For the first time since 1986, a non-senior athlete in 2015 gained acclaim as the Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Football State Player of the Year. Antioch’s Najee Harris won out due to the season he had, local consensus over another top candidate and how great he looked up close against top competition. Will a non-senior be Mr. Football after this season?
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It certainly wasn’t as easy as in the 2014 season when there was an All-American quarterback from a 16-0 team who passed for a national record 91 touchdowns.
But perhaps not even Folsom’s Jake Browning of 2014 elicited some of the responses from those who saw Antioch’s Najee Harris run the ball in 2015.
“Best I’ve ever seen,” was a common thread and some who said that have been watching high school football in Northern California for 30 years or longer.
Harris, a 6-foot-2, 222-pounder who is now one of the top rookie running backs in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers, also was the No. 1 college prospect in the nation as a senior in the 2016 season. He usually has heard those types of praises and shrugs it off like he does many of the tackles attempted against him.
Here’s more about what was written about Harris after the Antioch junior was selected as the 2015 Cal-Hi Sports Mr. Football State Player of the Year.
Harris becomes the first non-senior to be Mr. Football in the state since sophomore Russell White was selected in 1986 from Crespi of Encino. He’s the former commissioner of the CIF Oakland Section. For the last junior, you had to go back to 1967 for Calvin Jones from Balboa of San Francisco.
And if Harris were to repeat as State Player of the Year next season, he’d be the first in the modern era since the only other repeat winners on the all-time list are from more than 100 years ago. Note: He did not. St. John Bosco offensive lineman Wyatt Davis was the honoree. Najee’s team at Antioch in 2016 was not as strong and another team from the same league, Freedom of Oakley, had an MVP type of running back as well (current Fresno State star Ron Rivers).
“Thank you very much,” Harris said early after he completed a weight training workout prior to being informed he’d be State Player of the Year. “I appreciate everything and this is obviously exciting, but I know I have a lot of work to do for next season.”
“We’re just so blessed to have him in our program,” said Antioch head coach John Lucido. “What he brings out in everyone is hard to describe. He tends to help everyone else play to his level.”
Choosing a junior over seniors is never easy and it wasn’t in this instance, either. But one can never predict what was going to happen in an upcoming season regarding injuries or the emergence of someone with monster numbers like Jake Browning from 2014 so if it’s believed the junior is the more solid pick then it’s the junior.
It was hard to say who was the runner-up to Harris in 2015, but since he was a junior and there is a State Senior of the Year also selected in those years it’s important to note that in 2015 that honor went to Corona Centennial running back J.J. Taylor.
Another of the eight Mr. Football Player of the Year finalists was North of Torrance linebacker-quarterback Mique Juarez, the State Medium Schools Player of the Year.
The other finalists were running back Sean McGrew from St. John Bosco of Bellflower, quarterback-running back Khalil Tate from Serra of Gardena, multi-position player Ryan Robards of Elk Grove, running back-defensive back Antoine Custer from De La Salle of Concord and junior linebacker-running back Colin Schooler of Mission Viejo.
Custer had 120 yards rushing on offense plus some big plays on defense in De La Salle’s 28-21 win over Centennial in the CIF Open Division state bowl game and was another strong candidate. Local consensus came into play favoring Harris, however, since Harris already had been selected as the Contra Costa Times East Bay Player of the Year and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Metro Player of the Year.
What stood out the most about the season that Harris had was what he did against Antioch’s toughest opponents.
The best of those outings included 22 carries for 396 yards and three TDs vs. CIF Central Coast Section Open Division I runner up Milpitas, 28 carries for 360 yards and six TDs vs. Liberty of Brentwood and 39 carries for 390 yards and six TDs in a memorable 55-54 loss to Foothill of Pleasanton in the CIF North Coast Section Division I semifinals.
Sure, it would have made it easier in choosing Harris if he wasn’t stopped on a two-point conversion against Foothill that would have won that game (which was a matchup of two 11-0 teams), but he still ended with 2,744 yards and scored 300 points (combining 39 touchdowns with 33 2-point conversions).
“Not getting that (two-point conversion) motivates me a lot right now,” Harris said at the time. “It was an emotional loss, but I’ve just tried to shrug it off and think about next season. We’ve got a hard schedule in front of us.”
In the regular season, Harris, in fact, led the state in scoring and that was done even though he missed the second half of several games in which the Panthers were so far ahead that he had to be on the sidelines.
As a power-packed running back with sprinter’s speed and possessing the type of quick, lateral moves that usually are made by much smaller players, Harris had more recruiting analysts following him around at last May’s The Opening Northern California Nike event than just about any of the seniors-to-be. He’d already committed to national powerhouse Alabama and showed no signs of changing his mind heading into his spring/summer training period. The 2015 Heisman Trophy running back for the Crimson Tide, who won the national championship over Clemson, was Derrick Henry, who wore No. 2 (same number Harris wore for Antioch) and did things as a prep in Florida that were unmatched.
Harris’ impact at Antioch also can’t be discounted. Before he arrived as a sophomore standout in 2014 (he narrowly missed being the State Sophomore of the Year behind two-way standout Darnay Holmes of Newbury Park), Antioch hadn’t beaten its arch-rival from Pittsburg in nine years and had only won 33 games in 10 years. The 2015 team finished 11-1 and was No. 14 in the final Cal-Hi Sports state rankings with the only loss being the one by one point to Foothill. Pittsburg also was defeated 44-42 in a game Harris had 37 carries for 268 yards and four scores.
“It’s not just the varsity but youth football teams around here who all want to be like him,” Lucido said. “We had a 1-9 team a few years ago when he was a freshman. We brought him in the next year as a sophomore and sat him down and told him he had to be a leader. He’s kept working ever since.”
As Najee’s career in Pittsburgh has gotten underway, he’s also shined a spotlight off the field on the issue of homelessness. He lived in a shelter in Richmond for a time when he was a kid.
“I try to look at all this stuff and not trip out too much about it,” Harris said. “Still, thanks to everybody who voted for me.”
Here is the all-time list of Mr. Football State Players of the Year (all selected by Cal-Hi Sports but done retroactively based on research prior to 1975 by our late founder, the great Nelson Tennis):
2015 — Najee Harris (Antioch) RB (Jr.)
2014 — Jake Browning (Folsom) QB
2013 — Adoree’ Jackson (Serra, Gardena) WR-DB
2012 — Michael Hutchings (De La Salle, Concord) LB
2011 — Deontay Greenberry (Washington Union, Easton) WR-DB
2010 — Dano Graves (Folsom) QB
2009 — Dillon Baxter (Mission Bay, San Diego) QB-RB
2008 — Tyler Gaffney (Cathedral Catholic, San Diego) RB
2007 — Milton Knox (Birmingham, Lake Balboa) RB
2006 — Aaron Corp (Lutheran, Orange) QB
2005 — Toby Gerhart (Norco) RB
2004 — Desean Jackson (Poly, Long Beach) WR-DB-KR
2003 — Sean Norton (Hart, Newhall) QB
2002 — Whitney Lewis (St. Bonaventure, Ventura) WR-RB
2001 — Derek Landri (De La Salle, Concord) OL-DL
2000 — Tyler Ebell (Ventura) RB
1999 — D.J. Williams (De La Salle, Concord) RB-LB
1998 — Kyle Boller (Hart, Newhall) QB
1997 — DeShaun Foster (Tustin) RB
1996 — Rod Perry (Mater Dei, Santa Ana) WR-DB
1995 — Chris Claiborne (J.W. North, Riverside) RB-LB
1994 — Daylon McCutcheon (Bishop Amat, La Puente) RB-DB
1993 — Keith Smith (Newbury Park) QB
1992 — Travis Kirschke (Esperanza, Anaheim) OL-DL
1991 — Amani Toomer (De La Salle, Concord) WR
1990 — Napoleon Kaufman (Lompoc) RB
1989 — Ryan Hancock (Monta Vista, Cupertino) QB
1988 — Tommie Smith (Antelope Valley, Lancaster) RB-DB
1987 — Bret Johnson (El Toro) QB
1986 — Russell White (Crespi, Encino) RB (Soph.)
1985 — Terry Rodgers (Sweetwater, National City) RB-KR
1984 — Aaron Emanuel (Quartz Hill) RB
1983 — Ryan Knight (Rubidoux, Riverside) RB
1982 — John Paye (Menlo School, Atherton) QB
1981 — Kevin Willhite (Cordova, Rancho Cordova) RB
1980 — Michael Alo (Banning, Wilmington) FB
1979 — Kerwin Bell (Edison, Huntington Beach) RB
1978 — John Elway (Granada Hills) QB
1977 — Marcus Allen (Lincoln, San Diego) QB
1976 — Freeman McNeil (Banning, Wilmington) RB
1975 — Charles White (San Fernando) RB
1974 — Myron White (Santa Ana Valley) RB
1973 — Frank Manumaluena (Banning, Wilm.) LB
1972 — Wally Henry (Lincoln, San Diego) RB
1971 — John Sciarra (Bishop Amat, La Puente) QB
1970 — Pat Haden (Bishop Amat, La Puente) QB
1969 — James McAlister (Blair, Pasadena) RB
1968 — Jesse Freitas (Serra, San Mateo) QB
1967 — Calvin Jones (Balboa, San Francisco) RB (Jr.)
1966 — Mickey Cureton (Centennial, Compton) RB
1965 — Greg Jones (South San Francisco) RB
1964 — George Buehler (Whittier) LB-OL
1963 — Tim Rossovich (St. Francis, MV) LB
1962 — Steve Grady (Loyola, Los Angeles) RB
1961 — Mike Garrett (Roosevelt, Los Angeles) RB
1960 — Kent Nance (Madera) RB
1959 — Willie Brown (Poly, Long Beach) RB
1958 — Daryle Lamonica (Clovis) QB
1957 — Jim Josephson (Bellarmine, San Jose) FB
1956 — Randy Meadows (Downey) RB
1955 — Mickey Flynn (Anaheim) RB (Jr.)
1954 — Dick Bass (Vallejo) RB
1953 — C.R. Roberts (Oceanside) RB
1952 — Ronnie Knox (Santa Monica) QB
1951 — Marty Keough (Pomona) RB
1950 — Charley Powell (San Diego) E
1949 — Paul Larson (Turlock) HB
1948 — Johnny Olszewski (Long Beach St. Anthony) FB
1947 — Hugh McElhenny (L.A. Washington) FB
1946 — Al Pollard (L.A. Loyola) HB
1945 — Paul Haynes (Pasadena) HB
1944 — Jackie Jensen (Oakland) HB
1943 — Don Burnside (North Sacramento Grant) QB
1942 — Glenn Davis (La Verne Bonita) QB
1941 — Billy Agnew (Piedmont) HB
1940 — Tommy Fears (L.A. Manual Arts) E
1939 — Johnny Petrovich (Alhambra) QB
1938 — Jim Jurkovich (Fresno) FB
1937 — Frankie Albert (Glendale) QB
1936 — Mike Klotovich (San Francisco Mission) HB
1935 — Kenny Washington (L.A. Lincoln) QB
1934 — Doyle Nave (L.A. Manual Arts) HB
1933 — Vic Bottari (Vallejo) QB
1932 — Nello “Flash” Falaschi (San Jose Bellarmine) HB
1931 — Larry Lutz (Santa Ana) T
1930 — Charles “Chili” Bertoli (Berkeley) HB
1929 — Ervin “Cotton” Warburton (San Diego) QB (Jr.)
1928 — Orv Mohler (Alhambra) QB
1927 — Gus Shaver (Covina) HB
1926 — Erny Pinckert (San Bernardino) FB
1925 — Francis Tappaan (Los Angeles) T
Note: List continues back to 1890 in the ESPN RISE Cal-Hi Sports Record Book & Almanac.