October 25, 2012 10:27:10 AM
Jeff Clark - [email protected]
West Point's Donna Harris was a University of Alabama football fan before she enrolled at Mississippi State. A 1982 MSU graduate, she rooted for the Bulldogs from that moment on.
Until, that is, family ties intervened.
A few years ago, her great-nephew signed to play football at Alabama. It's been "Roll Tide'' ever since.
"A lot of my MSU friends don't understand this," Harris said. "I'm happy for MSU and I'll be cheering for them in every game -- except for Saturday. I love MSU, but my family is my blood. I have to go with my family first."
Harris' great-nephew isn't just some guy sitting on the bench for the Tide waiting for a chance to impress Coach Nick Saban. He is an All American, winner of the Outland Trophy (an award that goes to the nation's best offensive lineman) and has played for two national championship teams at Alabama. Tide center Barrett Jones may wear No. 75 on his jersey, but he's No. 1 in his "Aunt Donna's" heart. Actually, there are two No. 1s -- Barrett's younger brother, Harrison, also plays for the Tide, although he has yet to achieve the star status of his older brother.
"I was at the hospital when Barrett and Harrison were born," Harris said. "Their mother, Leslie, is my niece but we are only three years apart in age. Leslie is an only child and since my siblings were older, I grew up like an only child. I've been with Barrett and Harrison for every Christmas and Thanksgiving since they were born. We are a small family and we are very close. They are close to the same age as my own children. We're a very tight-knit family."
A Tide fan growing up
Harris grew up in Florence and she said loved Alabama football from the time she was a young child, but she followed the love-of-her life to MSU, where she took sideline photos during football games.
"My favorite Alabama player was Johnny Musso; I had my mom buy me a No. 22 jersey because Johnny's number was 22," Harris said. "I was also a big fan of (Alabama football coach) Bear Bryant. I went to back-to-back Sugar Bowls in 1979 and 80 to watch Alabama play. We stayed in the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans before one of the games and we saw a lot of big guys with big necks so we knew the team was staying there. Leslie and I saw Coach Bryant and we asked him for his autograph. He grunted at us and he actually sounded like a bear, but he gave us his autograph.
"When I was at MSU, I worked for The Reflector (the student newspaper). I would shoot Mississippi State football on the sidelines. One time I saw Coach Bryant making his iconic pose -- the one where he is leaned up against the goal post with some rolled-up papers. I took his picture so I would have my own Bear Bryant photo."
Another milestone in Harris' career was attending the infamous game in Jackson where MSU defeated a top-ranked Alabama 6-3 in 1980.
"My husband worked for the Starkville Daily News, so we went to all of the MSU games," she said. "(West Point Mayor) Scott Ross said there were only about 45,000 people at that game but now probably 250,000 people say they were there."
Another on the way
As Saturday's football game featuring an undefeated and 13th-ranked MSU traveling to Tuscaloosa to face the top-ranked Tide approaches, Harris said she and her family are getting ready for the trip. And she will be rooting for Alabama and will probably be doing so for several more seasons.
"Barrett and Harrison's younger brother, Walker, has verbally committed to Alabama," Harris said. "He's a linebacker, so I spent a lot of time learning about offense and now I will have to learn about the defense. Harrison has been in a several touchdown plays in the past few games and there have been some times when he and Barrett blocked together. I love seeing that. That's why Barrett came back another year so that he could play football with Harrison. They're the best of friends. There's talk about Barrett getting drafted in the NFL and there's even some talk about him being nominated for the Heisman Trophy (an award that goes to the nation's top collegiate player). It's just a thrill for me to see my family playing football and to cheer them on week after week."
That is not to say that she still doesn't have some ties to MSU. Ironically, her strongest blood ties are found in Starkville rather than Tuscaloosa these days.
"My daughter attends MSU and she is friends with (MSU standout defensive back) Johnthan Banks. I love MSU but I have to pull for Alabama. If Ole Miss was playing Tennessee and Peyton (Manning) was playing quarterback, I'm pretty sure (Archie Manning) would be pulling for his son."
When asked about Harris during Alabama Media Day, Barrett said with a laugh, "Yeah, Aunt Donna -- everyone knows Aunt Donna. She's very supportive of us. If you know Aunt Donna you know she's got an opinion and she's not very quiet about her opinions."