BILLINGS -- Most people in Montana know Tuff Harris the athlete.

Hardcore fans are aware he was a standout track and field athlete before graduating from Colstrip in 2002. Those who follow football know he was recruited to Montana to run on the Grizzlies track and field team before walking onto the football team. He eventually earned a partial scholarship and was a four-year starter at cornerback.

Harris played in the NFL as a defensive back/punt returner, signing as an undrafted free agent with the Miami Dolphins in 2007.

"Utility, wherever they needed me," said Harris on Saturday night at the Montana AAU Little Sullivan Banquet at the Big Horn Resort in Billings, of his time in the NFL.

The 2007 Montana graduate — Harris earned a bachelor's degree in sociology — spent four years in the NFL with the Dolphins, Saints, Titans and Steelers. True followers of Harris' career know he then wound up in the CFL with Edmonton.

Overall, he was a pro football player for five years. Not too shabby for a kid from Montana. Harris, 34, is of Crow and Northern Cheyenne descent and spent time growing up in both Saint Xavier and Lodge Grass.

For many fans, the story probably stops there. But in fact, the tale has just begun.

Retired from football since 2012 and living in Billings, Harris is married with three children. He is a part-time pastor at Faith Chapel and has his pastoral license. He is also the founder and director of the nonprofit One Heart Warriors.

Harris said the One Heart Warriors is "a leadership development program for Native Americans. We focus on five areas — physical, spiritual, mental, relational and financial. Those five areas, being from the reservation, or anywhere, are foundations for any individual. We help individuals get to the place they are looking for."

One Heart Warriors began in 2014, said Harris. There is a resident program, based out of Faith Chapel, which can serve eight individuals at a time. Those in the residential program start their daily activities at 5 a.m. six days a week. The program lasts six months, although it can last up to a year.

"I designed it around football training camp, which really helped me," Harris said.

One Heart Warriors also offers shorter sessions that last two months, and to date, nine of those have been completed, said Harris. One of the focuses of the program is to build confidence in individuals and help them in their leadership and public speaking skills. Harris said, "We help them break out of their shell. A lot of Natives are naturally shy."

There is also a program that supports young women on the reservation, including mothers and wives. Harris said there is a chain reaction that starts with helping one person better themselves.

"If you can change an individual, you can change a family," he said. "And then a group of families change a region and a state. One individual affected can help an entire community. We go after individuals who need assistance."

That's what Tuff Harris the person is all about.

Harris said it was an honor to speak to members of the AAU and those nominated for and receiving awards Saturday.

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"I was an AAU participant when I was younger and know how big the organization is," Harris said. "It is a no-brainer to give back to what gave to me as a child."

Harris said he would speak about "leadership and inspiration and hopefully it is relatable. I knew it would be parents and coaches as opposed to kids, but hopefully it's for everybody."

While speaking to those gathered Saturday, Harris shared a message with the athletes, parents, coaches and volunteers in attendance. He said an important part of life was to thank those who have had an influence on your journey and advised those nominated for and receiving awards that "sometimes you need to slow down and capture those milestones."

He also spoke of "secrets" to help one in coaching, their career, or teaching. The first secret was to "relax," which brings confidence and in turn leads to more time to practice and prepare. He said in all walks of life "there is always deadlines or pressure," which leads to the second secret: to "refocus."

Harris used a slingshot analogy to describe "refocusing" and said setbacks can "launch you further into a better future."

The third secret, or step, was "resurgence." He said when one encounters a major setback what they do to overcome it is the crucial part. He used this year's NFL championship game where the New England Patriots overcame a 25-point third-quarter deficit on their way to a stirring 34-28 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons as a reference, saying, "One of the greatest resurgences in Super Bowl history was this year."

The "secrets" helped Harris emerge from "humble beginnings."

"I remember feeling small-town nowhere and trying to compete with these larger school, Billings, Butte and Bozeman."

Harris more than competed.


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