After learning of his first two picks in the Madison County Youth Football League draft, Neil Burns heard the other coaches in the room buzzing. He didn’t know why.
Burns had landed a running back, Damien Harris, with his first selection and a quarterback, Jarrett Stidham, with his second.
“I had no idea who they even were,” Burns acknowledged.
The league had held a tryout session at which the players could show off their skills in a mini combine of sorts, but Burns wasn’t able to attend. That didn’t really matter, though, because the teams were constructed at random.
When Burns scored the tandem of Harris and Stidham, however, opposing coaches began to wonder whether he had rigged the process. How else could he have ended up with the two best prospects back to back.
“All the other coaches, they made funny faces,” Burns said. “People thought we cheated to get them in the draft. It was just the luck of the draw.”
Burns, then an assistant, relayed the news to his head coach, Mike Goggins, who immediately grinned. Goggins had attended the tryouts, where he quickly identified Harris and Stidham as kids with high potential.
“When I saw Damien run, I was like, ‘I want that kid,’” Goggins said. “Then I saw Jarrett throw the ball, and I was like, ‘If I can get those two, we’ll have a really good team.’”
It didn’t take long for Burns to recognize their talent, too.
“After the first day of practice," Burns said, "I was like, ‘Oh, now I get it.'”
About 15 years ago, long before they became Patriots teammates, Harris and Stidham were second-graders on the same Kentucky youth team, the 49ers. The season marked their first taste of tackle football, as well as the beginnings of a special friendship.
Even at 8 years old, the pair stood out. Harris was the fastest player on the team, boasting a long stride, tremendous field vision, and an ability to make sharp cuts. Stidham, meanwhile, could already throw a tight spiral — with accuracy — 20-30 yards, Burns estimated.
“For an 8-year-old, that’s crazy,” said Burns.
The transition from flag to tackle football was essentially seamless for Stidham. According to his coaches, he loved any practices that involved contact, even when initiated by Keonta Goggins, the coach’s son who was known for levying strong hits.
“There were times where I would absolutely kill him,” recalled Keonta. “I’d be hurting and Jarrett would be like, ‘Let’s do that again. Let’s do that again.’”
Added Burns: “Jarrett really loved to hit. That’s strange for a quarterback.”
Because the team only had 14 players, nearly everyone had to play both sides of the ball, which meant Stidham also logged reps at defensive back. The coaching staff often tried to keep him sidelined during tackling exercises, but Stidham regularly expressed an eagerness to participate.
Quarterback was Stidham’s primary role, though. He typically showed up to practice early in order to engage in extra passing and handoff drills. He constantly wanted to learn, Mike Goggins said, and would sometimes even approach the coaching staff with ideas for plays.
His proficiency impressed the coaches.
“Jarrett was always lining people up if they got in the wrong position,” said Mike Goggins. “Like, ‘Oh, you need to be over here, you need to do this, and you need to do that.’ ”
Harris demonstrated an equally strong understanding of the game. He just wasn’t interested in putting it to use. For a short period, all Harris wanted to do was sit on the bench and drink water. He, unlike Stidham, was not a fan of getting hit.
“Damien, he was a little soft,” Keonta Goggins said with a laugh. “He didn’t know what he was capable of at that age.”
Harris needed a push. He got one from his mother, who gave him a stern pep talk after watching him sit on the bench long enough, and from Keonta Goggins, who hit him one day in practice so hard that he felt the need to stand up for himself.
“Damien told him, ‘That’s the last time you’ll be able to hit me like that because you’re not going to be able to catch me now,’ ” recalled Mike Goggins.
There was one last obstacle in acclimating Harris to tackle football: He did not like his helmet. It was too tight, he complained, to the point where Mike Goggins went out and purchased him a new one.
“I told him, ‘No more about the helmet. You’re either going to be a football player or you’re not going to be a football player,' " said Mike Goggins. "After that, he became a football player.”
With Harris and Stidham leading the way, the 49ers put together an undefeated season. The team didn’t record official stats, in an effort to deter kids from focusing on individual production, though Harris and Stidham certainly racked up considerable yardage.
“Damien, he’d have an 80-yard run and it might get called back,” Mike Goggins recalled. “Two plays later, he’s got another 80-yard run. You’d be like, ‘Dang! That got called back.’ But then, you’d be like, ‘Well, there he goes again.’”
During games, the duo — particularly Harris — was the talk of the stands. Byron Smoot, who ended up coaching Harris at Madison Southern High School, still remembers the chatter while watching a 49ers game one Saturday morning.
“They’re talking up which kid is going to be good, which kid is not going to be good, which kid is going to sit over here and cry on the bench all day,” Smoot said. "At that level, usually, you’ve got a lot of what I call butterfly watchers. They’ll line up, but then they’re staring around and watching butterflies fly on the field. They’re not doing what they’re supposed to do.
“When Damien got in, he definitely garnered your attention and did what he was supposed to do.”
The season culminated with a Super Bowl victory. Although Harris woke up with a 104-degree fever that day, it didn’t stop him from playing — and returning the opening kickoff for a 103-yard touchdown. Moments later, after drinking Pedialyte on the sideline, Harris recovered a fumble and ran it back for another touchdown. He finished with four or five rushing touchdowns, according to Keonta Goggins, while Stidham threw for at least 200 yards.
Throughout the season, the two also had their share of fun. They led the team in song, marching around the field while shouting, “We are the 49ers, the mighty, mighty 49ers,” a riff off the chant from the classic film, “Remember the Titans.”
“All the other kids would follow right in behind them,” Burns said.
The team also got a kick out of a trick play Stidham designed: The 49ers would execute a silent snap count, except once the ball was in Stidham’s hands, he’d act like it was the wrong ball. Stidham would then walk over to the sideline, as if he intended on conferring with the coaches. Once he got over far enough, eyeing an open lane, he’d take off running.
“It was crazy how many teams we got on that play,” Keonta Goggins said. “It was pretty funny.”
Even though they goofed off, Harris and Stidham knew when it was time to pay attention.
“We would go to some of the high school games and tell the kids to sit down and watch football,” recalled Mike Goggins. “A lot of them wanted to run around, and them two were just sitting there, studying the running back position and the quarterback position.”
Their partnership suddenly came to an end, when Stidham moved to Texas the following year. But their football paths would cross again at the Under Armour All-America Game their senior year of high school, and at the Iron Bowl — twice — in college.
Then, last April, the Patriots drafted Harris in the third round and Stidham in the fourth, reuniting the duo in New England. The two FaceTimed that evening.
“We just shared the moment,” Harris said last year. “It’s crazy. We were kids that started playing together when we were 8 years old and we just got drafted by the same NFL team.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.