Heath Harding — a preseason All-Mid-American Conference pick at cornerback and the former Ohio Mr. Football nominee out of Dayton Christian High School — has returned to the Miami RedHawks after a back injury ended his season after just three games last year.
He will start Saturday afternoon when the RedHawks open with a 3:30 game at No. 17 Iowa.
“They call him The Mayor,’ ” Chuck Martin said with a laugh.
The Miami head coach said besides him being “our best cornerback,” Harding may well be the team’s best representative around the campus and the community:
“He’s outgoing. He’s a real politician. He’s out there kissin’ babies and huggin’ people.”
Harding said his nickname began as a gibe from Martin.
“It was his first year here and he was up in front of the team and I think he was bashing me,” the redshirt junior said as he sat on the RedHawks bench in Yager Stadium following a hot afternoon practice a couple of days ago.
“He said something like ‘He’s flying around here like he thinks he’s the mayor of Oxford or something.’ Everyone laughed and it migrated from there. Professors call me The Mayor now and so do random people around campus. It’s kinda cool.
“It’s not that I want everyone to like me, but I’m a happy, smiling guy and I get along with just about everybody. My friends say we walk around campus and I go out of my way to say ‘hi’ to people and end up having extended conversations with people I barely know.”
The university recognizes his universal embrace, which is why he was one of just two current athletes, and the only football player, chosen to represent the school on the dais alongside famed alums, Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, at the grand opening of the $13 million Dauch Indoor Sports Center on campus 17 months ago.
While he sat there the other day, the stadium’s jumbo video scoreboard suddenly came to life. Workers were testing it for the upcoming season and soon Harding’s face filled the overhead screen. This year he’ll be featured in a short clip where he talks to the fans about his schooling.
As you watched and listened you were struck by his ever-present smile and that rich, deep voice that reminds you of Lou Rawls, the guy Frank Sinatra once described as having “the silkiest chops in the singing game.”
As for Harding, Martin said he’s got “that energy, that intelligence and that ability to communicate and it starts to rub off on his teammates. You need that in any organization. He’s a leader and it’s important that he’s back with us.”
Harding grew up in Trotwood and said he was raised by his parents — Heath Sr. and Danielle — and his late grandmother, Edwina Adams.
“She lived with us,” he said. “My mom worked a lot to make sure we were fed and had no worries, so I stayed with my grandma a lot.
“You know how people are like, ‘You’re a momma’s boy?’ Well, I was definitely a grandma’s boy.”
His mother put him in Dayton Christian as a second-grader and three years later he went out for football for the first time in his life.
“I was terrible,” he laughed. “I remember one of my first snaps on defense I went and completely whiffed on a tackle. They told me then I’d probably never play defense.”
He did play defense on varsity, but he was especially explosive on offense and became one of the more prolific prep running backs the Miami Valley has ever known.
He averaged 14.1 yards a carry for his career and ended up with 5,124 rushing yards. He averaged 26 yards per catch and the Dayton Christian team, which had done poorly before he became a varsity sensation, went 19-2 his last two seasons.
Although his grandmother already was enduring health problems by then, she wanted to see him play.
“She was very sick,” he said. “She had breathing issues and didn’t want to be out in the heat so they let us pull the car up to the end zone so she could see the games.
“And she ended up having the best seat in the house. Before every game I’d come over and say ‘I’ll see you over here in a little bit.’ ”
He scored 102 touchdowns in his high school career — at the time, seventh-most in Ohio history.
“My mindset then was, ‘Whenever I get the ball I’m gonna score,’ ” he said.
As a senior he won first team All-Ohio Division V honors. He chose Miami over several other MAC schools who offered him scholarships, even though the RedHawks had won just eight games combined in the two seasons before he got to Oxford in 2013.
He said he saw a chance to help build up the program the way he had Dayton Christian.
And although the RedHawks went 0-12 his freshman season, he was one of the few bright spots. He started nine games, led the team in interceptions and said his grandmother was there for “one of my favorite moments.”
He turned around on the bench and pointed into the stands: “She sat right here and saw me get my first start against Cincinnati. I got my first interception that day, too. I have a picture of it with both my grandparents.”
The following season — the first year under Martin — he again started nine games and led the team in tackles as Miami went 2-10.
That set the stage for last year. He was considered one of the best cornerbacks in the MAC, but he re-aggravated a preseason injury in the Sept. 12 Wisconsin game and that sidelined him for good. Although he received a medical redshirt, he said:
“I felt like I let everybody down — myself, my team and my family. I had dedicated the season to my grandmother (who had died in July 2015) and then I didn’t play. I really felt bad about that.”
He has rededicated this season to her and said he will continue a practice he began when he first got to Miami:
“I still leave a ticket for her every game.”
Something to prove
Harding said he looks forward to playing Iowa:
“In years past we had a mindset in games like this. We knew we were struggling and just wanted to compete. Now we feel we’re gonna compete regardless, so we’re trying to win.
“I know the bigger schools — like teams in the Big Ten — might look at us as, ‘Oh, it’s just Miami.’ But I always love that because it’s a chance where I can show them, ‘Hey, I can play football, too.’ ”
He thinks his team will fare better this season because of the way Martin has changed “the culture and attitude” around the program and upgraded the personnel.
Of the 26 guys in his recruiting class, Harding said he is one of about eight left on the roster: “As we went through these tough times, some of them found out football wasn’t for them.”
That’s not been the case for him. He was picked third team All-MAC in a preseason media vote, even though he missed almost all of last year’s 3-9 campaign.
“When I saw that, I smiled real big,” he said. “You miss a year, you think people will forget you. So now I want to prove everybody right and, at the same time, I want to prove everybody wrong. Getting third team is great motivation for me.”
Ultimately, he wants to finally lead the RedHawks to a conference title and into a bowl game before he graduates. After that he hopes for a chance at the NFL and otherwise he’d like to go into broadcasting.
He started smiling: “Then again, who knows?
“I might even end up the mayor somewhere.”