead, he and other members of Harris’ inner circle would send motivational texts and remind him that the Bay Area was rooting for him. That’s what fueled him to keep grinding.
“He walked into a business at Alabama,” Malu said. “I compare it to owning a gym because that’s what I know. If you aren’t mentally ready for what’s ahead, you will fold. Your business will fold. It’s a lot more than what you think. For him, we had a talk and I told him that it’s a business. There are positives, though.
“He has to understand that Nick Saban knows what he’s doing. He has to trust the process. I told him that if there was another school out there that had his interests in mind and would be a perfect fit for him, I would tell him to go. I don’t see that, though. There’s not another team out there that’s going to treat him the way he needs to be treated for the next level. You’re on a team full of 5-stars. You have to battle for every rep. That gets you ready for the NFL. You’re fighting for millions of dollars. It was never thinking that he made the wrong choice, he just wanted to get the exposure. It’s a waiting process. From here on out, though, he’ll be ready.”
Malu reminded Harris of the story of Tom Brady replacing New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe during Week 2 in the 2001 season. Malu told Harris that Brady sat behind Bledsoe thinking to himself that all he needed was one opportunity. He got it when Bledsoe suffered both a concussion and internal bleeding after a devastating hit by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis.
Harris got his opportunity to shine in the national championship game in the fourth quarter when Alabama needed a spark. He only had 6 carries but he averaged 10.7 yards per carry. Not only did he lead the team in rushing, but Harris also picked up blitzes and provided key blocks for Tagovailoa.
“No one is going to remember what these running backs did in the regular season,” Malu said. “But people will remember what Najee Harris did in that one half of the championship game. It wasn’t like he was doing this against Washington State or Cal. He did this against Georgia, the second-best defense. He wasn’t doing this against a Big Sky team. He did this against some dogs.
“What he experienced this past year, I think there’s just going to be a little more hunger now. He knows what he needs to prove. It was a humbling experience in a good way. He knows he has to earn that No. 1 spot again. What’s going to happen is he’s going to separate himself. I hope the best for all the other running backs because he’s going to separate himself.”
Malu didn’t get a chance to see Harris play in person this last season. He didn’t make the trip with Harris’ former assistant coach, Brett Dudley, who got to see Harris score his first-career touchdown. That’s because Malu doesn’t like flying. During his late-night FaceTime after the national championship with Harris, Malu asked his protege if he knew where next year’s national championship game was. He didn’t know.
It’s in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., just 64 miles from where Harris was once a ninth-grader looking for guidance that he found in Malu.
“I told him he needs to do everything in his power to get to Levi’s Stadium,” Malu said. “It’s not going to be fair for the other team because the majority of fans are going to be Alabama fans. There are people out here that I know who don’t like Alabama, but they were all rooting for Alabama because of Najee.
“I always tell him God is in control of everything. God is responsible for everything going on. I understand that there are so many people out there chasing the same dream, and Najee is almost there.”
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