‘The cool uncle’: How ESPN’s Ryan Clark has inspired Alabama linebacker Christian Harris

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

No matter which big Ryan Clark hit Alabama football linebacker Christian Harris saw on video, he often reacted the same way.

“That’s crazy.”

Harris would watch Clark’s highlights at times with the safety’s son, Jordan Clark, while the two friends lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Harris specifically remembers the time Clark leveled New England receiver Wes Welker with his shoulder.

“He has so many crazy hits,” Harris said. “That’s the type of stuff I like to see.”

Harris said he hasn’t seen anyone play like Clark, whose alma mater, LSU (4-4, 2-3 SEC), faces Harris' No. 3 Crimson Tide (7-1, 4-1) at 6 p.m. on Saturday on ESPN. 

Anyone can watch highlights of Clark, but Harris also got to know Clark personally. And through the process, Clark became someone who inspired Harris in both football and in what he aspires to become in his post-football profession: working as an analyst for ESPN.

“He’s always been more of like an uncle for me,” Harris said. “He’s definitely a guy I look at as a role model in my life for the things I want to do and accomplish.”

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Harris got to know Jordan Clark, now a defensive back at Arizona State, first through AAU basketball. When Jordan came to his high school in ninth grade, Harris said they developed a brotherhood.

The families also bonded, Ryan Clark said. Part of that stemmed from him training Harris’ older brother, Tylor Harris, who played football for Wake Forest before spending time in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks.

And sometimes little brother would tag along.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark laughs during a live taping of ESPN's "First Take" at Florida A&M University's new Will Packer Performing Arts Amphitheater as part of the school's homecoming festivities Friday, Oct. 29, 2021.

When Harris and Clark have worked together through the years at Traction Sports Performance, their focus has been primarily on skills and elements such as footwork and understanding drops.

Harris impressed Clark from an early age, especially in the way he managed to play corner and receiver, then move to H-back and still play corner as well as be a returner.

“Christian was an alien,” Clark said.  

Since leaving Baton Rouge to come to Alabama, Harris has impressed Clark even more. Clark expected Harris to need time to adjust to playing linebacker in college because he was primarily a perimeter player. So when Harris started as a freshman and played well, Clark was shocked.

“It takes a certain physicality, mental toughness and also intelligence to play linebacker at Alabama for Nick Saban,” Clark said. “I know the type of pressure that is. I was very proud to see Christian adjust so quickly, become a leader on that defense and play so well.”

Clark knows that pressure well because he played for Saban at LSU.

Does Clark give Harris any advice on working with Saban? Not so much. Clark said Harris has good people in his corner like his parents and brother to provide council.

“I just sit on the outside and be the cool uncle,” Clark said.

Cool certainly applies, considering Clark had a 13-year NFL career with the Steelers, Giants and Washington Football Team. He also won a Super Bowl and two AFC championships.

“Knowing that he played with (Hall of Famer) Troy Polamalu,” Harris said, “I think that’s pretty lit.”

Harris also plans to pursue the NFL, and he’s got a good shot at it. He was recently named one of 16 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker. He’s also the No. 3 inside linebacker on Mel Kiper’s most recent 2022 NFL draft player rankings.

“It’s been awesome to watch his progression and just (feel) pride when you look at a Todd McShay board or a Mel Kiper board and you see Christian’s name so high on that,” Clark said.

But whenever the day comes that football ends for Harris, he wants to follow in Uncle Ryan’s footsteps into the broadcasting world. Harris is pursuing a news media degree at UA.

“To see how well he does with that, it kind of motivated me to want to do the same thing,” Harris said.

Clark motivated him even when Clark wasn’t there.

During the time Tylor Harris was training with Clark ahead of the NFL Combine years ago, the schedule usually looked something like this: Mondays and Tuesdays with Clark and Wednesdays with a different trainer. And as Tylor Harris worked out those Wednesdays, he would see Clark on ESPN.

And so would his little brother.

“It was the craziest thing,” Tylor Harris said. “I’m sitting here working, and I’m looking at the TV and Ryan is just sitting there talking about football. I’m like, ‘I’m going to see you Friday when you’re coming back to torture me again.’ I think Christian saw that connection and was like, ‘Hey, you can do a lot more than just football.”

Reach Alabama football reporter Nick Kelly: Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly