Tom Archdeacon: Time to start believing in Miami’s Heath Harding

A lot of folks can be thankful she talked her son out of quitting school and going to get a job.

Because she did, Miami University has ended up with one of its more charismatic students and certainly its most celebrated football player.

Ranked as one of the top 100 players in college football this season by the website Bleacher Report, Miami cornerback Heath Harding also is on the preseason watch lists for three of the game’s top defensive awards: the Jim Thorpe Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award.

Prior to this, her intervention also assured Dayton Christian High School of getting its greatest football player ever, a running back who rushed for 5,124 yards, scored 102 touchdowns and was a nominee for Ohio Mr. Football.

And even earlier, her efforts enabled the Miami Valley Child Development Center to keep one of its most curious and colorful students.

Let’s let Danielle Adams explain. After all, Heath is her son.

“It was before school one morning and he was getting all dressed up,” Danielle said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Why you doing that?’

“He says: ‘Cause I’m gonna have a Baby’s Momma. I need to get a job.’

“And I go, ‘What are you talking about?’ As he tried to explain, I took him to school and asked his teacher: ‘Why does he think he’s got to quit school and get a job?’

“Well, the teacher was pregnant and she said the day before Heath had come up and asked her how that had happened. She said she told him ‘from hugs and kisses.’

“And then later that day a little girl gave him a hug and a kiss and he was like, ‘Ah man, I’m gonna have me a Baby’s Momma now.’ He thought that’s how babies were made.

“I had to convince him that wasn’t happening. I told him he had to go back to school. He couldn’t get a job.

“He was still in kindergarten.”

She laughed as she recalled their exchange, then caught herself:

“Oooh, he’s gonna kill me for telling this story … but it’s true.”

She’s got a bunch of tales about her son, including the time he saved the life of his older sister, Heisha.

“She had childhood leukemia and he was her only match,” Danielle said. “He was just 2 and donated his bone marrow. No one in our family has ever come back from cancer, but she did.”

Heisha went on to become a track star at Chaminade Julienne High School and then was a standout hurdler at Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Cincinnati. After getting her master’s degree at Cleveland State University, she’s now a social worker and personal trainer.

“Today the two of them are so much alike you’d think they’re twins,” Danielle said.

Heath was just as connected to his late maternal grandmother, Edwina Adams. And though she died two years ago, their bond remains and can be seen almost any time Miami plays a home game.

Harding’s parents split up when he was young and because his mom worked a lot, he said he spent much of his time with his grandmother, who lived on Bohemian Avenue in West Dayton.

“The running joke in our family was that I never wanted to go home,” he said the other day after the RedHawks finished workouts at the Dauch Indoor Sports Center. “I wanted to stay with my grandma. She was a big influence in my life. She believed in me when a lot of folks didn’t early on.

“I wasn’t the toughest guy. I was a crybaby growing up, so no one ever thought I’d play sports. And when I decided to try football in the fifth grade, everybody said, ‘Oh he’ll never do that. He’s too soft.’

“But she believed.”

Danielle agreed: “Initially, I didn’t understand his sensitivity. I couldn’t see coming to school to give him a hug because he was upset. But she played to that sensitive side and he responded.”

And he turned into a superb, tough-as-nails football player who began to blossom at Miami soon after he joined an otherwise floundering RedHawks program in 2013.

As a true freshman, he started nine games at cornerback on what ended up being a 0-12 team. The first of his three interceptions that year was against Cincinnati.

A photo of the pick appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer and, in the background, there sat his grandmother and grandfather.

“When she died I knew it would be tough on him,” Danielle said. “That first game back he wasn’t playing well. He kept looking up in the stands at our seats where his grandmother used to sit. I said, ‘We’ve got to change seats.’ We did and he quit looking up that way and did better.”

Since his grandmother’s death, Harding has left a ticket for her at the Yager Stadium will call for almost every game.

“When he first started doing it, it was pretty emotional,” Danielle said. “I’d come pick it up each time and put it in a book. At first I broke down crying.”

Harding still leaves tickets, though not always:

“I don’t want my mom crying every game. But when I need an extra boost, something to motivate me, I leave a ticket.

“My grandma still lifts me.”

All about loyalty

Soon after Harding was born, he had a nickname.

“When he was first born he had a really big head,” Danielle said. “The doctor was like ‘Oh that’s a big boy!’ Everybody that came in said it, too, so he became Big Boy.

“And then as he got a little older he shortened it to Biggie. Everyone in the family still calls him that, but he didn’t want nobody at Dayton Christian to know it at first. But when he’d score a touchdown, some of the family members would be yelling, ‘Way to go Biggie!’ Soon everyone knew.”

Danielle said when Heath was little, she figured he’d be a star on the football field. But instead of pads and a helmet, she initially envisioned him in a band uniform on Friday nights.

“Biggie started playing the drums when he was like 3 years old,” she said. “He started out on a snare, then transitioned to a bass. When he was about 5 my mom bought him a special set of five drums.

“I used to have a drill team in Dayton called the Gem City Strutters and he was my go-to guy already at 4 years old. In the beginning we pulled him in a wagon. Pretty soon he knew every beat because his sister was captain of the Pee Wee squad and she practiced all the time.

“And when my older drummers would play the wrong beat, I could count on him to roll us into the right one. He saved us in a lot of competitions.

“One day I figured he’d be out there with the band at halftime. I never imagined he’d do it as a football player. He was too soft-natured … I thought.”

Instead he became a football workhouse for Dayton Christian, playing offense and defense and lifting what had been a doormat program to 19 wins in 21 games his final two years of high school.

Some people figured he’d transfer out of his Division V school and into one of the area’s large football powerhouses. And, in fact, former Trotwood-Madison coach Mo Douglass — who played 11 seasons in the NFL with Chicago and the New York Giants — is his cousin.

“It’s all about being loyal,” Harding said. “That’s what it was about at Dayton Christian and the way it’s been at Miami, even as we went through all those losses. If you’re going to a great school surrounded by great people — people who gave you a chance when bigger schools didn’t want to — you feel like you owe them.”

Dubbed ‘The Mayor’

Here’s another tale from Danielle:

“There’s the time his older sister kept saying, ‘Mom I got to go to the bathroom, but Biggie’s still in there,’ ” she said with a bit of a laugh.

“I told her, Wait ‘til he comes out,’ but finally I went in and there he sat in the toilet. His foot was stuck and he kept flushing it to try to get it loose. Water was flowing everywhere and I had to call the fire department.

“I told him then, ‘Child, you’re wearing me out.’ With Biggie, it’s always go big or go home!”

In Oxford he’s gone big. On campus — where he’s one of the most outgoing and engaging students — he’s been dubbed “The Mayor.”

»RELATED: ‘The Mayor’ reigns at Miami

On the football field, he’s earned similar status. Following that winless season, Miami changed coaches and Chuck Martin, the former Notre Dame offensive coordinator, took over.

“When I got here everybody told me, ‘Heath Harding is your best athlete on the team by far. He’s your best tailback even though he played corner his entire freshman year,’ ” Martin said.

“And they were right. When we started winter conditioning, he didn’t look like anyone else in the program. He was pretty much a grown man physically at a young age. He ran circles around everyone else.”

Harding started nine games as a sophomore on a team that went 2-10. The next season — which he had dedicated to his grandmother, who had died in July — he suffered a back injury and played three games. He ended up with a medical redshirt as the RedHawks went 3-9.

“I felt I had let everybody down, especially my grandma,” he said. “But a bad thing turned out to be the best thing. I watched and learned the game better.”

He came back last season and helped lead the program to respectability. After losing their first six games, the RedHawks won their final six and qualified for the St. Petersburg Bowl, where they outplayed Mississippi State and led most of the game only to lose 17-16 when a 37-yard field goal was blocked at the gun.

At season’s end, Harding won All-Mid-American Conference first team honors.

Coming into this Saturday’s opener at Marshall, the redshirt senior is now one of the most trumpeted players in the MAC and should have a good shot at the NFL next season. He’ll graduate in December and then plans to immerse himself full-time in training for a pro shot.

But the other day he didn’t want to talk about any of that. He’s focused on the upcoming season in which the ‘Hawks are expected to contend for a MAC title.

“The good thing now is that we actually have other players out here on the field who look like Heath,” said Martin.

He said everyone from recruits to alumni believes in the program again and some of that credit goes to Harding, who has maintained a standard of excellence since he got to Miami five seasons ago.

And Harding said that’s what makes this so special. He remained loyal, never considered transferring and now both he and his team are getting recognition:

“I was always told, ‘If you’re good enough, everyone will find you.’ ”

That’s been the case at Miami and Dayton Christian, just as it was long ago in that bathroom at home, his foot stuck in the toilet, the fire department on the way.

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