Going back a century or more just for the hey of it, it's easy to imagine Mark Harris as a Huck Finn type of kid, slingshot in his hip pocket, dragging a stick along a picket fence. An archetypal American kid, in other words.
"He's a farm kid from Brigham City, come on," Steve Young said of the Utah town named for his famous ancestor. "He probably grew up catching crawdads at Crystal Springs."Confirming the pastoral scenario, Harris himself said, "My wife mentions that. At home I like to just sit outside and chew on a blade of grass and watch the plants grow."
Harris has even had people around the league tell him he's a throwback player, even though he's a wide receiver on one of the most sophisticated offenses in the NFL.
"I'm not as in vogue as a receiver as I would have been 50 years ago," said Harris, the fourth (or fifth) receiver on a 49ers team loaded with such talent as Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes. "I've actually had coaches and personnel people in the NFL who played a long time ago tell me I would have been pretty great back then. It'd be fun to see how you would stack up. There weren't many Terrell Owenses running around 50 years ago."
Rising from the practice squad in 1996 to earn a roster spot last year, Harris is an unassuming 49er but not one without a sense of humor. Imaging yourself as Huck Finn circa 1880 requires a little self-deprecation, for example.
"He's loosened up after being around here for a couple years," receivers coach Larry Kirksey said. "He was real quiet when he first came here but being around these guys, especially T.O. (Owens), he's loosened up. He fits in. He's not very flashy but he makes plays."
When he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Barcelona in 1989-91, Harris had occasion to chase down a knife-wielding purse snatcher from behind and return the bag to its elderly owner. Several years later, he bragged of the incident to special teams coach George Stewart as proof of his ability to play on the kickoff team and pursue return men.
"I was just fast enough to catch the guy," Harris said. "That's functional speed."
Harris maintains his speed is adequate for football, that at 6-foot-4 he naturally does not look as fast as a shorter man. Through three exhibition games, Harris in fact has the 49ers' longest reception - 28 yards - and is tied with fellow reserve wideout Iheanyi Uwaezuoke with six catches. Uwaezuoke, the faster of the two, has one more receiving yard than Harris .
"Speed is completely a functional thing," Harris said. "I have enough speed to where I can get pen. It's amazing when I catch a deep ball - people say, `How'd that happen?' My speed is a little better than people think."
On a team with Rice, Owens and Stokes, Harris has to be content with his status as a niche guy, not that he is. Content, that is. He knows the responsibilities of every receiver in every formation and it's rare to see him drop a pass in practice.
Normally, Harris has flypaper for hands; everything sticks to them. But even the sturdiest fingers are no match for Druckenmiller's fireballs.
"Fundamentally, he's sound, and he's smart," Kirksey said. "He can play a lot of different spots for us."
That's where his Stanford education comes in. After enduring human neuropsychology ("That one always woke me up at night in a cold sweat") the 49ers' famously complex playbook appeared less than daunting.
"One of the most important things is I show up for work everyday," Harris said. "I'm not prone to injuries. I try to approach the game on a mental and intellectual level. I can play a lot of positions and float around. If coach Kirksey gets in a bind, he has a failsafe option in me. He told me from the beginning if I want to help myself, learn every route at every position. I have all the routes memorized."
Harris had a few opportunities last season with Rice out most of the year. Playing mostly in the three and four receiver sets, Harris had five catches for 53 yards. He will continue in that role Sunday at Candlestick when the 49ers play an exhibition against the Miami Dolphins.