SAN ANTONIO – Frank Harris’ signature smile disappeared for weeks, maybe months, as UTSA's star quarterback struggled through four surgeries on his left knee from January to April.
What started as a routine scope to clean out scar tissue from three previous surgeries on the same knee spiraled into an infection that nearly cost Harris more than his football career.
By March, the most decorated QB in program history thought his football career was over. He didn’t throw a pass from January to July as he recovered from procedure after procedure. He attended UTSA spring practices in a wheelchair and says he was in tears from the pain most days from February to April.
“The doctor told me, ‘If worse comes to worst, it won’t end well for you and you might lose your leg,’” Harris remembered. “I told the coaches that I was medically retiring from football. I didn’t want to play no more. I wasn’t even worried about football – I couldn’t even walk.”
The pain was obvious during the 2022 season. The UTSA training staff even suggested doing the cleanup during the open week between games against North Texas and UAB, but Harris elected to wait until after the season. His first surgery of 2023 took place around Martin Luther King Day. He still felt pain afterward so the doctors brought Harris back into the operating room weeks later to put a cement filling into the screw hole where his ACL used to be.
And that’s when it got bad.
Communication issues with antibiotics following the second procedure led to an undiagnosed infection in his left knee that left Harris in tears and his playing days in jeopardy. Harris’ parents – Darrell and Tulita – arrived at his house in March to check on their son, who was complaining about severe pain in his leg despite the two surgeries. Harris couldn’t walk and was still on pain medication – a rarity following surgeries for Harris.
His parents knew something wasn’t right and took him to the emergency room where a sample was taken from his leg. Darrell Harris remembers the vile smell of that sample. He immediately knew something was seriously wrong. The doctors decided to flush the knee and brought in an infectious disease doctor to do more tests.
“I’m thinking the worst,” Darrel recalled. “Could it be cancer? Could it sepsis? MRSA? What could it be to be making it this bad? So, at that time, him coming back to play football was the last thing on my mind. My primary concern was getting him back healthy enough to just walk, because he couldn’t even walk.”
The journey still wasn’t over.
A week later, Harris’ leg locked up and he was forced to get sedated so the doctors could perform a “manipulation” to break up the scar tissue and restore movement in his knee. But that was another futile attempt that only offered a few days’ worth of relief. Harris calls it the lowest moment of his life. Usually the happiest person in any room, Harris was in a dark place. He has daily notes from his phone from back in March and April that remind him of that state of mind.
“Everyone was worried. They’d never seen me like that before – mom, coach, teammates," Harris said. "I hadn’t seen myself like that before. I’m crying every day in the training room. I was in so much pain. I’m usually a happy person. During that time, it was dark. I was not happy at all. I just knew that I couldn’t keep living that way. I was ready to move on with my life.”
He needed a miracle if he wanted to lace up again ... and then a miracle happened. A moment of magic, which he normally produced on the football field, was transpiring in the doctor's office when he needed it most. It was the type of comeback Harris pulled against both Memphis and Western Kentucky in 2021, or North Texas in 2022, only in a different mold.
A new UTSA surgeon – Dr. Thomas DeBerardino – saw Harris’ struggles and came up with a solution. He talked Harris into one more surgery, this time in late April. Harris agreed to one more attempt at clearing out the scar tissue, and this time it worked. He began to rehab in May and his progress in June provided hope to UTSA that its star player was returning.
“If it hadn’t gotten better in June, I would’ve said it was done,” Roadrunners head coach Jeff Traylor said about Harris' progress.. “It was nothing but bad news until then.”
By July, Harris was back throwing. By August, he was a full participant at UTSA practices. He expects to be fully healthy when the Roadrunners travel to Houston to play the Cougars in Week 1.
“I’ll be the happiest guy in the stadium when we play Houston,” Harris said.
Harris always cherished the football field due to his earlier struggles through injury, but the last seven months provided a fresh perspective. Harris, who might be the most recognizable athlete in San Antonio history that isn’t a Spurs legend, knows this is his last ride.
“It was a long journey in the offseason," he said. "It was a long process. It was probably the darkest part of my life. But it made me a better person. A more grateful person, so it was a blessing.”
Harris is no stranger to the operating room nor physical rehab and recovery. He had three previous surgeries on his left knee, as well as two on his right knee and a shoulder surgery prior to the 2023 fiasco. He first hurt his knee as a senior at nearby Clemens High School that cut his final year short. He was forced to redshirt in 2017 and 2018 due to injuries at UTSA. Then he started the first four games in 2019 before suffering another season-ending injury to the same knee.
This wasn't the first time the San Antonio native contemplated quitting football. It also crossed his mind back in 2019 before the arrival of head coach Jeff Traylor prior to the 2020 season. But that’s not how he was raised.
Harris loves a good comeback story – on and off the field. He’s led plenty of comebacks for the Roadrunners over the last three seasons, setting nearly every school record in the process and helping the program win two conference titles in a row. Now, he's set to enter his final year as already the greatest player to suit up for the young football program's brief history. But even then, he's leaving a heralded mark that will echo well into the future.
“It would be easy to hang it up and quit, but then I’d probably regret it at some point of my life,” Harris said. “My parents raised us to work for what you want. For me, I want to be a great role model, a great player, and someone who leaves UTSA better than when I came."
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