Want to play catch with an NFL player? Raiders safety Erik Harris is down

Erik Harris picked off Philip Rivers twice when the Raiders played the Chargers in Week 10, returning one for a touchdown. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Erik Harris has this routine, you see, and while the Oakland Raiders would love to see him replicate his two-pick outing from earlier this season come Sunday against Philip Rivers, Harris' habit has more to do with people not in uniform.

Harris, whose journey to starting NFL safety is something Homer (the Greek poet, not Simpson) would dig, comes out an hour before team stretch to play catch with fans. With an official NFL football, Harris spins it from the field to the seats for a few tosses before spying another fan, nodding in acknowledgement and then tossing him or her the pigskin. The whole exercise lasts about 20 minutes, but for the lucky fans who just had a catch with an NFL player, the experience lasts a lifetime.

Hey, Raider Nation, wanna have a catch?

"I just saw the joy in kids' faces," said Harris, who began the catch-and-throw routine while playing in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Watching his north-of-the-border coaches do it inspired him.

Growing up some 40 miles from the Baltimore Ravens' training camp site, Harris also remembered how he felt when a player would interact with him as a youngster.

"Knowing the joy it brought me, I'm all about experiences, not really materialistic things," Harris said. "If you share a special moment with somebody and be present in that moment, I think that can be a lot more than just something that costs money."

Plus, playing catch can never be a bad thing for a defensive back, right? Especially one with a team-leading three interceptions.

"It's kind of surprising; a lot of fans actually can throw the ball," he said. "Some fans can throw, some can't, so it's always good to work on a bad ball. Bad ball, good ball, it doesn't matter. So, it's just special to see everybody enjoy the moment, really."

And while the Raiders have not been enjoying much of late -- they dropped their fourth straight game Sunday to fall to 6-8, this one in particularly heartbreaking fashion on a last-minute touchdown by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the franchise's final game in Oakland -- Harris has not deviated from his path.

Because while he began the season as a backup and core special- teams player, season-ending injuries to rookie Johnathan Abram in the opener and Karl Joseph in Harris' tour de force against Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers on Nov. 7 have thrust Harris into a starting role.

"I think Erik Harris does an excellent job of making guys around him better," Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said of Harris, whose 63 total tackles rank second on the team to linebacker Tahir Whitehead's 98 stops. Harris has also played every defensive snap in nine of the Raiders' last 11 games and has eight passes defensed thus far.

"He's like a coach out there," said Guenther. "He can see the formations, understand the leverages, what may be coming, alerting guys ... I think Erik does an excellent job back there for us and that goes understated."

Understated? To wit: Harris was a walk-on at Division II California University of Pennsylvania who went undrafted in 2012 and had no NFL rookie minicamp invites.

So he drove four-plus hours to Buffalo for a CFL tryout, eventually landing with the Tiger-Cats and spending three years there before signing with the New Orleans Saints in 2016. A torn ACL was another roadblock before the Raiders signed him in 2017.

So yeah, Harris has seen his share of misfortune and crooked paths to his dream.

"I wouldn't say it's a prove-them-wrong type mentality, it was just like, prove myself right," Harris said. "Prove what I always believed in and believed in myself and the people that actually believed in me. For them to put their support in me, and people to give me opportunities, I want to prove them right.

"I always play with a chip on my shoulder just because it's what fueled me and I just take pride in coming to work every day, just knowing where I came from, really."

Wait, a chip, you say?

Indeed, after college, Harris worked in an Utz potato chip factory in Hanover, Pennsylvania, lugging 50-pound bags of corn flower and stirring said corn flower in the mixer. In 11-hour shifts. In a 110-degree room.

Harris has also worked for UPS as a supervisor.

The job description he prefers, of course, is that of starting Raiders safety. And, in the immortal words of Pedro Martinez, while Rivers may have nine children, Harris was his daddy in Week 10.

Harris picked him off twice, returning one 59 yards and another 56 yards for a touchdown (he also had a game-sealing 30-yard pick-six at the Indianapolis Colts in Week 4). And Harris woulda, coulda, shoulda had two more interceptions against Rivers that night.

"Some fan photo-shopped Philip Rivers' [face] onto my youngest kid's head," Harris laughed. "That was pretty funny."

Jokes aside, what has the 29-year-old Harris, married with four children, proved as the Raiders prepare to face Rivers and the Chargers in Carson this weekend?

"That it's all about opportunity and being prepared for opportunity and when those times meet, if you're prepared for the opportunity, good things will happen," he said. "I feel I've proven that I do belong in this league, but at the same time I'm never satisfied."

Sounds like another good habit to have.