“A hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.”
When Batman uttered those words to police commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” it spoke to more than just Gordon’s comforting of Bruce Wayne as a young child. It spoke to the idea, demonstrated in full by Batman, that no extraordinary capabilities are necessary to be a hero.
Like Batman, Stanford football’s fifth-year senior cornerback Ronnie Harris carries no superpowers, but each day he strives to be the hero Stanford deserves – both literally and figuratively.
“Everything he wears is Batman,” said senior linebacker Blake Martinez. “I think he’s got a Batman girdle. If he could, he would have Batman pants and a jersey and everything. He’s crazy.”
“You go in his room and he’s got Batman stuff everywhere,” added senior center Graham Shuler. “He’ll tell you he’s the Batman.”
Though he was dubbed Batman by his teammates for his obsession with the superhero, Harris shares more similarities with the Dark Knight than first meet the eye.
“Batman really doesn’t have any superpowers, but he’s very aware of his surroundings, very aware of his body,” Harris said. “He knows how to take on evil. For me, evil is any other team we’re facing. I know I’m not the biggest guy, the strongest guy, the fastest guy, but I got a lot of utilities in my utility belt that I like to use sometimes. The Dark Knight. A lot of people don’t know about me so I like being in the shadows and making plays.”
This season, those utilities have been anywhere but in the shadows.
After losing five players with significant starting experience from last season with the departures of Alex Carter, Jordan Richards, Wayne Lyons, Kyle Olugbode and Zach Hoffpauir, Stanford essentially flashed the Bat-Signal to the skies in search of secondary help.
And Harris came to the rescue.
Harris has done more than his fair share in stepping up as a No. 1 corner for the defense, routinely matching up and succeeding against some of the best receivers in the country like JuJu Smith-Schuster of USC, Jordan Payton of UCLA and Gabe Marks of Washington State.
“I would say I’m a lot more comfortable this year,” Harris said. “The game’s slowing down tremendously for me. I’m trusting my feet. I feel like I’m at 100-percent body-wise. I’m just listening to my great defensive backs coach, Coach Akina. He drills me and drills me and drills me, it’s perfect.”
Thanks in large part to the play of Harris, who leads the Pac-12 with 10 pass breakups, Stanford has limited opposing quarterbacks to a pass efficiency rating of just 114.8, the second-best mark in the conference. Considering that Stanford’s opponents have mostly been trailing and needing to throw the ball so far this season, that’s no small feat.
“[Harris] has really delved into the fundamentals and techniques of the game but also the intellectual side of the game,” said defensive backs coach Duane Akina. “Understanding splits, understanding receiver tendencies, understanding down-and-distance tendencies, formation tendencies, just trying to play the percentages in the game to give him a little bit of a shortcut.
“He’s always had such great energy. Now he’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s really been playing well. I think it just kind of oozes into the rest of the team.”
Voted a team captain at the start of the year, Harris’ leadership has also been on full display this season, whether it’s breaking down the team huddles, leading the team’s “C-House” chants postgame, instructing a young secondary or leading by example in practices and team meetings.
“He asks everyone else to bring it all the time, but he does bring it every single day,” said fifth-year receiver Devon Cajuste. “He goes 100 percent every single day. Since he’s been out here – Coach Shaw can vouch for me, anyone can vouch for me – there’s not a day that he does not bring it.
“He leads by example and not just by voice. The fact that he is a combination of both, it’s something awesome.”
“He could have had one hour of sleep last night and he’s coming out here and giving it his all,” Martinez added. “That just kind of flows through every single person on the defense. We’re going to bring ourselves to that next level just because he doesn’t lower his standards ever.”
The stories of Harris’ leadership are practically endless.
He once made the required time on an offseason sprint despite starting from much farther away – he was getting water — because he was throwing up. He attends special teams’ meetings and answers the questions posed by the coaches despite not even playing on special teams this season. He screams and runs across the practice field to congratulate his young secondary counterparts when they make plays in practice. He’s referred to as “Coach Harris.” Of course, he’s also the one who convinced David Shaw into showing his emotions during games, a noted change for the usually stoic Shaw.
His teammates identify him as the “spark” of the team.
“There were plenty of times when I’ll come out here or a teammate will come out here having a bad day and Ronnie will just come over and yell, ‘Hey, hey it’s practice time right now, you can’t be sad! We only get to do this one time a day!’” Cajuste said. “Just something like that, very motivating, that just uplifts you and makes you remember that you can’t play this game forever. You only get one time during this day and it could be your last time.
“He’s a little fireball, I love it.”
On a team historically captained by behemoths like 6-foot-3, 245-pound Shayne Skov, 6-foot-5, 267-pound Trent Murphy, 6-foot-4, 240-pound Andrew Luck and more, it’s especially striking that the 5-foot-10, 172-pound Harris – the second smallest player on the team’s roster – has stepped into the lineage of Stanford leaders.
However, his dedication and attitude make it clear why he earned the captaincy.
“Now that he’s grown up a lot, when he speaks up, his teammates listen, they trust him, they follow him, they believe him,” added head coach David Shaw. “He’s got a skill. Part of it is just what you come with and it’s been nurtured and he’s done a phenomenal job with it. He’s one of those guys that whatever he does after he leaves here he’s going to be a leader.”
“Ronnie a lot of times is taking 19 or 20 units in the offseason, trying to catch up and stay on top of his school stuff,” Shuler said. “It’s just absolutely wild, to come out here with a guy like that who’s getting less sleep than everybody and is the one still standing, the one pushing people, the one holding everybody to the high standard. That’s Ronnie Harris and that’s always Ronnie Harris.”
Just as Batman believes that compassion is what separates him from his enemies, Harris spares no expense when it comes to caring for his teammates, whether it’s through encouragement, support or even cooking meals for teammates.
“Ronnie has been by my side through every family thing I’ve gone through, through everything,” Shuler said. “He’s just beyond a class-act guy. He sat there and cried with me and had his arm around me. I’ve had my rough patches in my development here. My sophomore year, another time, I was just having a really rough time. He put his arm around me. He just started talking to me and speaking life into me. That’s what Ronnie does. He just speaks life into me all the time, in ways I don’t even notice sometimes but in our everyday interactions.”
“He’s the most energetic, uplifting individual that we have on this field for sure,” Cajuste mentioned. “He’s a warm light that if you come around it’s always brightening up your day no matter what.”
“He’s Joe Cool. He’s like a big brother,” added sophomore cornerback Alijah Holder.
Palo Alto may not be Gotham and the “evil” Stanford faces differs greatly from the villains of superhero stories, but to his teammates and coaches, it’s clear who Ronnie Harris is: He’s the watchful guardian, the protector, the caretaker. The Batman.
“I don’t know all the stories behind that thing, but I’ll tell you it’s got something with being quick and intelligent and being able to take on as many guys as you need to and outsmart them and outleverage them and do all those different things you see Batman do. I’m cool to call him that,” Shuler said.