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Prep Football: Harper Leaps Life's Troubles To Star At Prairie

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa It's the centerpiece of his recruiting video. It'd be the centerpiece of anyone's recruiting video.

Demetrius Harper fielded a kickoff in a season-opening football game against Cedar Rapids Kennedy in late August. Unable to find room in the middle of the field, he did a full circle, then another.

Finally the Cedar Rapids Prairie senior wide receiver found daylight down the sideline and sprinted away from defenders for a touchdown that had to be seen to be believed.

"Twenty eight," Harper said with a smile, when asked how many times he has watched a replay of the magical return. "I didn't realize how many times I actually went in a circle."

Funny how sports imitate life. That kickoff return really is Demetrius Harper.

He's had to circle sometimes in his 17 years but somehow has found his way.

"He's got a personality that can light up a room," Prairie Athletics Director Rocky Bennett said. "He is an absolutely amazing kid to talk to one-on-one."

"You know, for him to get to the point where he's at now," Prairie football coach Mike Morrissey said. "That's a positive."

More than you know since life has never been easy for Demetrius Harper.

He was born in Little Rock, Ark., to a mother who was 16. He lived with his father the first 10 years of his life but moved with his mom (on his 10th birthday) to Cedar Rapids, where she had family.

"We wanted a better life," Maggie Cross said.

Cross regularly worked two full-time jobs to try and support herself and her son. Demetrius was left at home alone a lot of the time.

As a stranger in a strange city, he sometimes acted out in school and found trouble. He was expelled from McKinley Middle School in Cedar Rapids as a seventh-grader, which led mom to sit him down and lay it all out.

Your life can go this direction or that direction, she told him. There always has been some head-butting between the two because they have alike personalities, but this time, son listened to mom.

"He hasn't had any problems like that since," she said. "Some of the people he grew up with quit school, got into trouble. Some are in jail. For him to take the path he has is a blessing, really."

Harper has a lot of people to thank for that. He transferred into the Prairie school district and found friends and sports (football, basketball and track).

His teachers, coaches and others began looking out for him. There's a long, long list there.

"A village raising a child is a great phrase to use in this case," Bennett said.

Bennett is definitely on the "list." People like Prairie basketball coach James Moses and Nick Proud, Harper's middle-school principal, are there, too.

Toward the very top is Kenyon Murray. The former Iowa Hawkeyes basketball player was Harper's hoops coach as a freshman.

The two have developed a special bond, even though they didn't exactly hit it off immediately.

"He didn't like me," Murray said. "He thought I was a jerk. He kept looking at his feet when he would talk to me, and I told him he had to respect people enough to look them in the eye when speaking to them. He laughs about it now, but he really did think I was a jerk."

Murray quickly became a mentor for Harper, whose stepfather is serving time in prison. Cross has two other young sons: Kamel 4 and Wafiq 2.

"It's been a struggle," she said.

Harper lived with the family of good friend Tom Frieden last year, but Frieden graduated, so Murray asked Cross if she minded if he moved in with him and his wife, Michelle, this school year.

The Murrays already have 12-year-old twin sons and a 6-year-old daughter, so this was definitely making a commitment.

"There was never a question about whether we should do this," Murray said. "It was more about how would it work?"

How it has worked is terrifically, according to everyone. Harper has a family he can sit down and eat supper with every night, people he can open up to about his feelings and frustrations.

Quick with a smile, well-spoken and pleasant to talk to, he always has kept some things bottled up.

"Sometimes it's been tough, not being around my brothers and my mom a lot," Harper said. "But she wanted what was best for me, and what was best for me was to go live with the Murrays. It's worked out for the best."

Kenyon Murray has stressed academics with Harper, setting him up with tutors and other help in order to strengthen his grades and allow him to get a good score on the ACT. College football definitely is in his future.

Iowa has shown interest, Harper said, as has Division II Upper Iowa. Morrissey (a UIU grad) took him to a game in Fayette last weekend on a pseudo-recruiting visit.

"I'm just looking to see where I get the (best) scholarship," Harper said.

Cross said it has always been her dream to see her son to go to college. She's proud of the hurdles he has jumped in life and the young man he has become.

"He could have gone a million different ways," she said.

Actually, everyone at Prairie is proud of the young man Demetrius Harper has become.

"I know he had to grow up pretty fast," Proud said. "To see where he is at now ... He has become a very polished young man. We're proud of him."

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