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Autism doesn't stop King's Ojay Harris from winning football award

At the upcoming annual Public League football banquet - an environment that once surely would have overwhelmed him - Harris will be honored with the Gary Butler award for courage.

Ojay Harris (center) with his mother Dawn Harris and father Shannon Harris.
Ojay Harris (center) with his mother Dawn Harris and father Shannon Harris.Read moreJOSE MORENO / Staff photographer

The dimples that bookend the smile of Martin Luther King senior lineman Ojay Harris were momentarily hidden as Harris, whose autism was diagnosed in third grade, searched for the words to match the emotion on his face.

Harris nearly quit the football team several times as a freshman and sophomore but pressed on at the behest of his family.

Eyes darting left to right, the 6-foot-4, 310-pounder steadied himself with a gulp before a single tear trickled down his right cheek inside an office on King's Germantown campus.

"They told me to keep fighting," said Harris, voice low and momentarily quivering.

"I kept fighting," he continued, voice now steady. "I'm a fighter. Nothing can break me."

A second tear tumbled down his left cheek.

Once teased and called a "cry baby" in middle school, Harris persevered on and off the field at King, found his voice, revealed it to others and became the Cougars' top offensive lineman.

At the upcoming annual Public League football banquet — an environment that once surely would have overwhelmed him — Harris will be honored with the Gary Butler award for courage. The date of the event has not yet been set.

And after four years in King's program, his dream of playing college football could become a reality.

‘I love being the person that I am’

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

When their son was in kindergarten, and perhaps even before that, Dawn Harris, 47, and her husband, Shannon, 48, knew their son was different.

Growing up, Ojay, one of eight children in the Harris family, would often fixate on objects and, when excited, slightly flap his arms and twitch his fingers while standing on his tiptoes.

He also seemed frustrated quite often, Dawn said, and would sometimes bang his head on the wall.

Dawn's own frustration grew when kindergarten teachers attributed his behavior to other explanations.

A teacher once told Dawn that Ojay had fallen behind in class because he couldn't spell.

Unknown to that teacher, Ojay had learned all of his classmates' names — first and last — and wrote them in crayon all over his bedroom ceiling and walls.

When he learned new words and the names of kids in his siblings' classes, he wrote them on his wall, too. And when he ran out of room, he wrote on his closet door.

Jennifer Dawson, clinical director of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Autism Resource Center in West Chester, acknowledged the benefits that have come with increased awareness but also cautioned against generalizations.

A common refrain in the autism community, she said, is, "if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism."

Common signs — deficits in social interaction and communication and an insistence on sameness — exist, but their manifestations vary across those on the spectrum, Dawson said.

For Ojay, that meant being teased in middle school by classmates, misunderstood by teachers and seeking safety in the solitude of video games.

"It was devastating," he said of being teased.

"People would say, 'You're a cry baby' because I cried a lot," he said. "Still at this age I still cry a lot. But I stayed strong. I stayed the way I am. I love being the person that I am."

‘It only works because the entire community exists’

When Shannon Harris, who once also played football at King, took his son to meet coach Ed Dunn, Ojay's size led Dunn to believe he was a senior.

Except, Ojay was simply a freshman determined to eat his family out of house and home.

Ojay started football at 9 years old at the Ivy Hill recreation center. But by 11 he had exceeded the 105-pound weight limit.

Shannon joked that Ojay would outgrow a new bed, and within a few weeks his feet would dangle over the latest replacement.

Socially, however, his growth had stalled. Without football, Ojay had once again retreated into video games.

As a student at King, Shannon Harris had once felt the lure of the streets until his older brother, Eric Mapp, was slain by a young man who was around Ojay's age now.

Football provided purpose for Harris, and perhaps it would do the same for his son.

"He's had good coaches at King and Ivy Hill, but especially Coach Dunn," Shannon Harris said. "Coach Dunn has taken my kid these four years and made him blossom."

Dunn, who took over in 2013 and led the Cougars to the school's first Public League football title that same year, refused to take credit alone.

Older teammates sometimes stepped in when underclassmen razzed Ojay after he got flustered and had an outburst.

When the Harris family lived down the street from the school, groups of teammates would stop by the house and walk with Ojay to practice.

As a freshman, when Ojay didn't feel comfortable going to practice by himself, his twin sister, Alexis, walked him to the field and stayed to watch.

And if he tried to quit, Alexis walked onto the field and gave him what for.

When his oldest sister, Courtney, now 24, was just 15, she went outside and prepared to fight three boys who had teased "her JJ."

His older brothers didn't see him as disabled and treated him as their equal. His teammates at King treated him like a "brother."

Senior defensive end Mike Samuels, whose mom, Tasha, is a nurse for people with special needs, immediately befriended Ojay when Samuels arrived as a sophomore.

"Successes like Ojay don't just come from me and him," said Dunn, who is also a longtime math teacher. "It comes from a whole community of people working together, and it only works because the entire community exists."

As a result, Ojay is more confident around strangers. He goes to the store by himself, shops for himself and even takes SEPTA on his own, previously something he resisted vigorously.

"I never thought he would be able to do that by himself, and it was football," Dawn said. "He had to meet new people. He had to talk. He had to show people who he was."

With glassy eyes but a firm voice she added: "It let him know that it's OK to be different, and it's OK to let people know."

‘I want for him what everybody else has’

Ojay excelled as a right guard, in part, Dunn said, because his technique was excellent.

He was the only senior on the offensive line and became a leader for King, which finished the regular season with four straight wins and won a playoff game.

With his size, strength and technical attention to detail, Dunn said Ojay could easily be a scholarship football player in college.

The academic component, however, could be a challenge.

Thaddeus Stevens College is a two-year technical college with a football team that has shown interest in Ojay.

The Bulldogs head coach, Joe Wysock, said Ojay is in the process of applying and that "we are hopeful he will be a Bulldog next season."

Wysock, the coach since 1999, said he has coached players with special needs in the past but not autism to his knowledge.

Donna Widmann, Ojay's autistic support teacher at King, has little doubt her prized pupil could succeed in college.

"He's just a gem, man," she said.

"It's like a type of grace that some people have, and you're just wowed by it," she said. "Not just as student but as a person."

Being away from home, though, causes trepidation for Dawn Harris. She was reluctant to let Ojay play football at King but credits Shannon, her husband of 17 years, for staying the course.

Still, as any parent would, Dawn Harris has reservations about Ojay leaving for college, where she couldn't immediately get to him.

"My worries now are letting him go out in the world and possibly getting stopped by the police and them not understanding that he might not understand every question they have for him," she said.

In such a scenario, Ojay has been instructed to immediately tell an officer that he is on the autism spectrum.

And at 6-4 and 310 pounds, his parents have warned that not everyone will know he is "the sweetest thing on two feet."

The plan for now is for Ojay to graduate from King and attend Thaddeus Stevens to study auto mechanics. If he does well, he could continue his football career at a 4-year school.

In 2014, Shannon opened an auto body shop named 'Ojay and Sons' so that Ojay could one day take over.

Father and son have worked on cars together ever since. The hope is that one day he will be independent.

Though his siblings adore him and would argue over who gets to care for him, Dawn Harris wants more for her son.

"He may always need help," she said, "but I want him to not rely on anyone. I want for him what everybody else has"