Granny’s boy N’Keal Harry ready to rise at NFL combine

CHANDLER, Ariz. — N’Keal Harry has already tried to convince his granny, Felna, to stop working. And there might not be a more important day for the 21-year-old to make sure that happens than Saturday.

Harry, a gifted wide receiver out of Arizona State coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, is trying to secure a spot in the first round of the draft with a solid performance at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. His first-round status is uncertain, and on Saturday, the receivers get their turn to impress scouts.

Harry’s football skill and agility aren’t in question. His speed, however, is, and his time in Saturday’s 40-yard dash has loomed over him this week.

Herm Edwards, his coach during his final season with the Sun Devils, says Harry has all the components to be a successful pro.

“Is he willing to compete?” Edwards asked. “Check that box. Does he prepare himself when he is not in the building, when he’s off the field? Check that box. In the community, does he have any issues in the community? Does he have any red flags of him being obviously social problems and outside the community? Has he been arrested? Check that box off, nope. There’s a lot of boxes he checks off. Probably the biggest box of all that he checks off, and I’ve discussed it with the pro guys, is he loves to compete.”

How Harry competes at the combine will heavily dictate his draft placement. He’s currently projected to go anywhere from the middle of the first round to somewhere in the second. ESPN NFL Insider Todd McShay said Harry has “late-first-, early-second-type value,” but will likely go in the first round because the league is trending toward “playmakers, difference-makers and finding matchup pieces.” It’ll help Harry that this year’s draft is short on top-level receivers.

But where he’s drafted doesn’t matter for just his ego. It’ll affect his contract. Being a first-round pick means more guaranteed money and the possibility for a fifth-year option on his rookie deal. It could also impact Harry’s second contract. And that affects his ability to take care of his granny, who has been taking care of him nearly his entire life.

About 18 years ago, Felna retired from the government’s ministry of health on the small Caribbean island of St. Vincent and started to travel the world.

But then her life changed in a way she never saw coming. She needed to become a mother again, only this time it was to her grandson. Felna, who has four children of her own, has been caring for N’Keal full time since he was almost 4 years old.

“My first check, that’s for her. That’s for her,” N’Keal said. “That’s my thank-you to her. So, whatever she asks for, it’ll be given.

“She’s been waiting on this day for so long to stop working, to kick her feet back and relax. She really does deserve that. She’s been working so hard all these years. She was retired back home and she literally started all over again. It takes a tremendous amount of heart to do that.”

A grandmother’s sacrifice

N’Keal was born on Dec. 17, 1997, to his mom, Naudine, who had followed the path of many Vincentians, moving to Canada to find a better life. While pregnant, Naudine found Toronto’s weather to be vastly different from St. Vincent’s and began plotting her return to the island. But first, she waited to have N’Keal.

When Naudine and N’Keal returned to St. Vincent, Felna was waiting for her 1-month-old grandson. From there, an unbreakable bond formed.

About three years later, after taking early retirement, Felna wanted to see the world. But by then, Felna had begun caring for N’Keal like he was a son. She couldn’t bear to leave him, and knew America would provide him with better opportunities. She and Naudine sat down to discuss Felna taking N’Keal to the States when the time was right. Naudine, understandably, hesitated. She was torn. Her emotions were mixed.

“There are a lot of opportunities there [in the United States],” Naudine said. “At a very early age, we saw something really special in N’Keal, especially when it came to sports. … So we decided that [Felna] would take him with her. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t an easy decision. But it turned out for the best because he could not have accomplished that here. He could not have.”

So when N’Keal was almost 4, he and his granny moved to Arizona.

“When I was leaving home, I had friends who told me not to do it,” Felna said. “They said, ‘It’s going to be too hard. You’re going to a strange place to start over. You cannot have a child with you.’ I thought of it and I see it made sense, but the love for that child blinded me. I just, see, I got to look after him. His chances out here are better.

“Of course, there are times I wondered, ‘What did I get myself into?'”

Starting over was difficult. They needed an apartment, they needed to find daycare and they needed to find sports for N’Keal to stay busy.

Soon, he got involved in basketball, track and field, baseball, martial arts, soccer, swimming and, later, football.

As a 6-year-old, he was playing up in soccer against 8-year-olds — and scoring against them. In basketball, he was better than everyone on the court, and the other parents noticed, complaining to the coaches. He was eventually told not to shoot and to pass instead. Felna said he was given the nickname “Another LeBron James.”

To pay for it all — and cover the rent — Felna worked a lot, sometimes two jobs, day and night. There were times N’Keal wouldn’t see her for three or four days at a time because she’d have only hours between jobs to rest.

The more sports he played, the busier N’Keal became. That meant Felna had to figure out the logistics of their life. Even though one of his aunts, Janine, had come to live with them in Arizona, she didn’t drive, so it was up to Felna to get N’Keal to where he had to go. She had decided to work nights in order to be home with N’Keal. But working from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. was taking its toll.

Being able to work a full shift and then make all his games was getting tougher by the day.

“I’m sitting there half asleep because I worked through the night,” she said.

Harry’s void

While it might have seemed N’Keal was living the all-American childhood, there were voids in his life that pained him.

His mother, Naudine, still lived in St. Vincent. His father wasn’t in his life at all. Though coaches and friends’ fathers tried fill in for N’Keal’s lack of a male role model, they were impermanent fixes.

“It was extremely hard,” N’Keal said. “Just because a lot of my friends had their mom and dad. I would be at their house and I would wonder, why didn’t I have a mom and dad?”

Some close to him thought he was quiet growing up because of his laid-back island heritage, but it was more because he didn’t trust many people.

“It was very hard for me to open up, especially toward males,” he said. “I just had to figure everything out by myself, really. Stuff that a father should be there teaching his kid, I didn’t get that. I just had to figure it out on my own.”

N’Keal said his mom “did her absolute best to stay in touch” with him. The two talk “pretty often,” and she also stays in contact with Felna, who talks to her children in St. Vincent regularly.

“It was extremely difficult at times because I don’t play a role in his upbringing, and it’s tough because he’s making all those memories, and I’m missing on his upbringing,” Naudine said. “It’s difficult. But you know what makes it so much easier? The type of woman my mother is.”

N’Keal has been back twice since he moved as a boy. The most recent time was two Christmases ago. Naudine says she’s visited Arizona four or five times since her family moved there.

“I knew the love from my mom was there, always,” he said. “She would always make sure I knew she loved me and that she was always thinking about me. To this day, my mom calls me a lot just to see how I’m doing. That meant a lot to me growing up and that still means a lot to me now.”

N’Keal didn’t grow up with his parents, but he doesn’t blame them.

“Obviously, people always aren’t in an ideal situation and I feel like that was what it was like for my parents,” he said. “They weren’t in an ideal situation for a child. I forgive them for that. People struggle. People go through things. As I got older, as I started to mature, I just started to understand things a lot more clearly. There was no need to hold onto the pain and the anger in that way.”

Through it all, though, he had one stabilizing force in his life: his granny.

Raising a child again, at her age — as a grandmother — wasn’t easy for Felna. Raising a teenager was even harder.

“That’s like the terrible twos,” she joked.

N’Keal didn’t like to wake up in the morning, which led to Felna having to sign him in at school and excuse his tardiness. There were times when Felna would pour water on him to get him out of bed.

“I would hate to see anybody make her mad,” said T.J. Howard, N’Keal’s AAU basketball coach.

When she had to, she was an authoritarian, ruling their townhouse with an iron fist but making sure their home was full of the island love — and food — on which she grew up.

And it worked.

“He would’ve lost his way,” Felna said.

Becoming a star

It was hard for N’Keal to separate from his granny when it came time to pick a college. After every recruiting trip they went on, he’d ask her to move with him. Every time, she’d have to tell him no. When they were walking through the airport back in Phoenix after his trip to Texas A&M, he put his arm around her, told her he liked the school and asked her to come with him.

She’d visit, she’d said, but she couldn’t move. She recalled telling him: “You have to do this on your own. Do what you want to do. It’s not for me. It is not for me now. I take you this far. You can take it from here on.”

Then they visited Arizona State, about a 20-minute ride from home, and N’Keal knew it felt right. Felna asked why he wanted to go to Arizona State, but the answer was obvious.

“Because you are here,” he told her.

He committed to the Sun Devils and his granny never missed a home game.

Harry, who according to Howard was talented enough to try his hand at the NBA one day, was recruited by anybody and everybody for football. Shaun Aguano, who coached Harry at Chandler High School and is now the Arizona State running-backs coach, said schools were taken with N’Keal’s combination of size and athleticism.

He’s a freak of a receiver, standing 6-foot-2, weighing around 228 pounds, with feet like a ballerina’s and hands like those of Larry Fitzgerald. N’Keal will go across the middle, work the sideline, outmuscle a cornerback or outjump a safety for a catch. He can make all the catches — in traffic, in the flat, against coverage, in a zone, on a fade in the end zone. He’s pretty much mastered the one-handed catch, which he displayed against USC last season.

“I don’t like comparing players,” Edwards said. “I think they make their own lot in life as a player but I’ve said this: Guys you can probably equate him to — Dez Bryant. Big, strong, physical guy. Can make the contested catch. … That’s who he reminds me of a lot. Strong hands. Loves to compete. Really good in the red zone. Good coming inside where he’s going to take a hit.”

N’Keal caught 73 passes for 1,088 yards and had nine touchdowns during his final season for the Sun Devils, putting him third in school history with 213 career receptions and 2,889 career receiving yards.

In his 31 years of coaching, former Arizona State coach Todd Graham hasn’t seen another player who was recruited more heavily or rated higher than N’Keal match his work ethic. N’Keal didn’t jog in workouts, Graham remembered. He wasn’t a middle-of-the-pack runner. He sprinted. He wanted to finish first. He didn’t take plays off during practice.

When they’d talk privately, which happened often in the two seasons they were together at ASU, Graham would ask N’Keal what he wanted out of football. N’Keal’s answer never changed: He wanted to be the best.

“This guy, in my opinion, ain’t even close to as good as he’s going to be,” Graham said. “He was in college for 36 months. You’re talking about a guy who was really young, as far as his mental maturity, emotional maturity, he was very young coming out of high school.

“He’s come leaps and bounds.”

There’s one area, though, in which N’Keal believes he needs to prove himself in Indianapolis on Saturday.

“I feel like I have to prove my speed,” he said. “I know I’m a lot faster than what people think. I’m just looking to shock everybody, to shock the world. There are a lot of things being said. I’m just excited to make people eat their words.”

To do that, N’Keal said he’ll have to put up a 40 time that surpasses everyone’s expectations — 4.5 seconds or faster. He wants to silence his doubters, but he also wants to show the people who have been with him along the way that they were right to believe in him. Especially his granny, who might or might not follow him to his new city.

“What I’m sure of, if he’s drafted in somewhere cold, I’m not going,” she said. “That much I know. I will stay here and I will go to his games. I will visit him in summer. I’m not going to live in any cold place. The rest, play it by ear.”

N’Keal is ready for the NFL and ready to be on his own. He’s free of the emotional restraints that followed him for years. He’s accepted his family situation. He’s done with school — for now, at least, although he’s promised his granny he’ll finish his degree.

He’s a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and for him, it did.

“I really do believe that it was for the best for my grandma raising me,” he said. “That woman taught me so much, everything from having very good manners to how to speak to people, how to speak well, how to speak fluently. I’m just thankful.”

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