Clay Harbor speaks to his older brother, Cory, just about every evening; Clay sketching the details of life in Eagles rookie camp for Cory, Clay's teammate at Missouri State who didn't get an NFL opportunity.
Cory, who just finished work on his master's, can take at least partial credit for the career of his brother, a fourth-round rookie tight end. If Cory hadn't insisted, Clay probably never would have gotten a college scholarship offer.
The Harbor brothers grew up in Dwight, Ill., a town of about 4,300 people. Clay said the high school, with about 300 kids, fields a combined football team with a school from another town. College recruiters don't flock to the area, in rural Illinois. Cory, a defensive end and linebacker, got his scholarship offer from Missouri State at the very last minute - "way after the signing date," Clay said yesterday - and the next year, his wide receiver brother was similarly underwhelmed by interested schools.
"Really small school, small-time competition," Clay said. "I had a successful senior year. I had a couple teams that called me, 'come down, visit,' but nobody offered me a scholarship . . . my brother kept talking to the [Missouri State] coaches, talking to the coaches, telling 'em, 'Hey, look at my brother's tape, he's a hard worker, good player.' The coaches looked at my tape and finally, right before the signing date, they gave me a call.
"They asked me if I would come down for an official visit. I'm like, 'Of course, I haven't had one of those.' So I went down to Missouri State, they liked what they saw, and they finally offered me a scholarship."
Clay, now 6-2, 252, weighed 200 pounds as a high school wideout and actually saw himself as more of a basketball player, but a broken ankle canceled his senior hoops season. After a redshirt year at Missouri State, Clay was ready to start his freshman year as a wideout when two tight ends got hurt, right before the season opener.
"I was the biggest receiver, so they asked me how I'd feel about playing tight end," he said. "I started the first three games" before the other two TEs returned. Clay split time between WR and TE the rest of his freshman season, he said. "My sophomore year, I started playing tight end full time."
Clay went on to set a school record with 150 receptions, catching at least one pass in 33 successive games. After his senior season, his practices before the Texas vs. the Nation all-star game helped convince scouts he could be a real NFL tight end, not just some sort of H-back hybrid, as he had been pegged.
Harbor seems likely to win a roster spot with the Birds, but with emerging star Brent Celek starting, Cornelius Ingram backing up, and former Browns draft pick Martin Rucker in the mix as well, it's hard to say how much he might play. Ingram, coming off a second repair of the anterior cruciate ligament he tore before his senior year at Florida, was a sensation last spring, before reinjuring his knee. It later came out that going into the draft, which saw Ingram slide to the fifth round, some teams who looked at images of Ingram's initial ACL graft figured he'd have to have it done over.
It's too early to tell if Ingram is back to where he was when he went down; obviously, the Eagles were concerned enough to draft a TE in the fourth round.
Things have gone pretty well for Clay so far, though football people always caution against drawing conclusions before the pads go on. He said in those evening phone conversations with his brother, they mostly discuss life in the NFL.
"I just tell him the game's a lot faster, for sure," Clay said. "It's your job now; there's no excuses, you need to get the job done. It's a lot more businesslike, but there are a lot of similarities . . . Everybody's together. Guys you'd think you would be competing with are trying to help each other get better."
Clay said his efforts are a big deal back home in Dwight, which has never produced an NFL player.
"What Ryan Howard is here, that's what I'm like in Dwight," he said.
Howard, of course, is also a former Missouri State star, in some other sport.