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Alabama football: Before Harrison shined for Tide, he was a stellar kickboxer

January 7, 2018

ATLANTA — Nine-year-olds aren’t allowed in black belt camp because no nine-year-old is ever expected to attain kickboxing’s highest rank.

Years before ascending college football’s hierarchy, placing himself among the sport’s best defensive players and earning the sought-after title of the hardest hitter on an Alabama defense full of them, Ronnie Harrison defied logic.

As a six-year-old, Harrison — now Alabama’s leading tackler — was enrolled in kickboxing classes, his mother searching for any avenue to channel the aggression and anger her rambunctious boy exhibited.

“I used to be kind of mean or whatever,” Harrison said. “So, kickboxing was kind of my relief. I could go out there and take out all my anger and aggression. So it was just somewhere to channel it.”

Three years later, Harrison — now 9 — was a black belt.

“I got there too early,” Harrison said Saturday. “You had to be 12 to go to black belt camp. And I made black belt at 9. So I just stopped at 9.”

Harrison’s combative past is a secret of sorts. His position coach knew nothing of his martial arts background. Neither did Mack Wilson, the ferocious sophomore inside linebacker he’s taken under his wing.

“I could see that now, knowing that he did that,” Wilson said Saturday when told. “I didn’t know nothing about that.”

Last week’s trip to New Orleans was Harrison’s first since a youth kickboxing tournament. He broke up a pass and registered two tackles against Clemson while lending the sorely needed veteran presence alongside first-time starter Deionte Thompson.

“He’s probably one of the most important players on our defense — top two or three,” defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley said. “He brings stability to the back end, brings a presence, brings an edge.”

Football does not allow Harrison to punch, kick or strike any opponents. He swore Saturday he’s forgotten most of the technical aspects of the sport he dominated in his youth, but the mental state with which he approached each bout remains prevalent.

Harrison is innately ruthless, a man who was whistled for targeting in the Crimson Tide’s A-Day Spring Game in April — against his teammates. The docile tone with which he speaks and constant smile he flashes while in public disappears on the field.

“That’s the reason why he’s such a great player — the fact that he has the right mindset whenever he hits that field,” inside linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “I don’t know where that came from, but when he does hit that field he plays the game the way it needs to be played.”

Its origins can be traced to Harrison’s youth. Kickboxing afforded a path for him to become as physical as he desired throughout each bout or training session. Football requires the same mentality — without the striking, of course.

“I just try to take my anger or whatever I’m feeling inside and exert it on the field,” Harrison said. “Show it in how I play.”

Still, it must be tempered. Playing safety could require Harrison to sneak down into the box and snuff out a running back. On the next one, though, he could be needed in pass defense, where too much outward aggression on a receiver could draw a flag.

There’s also assuring it remains just on the field. During last season’s opener against USC, Harrison and former Tide defensive back Eddie Jackson had to be separated on the Alabama sideline after coach Nick Saban said Harrison was unable to shake some of the Trojans’ trash-talking.

“He’s definitely aggressive and he has to channel that the right way,” Ansley said. “But when he does, he’s a really good player, unless his emotions get the best of him and he loses focus a little bit.”

Discovering that balance is not simple. Ansley began recruiting Harrison when he was still Kentucky’s secondary coach. He discovered then a “mature” player who arrived in Tuscaloosa with the same needs as most incoming freshmen.

“Ronnie has really matured as a player — matured on the field and off the field — and I’ve seen a lot of growth in him just in this year,” defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said.

“When he gets going, he kind of gets going.”

In a junior season during which Ansley said the safety has “flat-lined” and “leveled out” Harrison’s vaulted up NFL Draft boards. WalterFootball.com ranks him the No. 4 safety prospect, two slots behind teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick.

“He’s done a great job this year of channeling that emotion and directing it to the people on the grass,” Ansley said.

It’s finishing what he began years ago, to people on the mat.