The Oklahoman

How Harris overcame his greatest obstacles

- Jenni Carlson Columnist The Oklahoman USA TODAY NETWORK

Tommie Harris lifts his right hand and eyes his pinkie.

The top half bends unnaturall­y and permanentl­y away from the rest of his fingers. Even though the injuries that lead to such abnormalit­ies come with the territory for big-time football players like Harris, it still hurt when it happened.

Hurt for a long time after, too. “But then I get older,” Harris said, “and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I did this on Brett Favre’s facemask.’”

He smiled wryly.

“It doesn’t hurt anymore, so you can talk about it,” he said, “but while you’re in the process, it’s very difficult to talk about.”

He knows about scars — and not just because he was an All-American at OU and became one of the most fearsome defensive tackles in the NFL during his eight years as a pro.

Harris has encountere­d almost unfathomab­le tragedy. His wife died in 2012. His infant daughter died four years later, and four years after that, his father died, too. Amid that personal loss, a business deal also went bad, costing Harris untold funds and friends.

“I know it can help people in present day. It’s the first time I ever felt like pain can truly have a purpose.” Tommie Harris, on his new book

Along the way, Harris figured out how to heal, turning wounds into scars, pain into perspectiv­e, and now, he wants to help others do the same.

He has authored a new book, “Endure: Playing Through Life’s Hardest Hits.” It is part autobiogra­phy, part selfhelp guide, but Harris believes most importantl­y, it is all authentic.

“It’s a lot of undoing to remember stuff you healed through,” Harris said of the writing process, “but to be able to see the benefit of people being able to feel those words that I was able to dig through and go to some scary places or some places I didn’t even want to address, I know it can help people in present day.

“It’s the first time I ever felt like pain can truly have a purpose.”

Harris starts his book in the same place his pain began.

On Feb. 12, 2012, his wife, Ashley, had a brain aneurysm while under anesthesia. She had gone to the hospital for breast-reduction surgery, a routine procedure, and considerin­g the woman Harris had always called “Sunshine” was young and healthy, he wasn’t even in Oklahoma City for the surgery.

He rushed back to OU Med, but she had already been declared brain dead.

The next day, he turned off her life support.

Sunshine was gone.

Harris retired from the NFL later that year, wanting to spend more time with his kids and hoping to start healing. But there would be more pain. His infant daughter, Thalia, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 2016 when she was only four months old. His father, Tommie Sr., died in 2020 after dealing with kidney failure for almost a year.

Harris says people, even those closest to him, might’ve thought he was coping well with all those losses. He put on a good front. He refused to admit he was hurting.

Football, after all, had taught him to suppress pain.

“I stopped saying ‘ouch’ at 10 years old,” he said, “because I was trying to be a man.”

And for a long time, Harris was the man on the football field. His tough-asnails, give-no-ground attitude served

him well. He became one of the best and highest-paid defensive linemen on the planet.

But over the past few years, Harris realized the tough-guy approach wasn’t going to work with grief.

He eventually went to the Hoffman Institute, a weeklong healing retreat, and while all attendees sign a non-disclosure agreement barring them from

talking about specifics, Harris said it changed everything for him. He was amazed to look around the room and see almost four dozen other people who had made millions — or more — like he had.

“And nobody knew what to do with life,” he said.

Trying to fight through and appear perfect wasn’t working. Not for him. Not for anyone.

Harris realized he had to allow himself to feel the pain.

“The more I began to be honest about my emotions, my feelings, it started healing,” he said.

It didn’t happen overnight. Going from open wounds to scars takes time. Commitment and dedication, too.

That’s why the title of his book is “Endure.”

“Enduring is respecting the process,” he said.

He likens his journey with grief and loss to time spent in the weight room. There are days when it is excruciati­ng, when it hurts, when there’s pain, when setbacks occur, but at the end, you come out stronger.

A few years ago, Harris wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to even talk about his wife’s death.

Now?

“It’s a scar,” he said, “but it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt to talk about it.”

He looks again at his right hand. There on the top, just under his knuckles, is another scar. During his rookie year with the Chicago Bears, that part of his hand got split wide open. Doctors said they could surgically repair it, but Harris would miss more than a month. Or he could let it heal by itself and play with a hard cast on his hand.

“I put on a hard cast,” he said. “But over time, it’s one of my greatest stories.”

Harris finished second in the voting for defensive rookie of the year that season.

In those days, his hand was an ugly mess. Now, he looks at the scar with pride.

“That’s like a trophy,” he said. “I actually endured.”

Tommie Harris did that on the football, and now, he’s doing it in life.

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 ?? COURTESY OF THE CEDAR GATE ?? Former OU standout Tommie Harris poses with his wife, Ashley. They had only been married for 40 days when she died after suffering a brain aneurysm while under anesthesia. She was 29.
COURTESY OF THE CEDAR GATE Former OU standout Tommie Harris poses with his wife, Ashley. They had only been married for 40 days when she died after suffering a brain aneurysm while under anesthesia. She was 29.

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