Minutes before the Special Olympics began that Tuesday morning, April 9, Shannon Harris, sitting on a surprise while parked on the bleachers beside his wife and daughters at Northeast High School, couldn’t help but reflect — as his son trotted on the track below — on the family’s long and uncertain, arduous and yet sometimes joyous journey with autism.

It’s been a voyage that has picked up several passengers along the way, myself included.

Almost directly across the green turf infield, perhaps a football field away, jogged Martin Luther King High graduate Ojay Harris, the 6-foot-4, 310-pound lineman-turned-assistant coach who was warming up for that day’s events, unaware his dream had already come true.

“From that spot to this spot,“ said Shannon Harris to his wife, Dawn, as he pointed toward the middle of the track while his son jogged toward them down the final straightaway, “I’m seeing him as a baby, crawling, walking, every step through life. And now it’s coming full circle. And look at him. Now he’s running to the finish line.”

“It’s not the finish line,” Dawn Harris corrected, gently. “It’s just the beginning.”

Minutes later, the newest flight of Ojay Harris boarded its most important passenger, an ascent not even autism could deny.

Mouth agape, hands over his head, the 19-year-old, who was diagnosed on the spectrum in third grade, stopped in his tracks just feet from his family near the bleachers atop Northeast’s concrete concourse.

Steps away, his twin sister, Alexis, approached with a sign.

“Go Ojay You Did It!!!,” was printed on the white poster board with fluorescent pink, orange, and green letters. “Thaddeus Stevens Upcoming Freshman!!!”

His younger sister, Brook, also emerged, holding two balloons. One read, “You’re So Special,” the other, “You’re No. 1.”

It was No. 3 -- as in his third attempt -- however, that made the occasion possible.

For years, Harris dreamed of playing football in college and later for his favorite NFL team, the Eagles. Thanks to the success on his third try at college admission, he will indeed get the chance to play football, at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

‘I’m a fighter’

As a senior for King during the 2017 football season, Harris was one of the Cougars’ best offensive linemen.

That year, he also earned football interest from Thaddeus Stevens, a two-year technical school in Lancaster with a successful football program.

Harris (left) is all smiles as he talks with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie (center) and NFL Commisioner Roger Goodell before an Eagles game in 2018.
Michael Bryant
Harris (left) is all smiles as he talks with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie (center) and NFL Commisioner Roger Goodell before an Eagles game in 2018.

Harris had joined King’s program as a freshman but nearly quit several times. During his sophomore year, relentless teasing from a teammate during a postgame bus ride nearly chased him away. King coach Ed Dunn, however, along with several empathetic teammates, helped reel Harris back in.

But conditioning drills during summer training camps almost sent him running home again. Alexis, however, wouldn’t allow it. She went to King’s football practices and, if needed, walked on the field and made sure her twin didn’t quit.

Harris’ seven other siblings also periodically assisted in his persistence.

"They told me to keep fighting," Harris told me in 2018. "I kept fighting. I’m a fighter. Nothing can break me.”

It’s no wonder then, after twice being denied admission to Thaddeus Stevens by failing to score high enough on placement tests, that Harris persevered.

I had received texts and phone calls from Shannon Harris before and after his son’s first two attempts to gain admission. Before the third, however, there was an unfamiliar sense of urgency. A text revealed that his son had been up all night for weeks, studying for the next test, on April 8.

Harris, as is his right by law, has remained a student at King. His eligibility as a player ended after the 2017 season, but he remained with the football team as an assistant coach in 2018.

He also holds a part-time job as a cashier at a grocery store a few miles from the family’s home near Germantown, a job for which he has learned to commute to via ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft.

Harris competes in many Special Olympic track and field events.
Harris competes in many Special Olympic track and field events.

Those are facts unfathomable for the high school freshman who could “melt down” at the thought of riding the bus to school, or the kindergarten child who would fixate on objects, flap his arms when overstimulated, twitch his fingers while standing on his tiptoes or just bang his head on the wall.

So, when Shannon Harris expressed concern about what would happen if his son didn’t pass that third test, it was clear the potential of losing the progress his son and family had worked for weighed heavily on his mind.

Fly, Ojay, Fly

Absorbing that is the only way to truly appreciate that scene at Northeast on April 9.

Harris, hands atop his head, a fateful inscription tattooed on the inside of his right forearm, locked in a tearful embrace with his mother, who whispered, “You did it, JJ,” as two of his sisters joined the scrum, while another who couldn’t attend listened on her phone.

All that happened while a camera crew from NFL Films documented the event for an upcoming feature on Harris, which is in early production.

NFL Films had helped Harris and his mother travel to the Super Bowl in Atlanta after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hand-delivered tickets to the game for Harris during the Eagles’ 2018 season opener. (It was also Harris’ first time on an airplane, and he did just fine.)

In the evening on April 8, Shannon Harris said, NFL Films producer Jason Weber celebrated over the phone from an airport in North Carolina when he heard that Harris had passed the test.

The next morning, Weber scrambled a production team to Northeast High.

King football coach Ed Dunn screamed in his car while driving in Germantown on April 8 after Shannon Harris told him the news on the phone. All I could do was stammer when the proud dad called me about it.

“Wait. What? No! Really? Wait. You found out already?” I said.

Ever try to stay composed in the presence of something or someone truly special? It’s not easy.

Making matters even more emotional on April 9 was catching a glimpse of the tattoo on the inside of Harris’ right forearm as he celebrated with his family.

When I wrote about his trip to the Eagles’ home opener while Harris was a guest of the Super Bowl champions in September 2018, I also used the words “Fly, Ojay, Fly” in a video I produced on YouTube.

In December, Harris, with money saved from his job, got a tattoo that says “Ojay,” which is encircled by wings hovering among clouds with the word “Fly” above and below his name.

He had gotten it done for his birthday.

“Fly, Ojay, Fly,” he said with a smile after I congratulated him on April 9.

What do those words mean to him now?

“That catchphrase is gonna make me feel rich every single day,” he said. “Every single day for the past two years, I’ve tried to get in that school, and I found out I finally got in. It’s awesome.”

It’s priceless, too.

Fly, young man. Fly.