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Former Homestead football stars Ben Gardner, Shelby Harris selected in NFL draft

Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders give opportunity to former Highlanders

Homestead football stars Ben Gardner (49, center) and Shelby Harris (right) were selected in the NFL draft.

Homestead football stars Ben Gardner (49, center) and Shelby Harris (right) were selected in the NFL draft. Photo By Morry Gash

May 14, 2014

Ben Gardner and Shelby Harris are getting a chance at the big time.

In a history-making event, the former Homestead Highlanders football stars were picked five selections apart in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders, respectively.

Veteran Highlanders coach Dave Keel had to rub his eyes because he couldn't believe what had happened.

"The Highlander football family is incredibly proud," said Keel. "Two kids grabbed in the NFL draft. That's pretty exciting."

The two were defensive line stalwarts on the 2008 Homestead defense that didn't get as much respect as it should have. Arrowhead certainly underestimated it in the state title game, as Gardner, Harris and company held the high-scoring Warhawks well under their season average in a 13-11 victory, the third of four such state titles Homestead has won on Keel's watch.

Harris had been the state's defensive player of the year his junior year, and Gardner was the North Shore Conference defensive player of the year his senior year.

As expected, Harris got a scholarship to Wisconsin and through a long celebrated story involving Jack and Jim Harbaugh (the current San Francisco 49ers coach and then Stanford coach), Gardner grabbed one of the last scholarships to Stanford.

Separate collegiate ways

There, their stories diverge. Harris had a hard time adapting to college life and had to leave the Wisconsin team. He went to Illinois State, thrived for a couple of years (earning All-Missouri Valley Conference honors) but then was asked to leave that team, too. He has been training on his own for about a year.

In the meantime, Gardner made himself a defensive star for excellent Stanford teams. He was projected to go higher in the draft, but a torn pectoral muscle cost him about half of his senior season.

But both stayed on NFL radars and remained on the Highlanders family wavelength.

"I did have a chance to speak with Shelby, and he's honored to have this opportunity," Keel said. "I really think he's beginning a new chapter for himself, and Ben is very excited. He talked to Fritz (defensive coordinator Rauch) and texted me and said 'The work is only beginning.'"

Keel said, when looking at their high school backgrounds, it is remarkable how both players advanced this far.

"Ben as a sophomore was a little hard to hard to like, he was kind of a snot, but he continued to work hard," said Keel. "He was a linebacker as a sophomore and put on 30 pounds between his junior and senior years (to get to around 225) and then he had a great senior year.

"And I remember, Jack Harbaugh (father of Jim and fellow NFL coach John Harbaugh) had spoken to us at clinics (Jack was working with Marquette University at the time) and he was always bugging me to get a kid of ours to Stanford (where Jim was) and now the rest is history.

"Ben is now a solid young man. He's graduated from Stanford and he's earned a place in the graduate school already. To do that at Stanford is amazing. He's heading towards success."

Success for Shelby?

Which Keel hopes can be Harris' road, too.

"Shelby came from the Chapter 220 program as a sophomore, he was promoted from the junior varsity his sophomore year and then he just exploded onto the scene his junior year," said Keel. "He had tough times at Wisconsin and more tough times at Illinois State, but I also had a talk with his coach at Illinois State and we both believe that he's getting to where he has to be."

Both will be in NFL camps this summer, which is a pretty good place to be at this time. As low draft choices, their odds of making the final rosters are long, but at least they have a chance.

And they both have Highlanders blood in them. Let's see where it takes them.

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