One defensive series into the season, Lateef “T.J.” Harris was off and running with another interception.
He veered to the edge of the sideline before making a sharp cut near midfield, leaving would-be Council Rock South tacklers in his wake on his way to the longest Cheltenham High football play in 62 years.
The move was vintage Harris, a dynamic playmaker for the Panthers.
It also was symbolic of his approach to his senior season, since he’s determined to stay in bounds and play with more control.
“It’s just growing up,” the 17-year-old Harris said during a practice earlier this week at the school in Wyncote. “I’ve just matured over the years. Other years I had problems with my anger, but I’ve been controlling it.”
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Harris has scored five touchdowns in three different ways as Cheltenham has broken to a 2-0 start ahead of Friday night’s home game with rival Abington.
The 99-yard interception for a touchdown just minutes into the Aug. 23 season opener was the longest scoring play for Cheltenham since Walt Schairer returned an interception 101 yards for a touchdown in 1957, according to sports historian Chuck Langerman.
Harris, who was tied for third in the state with seven interceptions last season, picked off another pass against Council Rock South. He also returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown and caught an 18-yard pass for another score.
In Cheltenham’s 34-17 win over Frankford last Friday, Harris scored two more touchdowns on receptions covering 64 and 6 yards from quarterback Adonis Hunter.
“The kids joke with him, and they call him, ‘Ball Hawk.’ But that’s the perfect word to describe him,” Cheltenham coach Ryan Nase said of Harris.
Harris has drawn strong recruiting interest from NCAA Division II programs such as East Stroudsburg and Kutztown as well as some feelers from NCAA Division I programs at the FCS level.
Harris, who played youth football for the Mt. Airy Bantoms, hopes to play in college.
“College football is a dream,” Harris said.
Harris takes pride in his versatility. He’s a top receiver and kick returner as well as a free safety.
“I’ll do anything for this team,” Harris said. “Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do. Safety is my favorite [position]. I can see the whole field. I’m fast. I’m a ball hawk. I can get to the ball when it’s in the air.”
Harris is a daring player, according to his coach. He’s a risk-taker, gambling for interceptions at times rather than sitting deep in the secondary.
By his own admission, Harris sometimes struggled to control his emotions in past seasons. He was ejected from games as a sophomore and junior and also removed by Nase from Cheltenham’s season-ending playoff loss to Upper Dublin in 2018.
“T.J. is one of those kids that 95 percent of the time he does everything right,” Nase said. “He’s a kid that never misses a lift. He never misses a workout. He goes to class. He does everything right, and then that very, very small percentage of the time in the past he lost his composure and lost his temper.
“We met after last season, me and him and his mom and dad, and he accepted responsibility for it.
“He has matured greatly. He’s like a different person.”
Harris knows it’s a balancing act. He wants to play with fire. He wants to play with passion. But he wants to stay cool, too.
“It was just emotions,” Harris said. “I was immature. Now I’m more mature, and I can control myself.
“I love the game of football. The emotions just come out when I’m playing.”