Long ago, Kelvin Harmon learned that chasing greatness can be lonely.
Few people want to stay on the turf after an exhausting practice and run routes long into the night. Few people want to work on a JUGs machine until they can’t feel their fingers, catching as many as 600 balls in a 24-hour span. Few people do these things, because few people want to be great as badly as Kelvin Harmon does.
Dantonio Burnette, NC State’s Director of Strength & Conditioning, describes Harmon as mercilessly motivated. “That kid will play in the NFL for a long time, just because his maturity, his professionalism, and he would not allow anyone to outwork him. He may be the hardest working kid I’ve ever had in the program, to be honest, him and Bradley Chubb, two of the same guys. They work and work and work. Not gonna allow anyone to outwork them,” Burnette says.
The results speak volumes. After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at NC State, Harmon is considered one of the top receiver prospects in this year’s NFL Draft. Thousands of hours of training have created hands reminiscent of Venus flytraps—or perhaps Piranha Plants, the larger, more aggressive take on the species portrayed in Nintendo’s Super Mario series, are the more apt comparison. He snatches footballs with a sense of entitlement, and he’s got the athleticism to disintegrate defenses in every dimension. Joe Marino of The Draft Network writes that “for a team primed to invest a high selection in a true alpha go-to guy, Harmon is that dude.”
In the case of Harmon, the 221-pound specimen you see today has been years in the making. His family fled from war-torn Liberia when he was still a toddler, eventually settling in Palmyra, New Jersey. Kelvin’s father, Henry, spent many of his waking hours toiling in a warehouse to provide for his family.
“I had to work for everything I got,” Harmon says. “I had that mindset at an early age because of my dad. He showed us what we’re supposed to do. Always instilling in our head that if you work for something, if you put your mind to it, you can achieve it. He led by example. He worked six out of seven days a week at (an) Ikea warehouse, nine-hour shifts every day just to help put food on the table for us.”
Harmon got into organized sports late. It was only at age 13, after a long of reign of terror over recess pick-up games, that his friends were able to convince him to come out for the school football team. “I had great hands. I picked everything off, caught all the touchdowns, tackled all the kids,” Harmon recalls of his pick-up days. But when he actually buckled up a chinstrap, the experience was a bit alien. It also came during that early-teen growth spurt when many kids find their coordination’s suddenly gone haywire.
“I envisioned playing football like Madden, but it wasn’t really like that. And I wasn’t really coordinated, so I had to work for everything,” Harmon says.
Despite the initial growing pains, Palmyra High School’s relatively small enrollment (there are fewer than 400 total students in grades 9-12) helped him earn varsity snaps as a freshman, which he parlayed into 358 receiving yards and four touchdowns. His comfort level increased and he began flashing signs of dominance during his sophomore season, which is when he began pondering just how far the game could take him.
“(After) my sophomore season, there was an event in January called the Beast of the East. When I went, there was all the guys from south jersey, all the top guys, like four-star recruits, and I just outshined everybody. I was like ‘They got all these college looks, look at me,’” Harmon says. “(But) I wasn’t really sure of how (recruiting) worked or what it took.”
Perplexed by the recruiting process, Harmon picked up the phone to call Brian Dohn, a 247Sports analyst he was acquainted with in the area. Kelvin had one question—did he have what it takes to play D1 football? Dohn, who’d witnessed his eye-popping Beast of the East performance first-hand, told him he had little doubt if he continued to work hard. That wasn’t going to be a problem for Harmon.
When the snow melted around his modest family home, he ran agility drills in his front yard. He hit a local park to run routes against whomever was willing to line up against him. After long shifts working at McDonald’s, he strengthened his grip by submerging his mitts in a bucket filled with rice and rapidly balling his fists. “I did the Rice Drill every night. Try to do different variations of it just to get my hands moving and my forearms stronger as well, and I think that helped with my grip strength,” Harmon says. Even now, on the precipice of a multi-million dollar payday, Harmon continues this nightly ritual.
Track also played a crucial role in increasing Harmon’s top-end speed and endurance. He was especially fond of the 400-meter dash, a grueling event that’s known as much a test of mental fortitude as it is athleticism. His PR of 49.26 remains a Palmyra school record. As a relative unknown in the football recruiting world, Harmon would toast cornerbacks during camps or 7-on-7s, only for them to later tweet at him their long list of offers. The fire grew hotter.
By the spring of Harmon’s junior year, colleges had taken notice of the lanky playmaker at Palmyra. Offers from West Virginia, Boston College, UNC, South Carolina and NC State poured in. In Harmon’s final high school season, he totaled 1,111 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. He eventually committed to NC State, a program that had not had an 1,000-yard receiver in a season since 2003. That would soon change.
Part of Harmon’s decision to attend NC State was the competition—in the Atlantic Division of the ACC, he’d have the chance to match up against Clemson and Florida State every season. From the moment he arrived in Raleigh, Harmon was viewed as a culture changer. “When he stepped on campus, he was already one of the hardest workers on the team,” Burnette says.
Coaches took notice of the fact he stayed after practice and workouts to put in extra work—something few freshmen have the will or endurance for. Coming to college at under 200 pounds, Harmon was slender, and his technique needed refinement, but he was a terror on jump balls and a voracious student of his position.
In his fourth collegiate game, Harmon and the Wolfpack nearly upset Clemson on the road. The Tigers were the No. 3-ranked team in the country at the time, and they would later win the National Championship that same season. Yet Harmon, whose contributions included a highlight-reel catch right in front of the Clemson bench, never felt overmatched.
“I had a pretty good game…And I was like ‘Wow, you’re doing this against Clemson.’ That’s when it hit me that I could really do something special,” Harmon recalls.
He was soon living inside the film room and scheduling late-night dates with the JUGs Machine. He set a school record for touchdown receptions by a freshman with five and won the team’s Freshman of the Year award. Such quick success can often go to a player’s head, but Harmon’s mindset did not waver.
In the offseason, he caught a palm-numbing 400-600 balls a day. Steph Louis, who was a redshirt sophomore at the time Harmon was a freshman, became something of a mentor to him.
“Steph Louis, he was kinda like my big brother at school. Every time we were catching the JUGS, we’d compete. Who can catch more one-hands this way, who can catch more one-hands that way. (And I’ve) just kept working on it. Because you never know what point during the game you’ll have to catch a ball like that,” Harmon says.
Harmon worked with Burnette to streamline his running mechanics and find an extra gear. “(When he first got here), whenever he would sprint, instead of having his elbows at 90 degrees, his arms were straight. And a lot of times when he ran, his arms would cross his midline,” Burnette recalls. “From year one to year two, it was amazing to see how much better of a sprinter and runner he was. He was so much more fluid.”
In year two, Harmon pulled down 69 receptions for 1,017 yards en route to second-team All-ACC honors. The last time an NC State receiver had posted an 1,000-yard season, Harmon was 6. The grind only intensified. Burnette eventually had to pull the reins back, demanding Harmon promise Sundays would be a mandatory recovery day with minimal activity. “He was in the building every single day. Working with strength coaches, doing extra flexibility stuff, extra mobility, he always did his recovery, he was always in the cold tub,” Burnette says. “Then he was back at the building catching balls. I think he would catch anywhere from 400 to 600 balls a day.”
By the start of his junior campaign, Harmon was 217 pounds of pure muscle. His football IQ and route running had greatly evolved since he first arrived in Raleigh, and his mental fortitude had become impregnable. “Coach Thunder [Burnette’s nickname] really helped develop my mindset. I always had the work ethic, but he just helped me see things differently,” Harmon says. “He helped me shift my mindset and act like a professional more and just have that dog mentality to go get it.”
The night before games, Harmon likes to watch videos of Muhammad Ali. His swaggering speeches help Harmon tap into an extra level of inspiration before battle. Before kick-off, he reads a few chapters from Psalms (23, 35, 27 and 91 are favorites). The ancient words of faith help him ascend to a place without fear. “Right before we go out, I read about five scriptures to help me out,” Harmon says. “I can always rely on my faith…I think my faith is where my confidence comes from.”
Despite an influx in attention from opposing defenses, Harmon had a monster junior season. In one game against Syracuse, he went off for 11 receptions, 247 yards and two touchdowns. NC State quarterback Ryan Finley had zero reservations throwing 50-50 balls Harmon’s way, because with his guy in the fold, the odds were more 90-10. All told, Harmon’s 1,186 receiving yards on the season were the most of any ACC player:
STACK caught up with Harmon while he was preparing for the draft process at Mamba Sports Academy in Thousands Oaks, California. He seemed incapable of fatigue during workouts, and seemed to be squeezing in extra reps at every opportunity. He could often be found in front of the facility’s JUGs machine, continuing his habit of practicing stupefying catches so many times in a row they’d eventually solidify as fundamental.
Mamba staff raved about Harmon’s work habits and attention to detail, claiming he’s got the habits and demeanor of a player who can play in the NFL well into his 30s, while Burnette calls Harmon a “walking billboard” for NC State’s program. Harmon firmly believes he’s the best receiver in the draft, a conviction created by thousands of hours of preparation. When asked for analogues to his game, he rattles off a list of megastars.
“Right now, I think my game is very similar to Michael Thomas. I watch a lot of him, DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, those type of guys,” Harmon says. “Being great in the NFL, leaving my mark, all that motivates me.”
Other than spending time with family, Harmon has trouble naming a hobby outside of football. When asked how he’s been able to maintain such intense focus for such a long period of time, he says he’s never been afraid to chart his own path.
“I think just me knowing my goal and knowing what I had to do and getting comfortable with that (has) really helped me,” Harmon told STACK. “Being comfortable with myself—not needing to be around people to be happy—I think that saved me from a lot as far as going with the wrong crowd, going out a lot, being in the wrong situation at the wrong time.”
Harmon might’ve left NC State as the alpha, but once he enters the NFL, he will be low man on the totem pole once again. Respect will have to be earned one catch, one rep and one decision at a time. He’s eager to get started. “Football is a huge opportunity…to come in as a freshman or a rookie and be zero, and work your way up to be top dog, all-pro, all-conference,” Harmon says. “I like how it’s a stepping stone for you to work hard and earn everything.”
Photo Credit: William Howard/Getty Images