BY MIKE URSERY
During the week leading up to Super Bowl LIII, the world was introduced to a young woman determined to break barriers in a sport that has historically been dominated by men.
Less than a month later, that same woman made history by becoming the first to accept a football scholarship as a skills position player. Her chosen destination – Central Methodist University in Fayette.
You may have seen her on CNN, Good Morning America., or as the recent star of a Super Bowl commercial. She dreams of being the first female NFL player, and we’re so excited the inspirational @_Antoinetteeeee has officially signed with CMU Football as of today! pic.twitter.com/CUtNjm8M6k
— Central Methodist U (@cmuniv) February 26, 2019
Antoinette “Toni” Harris, 22, announced her decision during a press conference at East Los Angeles Community College on Feb. 26. Wearing a black hoodie at the beginning, she removed it to reveal a CMU t-shirt.
“It’s all very humbling, but it’s also very exciting, because not every day can people get a scholarship and achieve their goals the way that they have to,” Harris told this newspaper.
Her ultimate goal is to become the first woman to play in the NFL. Her dream – to play for the Seattle Seahawks. On March 1, she received a shoutout from Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, as he showed his support for Harris’s ambitions. She received more praise from the NFL’s official Twitter account.
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) February 28, 2019
“I’m going to be watching her over the years and see how she develops,” Carroll said in a video that was tweeted by the Seahawks’ official Twitter account. “I’m looking for a lot of big plays. I’ve seen her highlights, so I know she can make the interceptions. I’ve seen a couple of highlights of that, so we’re excited about her getting in the game. Congratulations on being the first and setting the stage for a lot of other young girls doing the same and making the jump. If they can do it, anybody can do it.”
Carroll wasn’t the only high-profile person to congratulate Harris on social media. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) tweeted a congratulatory message to both Harris and CMU on Feb. 27.
— Senator Roy Blunt (@RoyBlunt) February 27, 2019
“Coach Calloway Has My Best Interests At Heart”
The nation was introduced to Harris the week of the Super Bowl, but CMU head football coach David Calloway had discovered her far sooner. Calloway said that she was on East Los Angeles Community College’s recruiting list a year ago, and he found her through normal recruiting.
“She had an offer from Bethany (College) out in Kansas, but she was a freshman at the time,” Calloway said. “She put another video out back in November when we started the junior college recruiting scene, and I sent her an email back and told her what she needed to do as far as the process of going through and getting admitted, getting transcripts, so forth and so on. She did her part, and then we continued the recruiting process through communication. That’s the biggest thing. With all our recruits, what we try to stress is communicating and trying to identify all the different things they look for in a school. We checked a lot of her boxes off by major, location, opportunity to compete, coaching staff, consistent communication. Out of the five or six offers she had, she felt this was the best fit for her.”
Calloway said that he saw in Harris what he looks for in all of his recruits. Being accountable and being dependable were the two most important things about her that stuck out to him, he said.
“You know, we call you, ask you to do certain things and get certain checkpoints done by a certain amount of time,” Calloway said. “ She did those things and was consistent in doing that, consistent in her communication, turning in her financial aid and stuff like that. So, we put a lot of stock in the people doing stuff right. First and foremost, we feel as a coaching staff we can teach you how to play football. She checked off a lot of the boxes in our evaluation, not just on the football field.”
Along with CMU and Bethany College, Harris said she had offers from Kentucky Christian University, Heart of America Athletic Conference rival Graceland University, and Adams State University. Harris said she chose CMU because Calloway had her best interests at heart during the recruiting process.
Excited to announce I have committed to CMU to further my academic & athletic career. Thank you @dscalloway & @CMUEaglesFB for this amazing opportunity. Exited to be an eagle 🦅 💚 Watch tonight on @NBCNightlyNews at 6:30 PT & 9:30 ET! pic.twitter.com/LNC7xaEtPW
— Toni Harris ✨ (@_Antoinetteeeee) February 26, 2019
“I had been contacted by all the other schools, but Coach Calloway had been communicating with me before all the mess, before all these things started blowing up,” Harris said. “He was trying to make sure I had well enough money for my scholarship, and to make sure that the school was the one I wanted to come to. He kept in contact with me when things started getting big and checked on me. He had the professors calling me to tell me about the major. You can tell a person has your best interest at heart when they’re doing things like that. So, I figured that this is my best option, and I now I’ll be well taken care of when I come to CMU.”
Harris said she will major in criminal justice while attending CMU. That choice is motivated by her desire to one day become a homicide detective, she said. As a child, she watched television series with her grandmother called CSI: Miami, and still enjoys watching police dramas to this day.
“We are thrilled that Toni Harris has chosen to become an Eagle at Central Methodist University,” CMU President Roger Drake said. “She will receive an excellent education at CMU and will be prepared for a life well-lived. Central Methodist is also an innovator among our sector with our College of Graduate and Extended Studies, Digital U, and many other programs and initiatives. Toni has chosen well.”
Harris is coming to CMU to play football, but she wants to leave a lasting impact that goes well beyond the football field.
Toni Harris (@_Antoinetteeeee) just became the first female skill position player to receive a college football scholarship.
— NFL (@NFL) February 27, 2019
“I want to be a leader both on and off the field,” Harris said. “I want to make sure that me and my teammates are capable of helping each other be successful. I want to win and I want to be one of the best safeties there. I want to make an impact that will never leave the school.”
Performing on the field
Standing at 5-foot-5 and weighing 160 pounds, Harris is listed on the East Los Angeles College Huskies roster as a free safety. She has a highlight video that shows her making plays as a free safety on hudl.com, a website that provides video review and performance analysis tools for sports teams and athletes at every level.
In one highlight, she runs from one side of the field to the other to close with a ball carrier and make an open-field tackle. In another highlight, Harris is seen making an interception in the end zone. Another highlight shows ELAC running a team practice, where Harris is seen covering a wide receiver one-on-one and breaking up a pass.
Calloway said that she is a free safety for now, but her performance on the field while in an Eagles uniform will determine if she plays as a free safety at CMU.
Harris’s decision has brought a unique level of excitement to the CMU campus. Joe Parisi, Vice President for Enrollment Management and acting athletic director, was one of those who were ecstatic upon learning that Harris had chosen to be an Eagle.
Central Methodist, a progressive outlook
“What I love about that press conference is that she was extremely boisterous about all of the other schools that she had opportunities at, and why she chose CMU,” Parisi said. “What was really neat was to see the level of care, consideration and pursuit from the institution.”
Parisi described Harris’s recruitment by saying it was done through three different avenues. Calloway and his coaching staff spoke to Harris about the program. Faculty members spoke with her about career pursuits while discussing her choice in a major. And the admissions team helped her through the enrollment process, he said.
“Collectively, those three units worked together to really create an environment that really showcases the special ingredient here at CMU, and that is that Central Methodist University faculty and staff care about our students,” Parisi said.
Parisi said that Harris attending CMU as the first woman to play football for the program while on scholarship shows the progressive nature of the institution. It’s a sign that CMU is moving forward, he said.
“From an institutional standpoint, Central Methodist is progressive,” Parisi said. “Coach Calloway didn’t treat this as any different situation and was very clear, and even through this process, he didn’t want to talk about it. It was just another day at the office for him.”
Parisi said the progressive nature of CMU is evident not only by recruiting Harris, but also by the installation of two new programs within the athletic department — men’s and women’s wrestling. That announcement was made on Feb. 12. Both programs will begin in the fall.
Harris is no stranger to hardship, and not just in her advance to the next level in a male-dominated sport. Recently she was the subject of an episode of Overtime, a sports network that focuses on high school and amateur sports. In the episode, Harris told the story of her upbringing. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, her early childhood was spent in an abusive home. She was taken from that home and placed in foster care. She moved in and out of foster care on more than one occasion.
When Harris was 18 years old, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She won that battle, but it came at a price. She lost half her body weight during that battle. After overcoming cancer and finishing her recovery, Harris began the road to getting her body back into football shape.
“I think what kept me going mentally and physically was mainly my faith in God, and trusting that no matter what, I’ve gone through a lot of things before,” Harris said. “This was just one more milestone.”
Harris has received a lot of attention since announcing that she will attend CMU to play football. However, she was thrust into the spotlight long before that day. Since her appearance in that Toyota commercial that premiered during the Super Bowl, Harris has appeared on several news shows. Most recently, she completed a photoshoot for Nike.
“Things have been quick,” Harris said about all the appearances. “It’s overwhelming, but like I said, I’m just trying to keep things on the up and up and keep my faith in God that He will keep me going in the right direction and keep me going every day without being too overwhelmed.”
Feedback from the public nationwide has been largely positive. Users of various social media platforms have posted words of congratulations, encouragement, and support. However, social media sometimes has a tendency to bring out the worst in people.
Just another player
While this is viewed as a monumental event, Calloway and Parisi both made it clear that Harris won’t receive any special treatment. Calloway said he evaluated Harris the same as any other recruit. Parisi said that student athletes are expected to earn their respect, and to earn their share of playing time. Harris will receive the same treatment, he said.
Harris is scheduled to visit Fayette on March 15, and will attend Experience Central Day, held on campus March 16.
The next chapter of Harris’s football career, when she will step on a football field as an Eagle, will be in August, when all players arrive to campus for preseason camp. Potentially, a large media presence could gather at Davis Field around that time.
Parisi said the media is welcome, but the priority will be to maintain a safe environment for the football team while they practice. Calloway said he doesn’t expect a large media presence when camp begins. News works in cycles, he said, and while people are focused on Harris for now, the news cycle will focus on some other event in August.
The Eagles finished with a 4-6 record in 2018, with all four of those wins happening at Davis Field. The 2019 scheduled is yet to be released.
East Los Angeles College head football coach Bobby Godinez did not respond to request for comment.