Next Generation: How Iowa signee Camron Harrell followed his mom to forge a path to a college scholarship
Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the class of 2017 signees. Land of 10 Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse are visiting the Iowa incoming freshman class to show you more than 40-yard dash times and recruiting rankings. Each week, Land of 10 will introduce the Iowa fan base to one of the new Hawkeyes. Up this week is 3-star DB Camron Harrell.
BRADLEY, Ill. — As Camron Harrell trotted back to return a punt, one thought consumed him: make a play.
He wasn’t starting on the Bradley-Bourbonnais freshman team. Chances to make an impact, let alone secure playing time, weren’t common. He seemed to spend nearly as much time on the bench in the first few games as the trainers.
But now, here he stood, waiting to catch a punt, his team trailing 14-0 and needing someone to step up. He was anxious, yet leaned on the lessons and wisdom he learned from the most important person watching him to get him through this moment. He didn’t need to look at his mother to know what her advice would be: work hard and chase your dream.
Those two notions are central to Harrell’s life. He picked them up while observing Shannon Pierce, as she raised three kids by herself, and listening to her life lessons for 18 years.
Following those tenets changed his life. They turned him into the school’s career touchdowns leader. They led him to a future he wouldn’t otherwise have if Iowa hadn’t offered him a scholarship as a defensive back, giving him the opportunity to be the first in his family to attend college.
But before any of it, he stood on a fall day, watching a football fall out of the sky, hoping the ideas he shaped his life around would be enough to help him make a play.
How does she do it?
Harrell always watched his mom. She ran from job to job, usually as a waitress and bartender, to provide for the three children she raised by herself. Sometimes she worked three gigs to ensure her babies lived in a safe neighborhood and attended a good school.
Her children were her top priority. She never stopped going. Really, she couldn’t. Cam needed a lift from football practice. His 11-year-old sister, Johnna, needed a ride home. His 5-year-old brother, Jakobi, needed to be picked up from day care.
“It’s running all over the place and I don’t know how she does it,” Harrell said.
Said Pierce: “Lots and lots of coffee.”
She jokes, but says little about how she find time for all her responsibilities, steering the conversation toward her children and why she does everything for them.
Case in point: She moved out of the Kankakee, Ill., apartment complex she grew up in because she didn’t want Harrell growing up around so much crime and violence.
Pierce is driven to give her kids everything she can and ensure they get a better life. She doesn’t come out and say it, but Ashley Hasemeyer does. She is a part second mom, part aunt, part friend to Harrell and helped Pierce raise the children.
Pierce never missed a sporting event. She juggled her work schedules to ensure she made a game. In football season, that meant missing out on a lucrative Friday night bartending or waitress shift. She might need to work 8 hours on Sunday to make up what she could earn in 4 hours two nights earlier.
“I’ve seen her put everything she has into her kids so they have everything and they are able to do the things they want to do,” Hasemeyer said.
Work ethic is part of the reason Harrell is in awe of his mother. Nothing ever gets to her. She is honest, and when she makes a promise she sticks to her word. He knows he can trust her and it matters to him more than anything.
“My mom is my hero,” Harrell said. “She has been there through thick and thin. She is a fighter. She is a soldier. No one is tougher than her.”
Pierce is also his source of inspiration.
“He sees his mom work hard and that does give him drive,” Hasemeyer said. “‘She has done this for me and I can do this.’”
A relentless ‘will to win’
Sports are different from what his mom does. Harrell understands that, but the work ethic translates. It’s hard to rationalize complaining about wind sprints when Pierce is pulling a double shift to put a roof over his head.
The 5-foot-10, 181-pound Harrell always played sports. Pierce encouraged it. Harrell started football in sixth grade. He wasn’t good at first, playing the minimum five snaps a game. By eighth grade the talent started to show. He learned to anticipate plays and became a star.
Success with the Bradley Braves youth team didn’t help him initially in high school. The coaches didn’t know if he would be a track star or football player when he arrived. Even though he wasn’t starting, Harrell continued to work at practice. He did whatever the coaches said. Harrell would gladly play offensive guard if it put him on the field.
The opportunity never came in the opener. It wasn’t there the next week either. By the fourth game the season started to slip away. A big play could move him up the depth chart, but his limited playing time didn’t give him much of a chance to make one.
It’s why the punt return loomed large. Harrell sensed it. It was the best chance he had in the first month. The Bradley-Bourbonnais freshman team trailed by 14 points. He caught the ball, headed to the middle of the field before bouncing outside and sprinting into the end zone.
His big return was the spark he, and the Boilermakers, needed. Harrell played the whole second half and Bradley-Bourbonnais won by one point.
“Once the coaches gave me a shot they realized what I could do,” Harrell said.
And what Harrell can do is make plays. His career took off from there. Harrell played varsity as a sophomore. He scored 22 touchdowns as a junior. He became a 3-star prospect and scored his school-record 44th touchdown as a senior.
It’s a nice story, one Harrell knows sounds a little cliché, but he swears it starts with the punt return.
“Everything was natural,” Harrell said. “I just got it.”
The return highlighted his speed. It separates him from other players and proved his high school coaches’ initial impression of him wrong. He wasn’t just a track athlete or football player. He could excel at both.
Bradley-Bourbonnais coach Mike Kohl didn’t see a faster player on the field the last two years. His quickness allowed Harrell to score 14 touchdowns while leading the Boilermakers to the state semifinals as a junior and become a ballhawking playmaker in the secondary, with 5 interceptions, as a senior.
Speed is the first trait to jump out about Harrell, but his tenacity is his most important. Harrell treats practices like games and is the last one off the field while working to perfect his technique.
“The biggest thing is his will to win,” Kohl said. “He’s relentless. That is how he trains, too. A kid with that ability and that drive, it makes him special.”
It’s the same thing Harrell would say about his mother.
‘Don’t be like me’
Pierce is always upfront with Camron. She decided early on to be that way with him and didn’t shy away from anything.
She was pregnant with him at 17. Pierce dropped out of high school and started working a string of minimum-wage jobs. The work ethic is one thing to take away from her, but she felt there were always more life lessons to glean.
“I tell him don’t be like me,” Pierce said.
Pierce doesn’t stop there. She brings up her family, too. Some of her cousins graduated from high school. A few went into military service. Others, like her, dropped out. She always reminds him of the cautionary tales.
The rest of her family does as well. Everyone raised Harrell, helping out when his mom wasn’t around with rides, support and advice.
Be better than this.
Don’t waste your talent.
Make the right choices and you can live your dreams.
“That was important for all of us to be honest with him and share the different experiences and dumb decisions we chose to do and help him from making the same choice,” Pierce said.
Family is always around. They get together and barbecue on the weekends. Forty or 50 people will gather for holidays. Everyone, from Hasemeyer to his grandpa to aunts and uncles, will come to Harrell’s football games.
“I had my own fan section at every single game,” Harrell said. “They take a whole bus. It’s ridiculous.”
— Athletic Performance (@BBCHSAPT) February 10, 2017
Pierce was honest about college, too. She couldn’t afford it. She vowed to help as much as possible, but they needed to work together to find scholarships. An athletic scholarship isn’t what she initially envisioned. It became a reality during Harrell’s junior season.
“He went above and beyond to show me he can do it,” Pierce said.
Harrell picked the Hawkeyes the day after attending an Iowa recruiting barbecue last June. He told Pierce when she returned from church.
Her first instinct was to ask if he was sure.
For the first time he outlined what he really wanted in a program. He viewed a college as his family for the next four or five years. He yearned for a team he trusted like the people who raised him.
The plan Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz laid out and the environment he built met Harrell’s criteria.
“For him to be 17 years old and to come up with this answer shows me he made the right decision,” Pierce said.
All in the family
Harrell’s signing ceremony in February reminded Hasemeyer of a photo shoot. The 40 or so family and friends held up cellphones, recording the event when they weren’t taking pictures with him. Teachers and coaches stopped by to wish him congratulations. Pierce cried tears of joy throughout the morning.
Harrell’s dream and hard work led to this moment, when Hasemeyer said she noticed a change in him, as if he truly realized what was before him.
“This means the world to him,” Hasemeyer said. “I know it means the world to all of us. That he has accomplished something so great and that he has so many opportunities to be whoever he wants to be in life.”
It was as much a realization of what he accomplished as an appreciation of those who helped him get there.
“I never realized it growing up,” Harrell said, “but once I got older I realized this is my family. Nothing can beat this.”
For the complete Iowa NextGen series, click this link.