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So he likes to sing opera. You got a problem with that?

Wracked by a growing list of football injuries: a bad hamstring tear, a back injury, a knee injury and a host of other problems, Harris grew wary of the toll the game was taking on his body and by 1987 made the decision to leave the NFL altogether.

Football? Opera! Football? Opera! Hmmm . . . Which will it be?

For Lawrence Harris the choice was always a little of both.

I remember when you were a rookie. You rookies had to get up and sing something in front of all those veterans. And most everyone else sang, ‘I’m a little tea pot’ or ‘Jesus Loves Me,’, or ‘Do-re-me,’ and I remember you got up and sang that Italian song and everyone’s jaw just dropped. I knew you were going to do something with it at that time, you know. 

By Paul Joseph Walkowski
OperaOnline.us

The first time I saw Lawrence Harris perform on stage was on November 20, 2004. He sang Rigoletto with Connecticut Grand Opera and Orchestra. To say I was impressed with his interpretation of the character would be an understatement. This is part of what I wrote then:

“I happen to think that baritone Lawrence Harris’ tortured character, Rigoletto, was the biggest surprise of the evening – literally and figuratively . . . Mr. Harris gave the audience a dynamic, tender and moving portrayal of his character that was touching and believable. He has a wonderful voice that straddles bass and baritone and when he sings, that wonderful voice goes under the carpets, in the wall recesses and passes through our sensory system with ease. His presence is his strongest asset because he controls it and doesn’t impose himself, but rather allows himself to be drawn into whatever scene he is in. This is a voice and presence to watch.”

When you realize that Lawrence Harris, all 6’5” of him, played professional football as an offensive lineman with the Houston Oilers before moving to the opera stage, you kind of wonder how in the world the switch from football to opera came about. I mean, it’s an odd choice for a kid who grew up in a small rural town (Sherman Texas. Pop. 36,000). Situated 60 miles north of Dallas at the crossroads of U.S. 75 and 82, Sherman isn’t exactly the opera capitol of the southwest. But to him, Opera was never far away and always on his mind, even when he ventured into a professional football career after college. “Football was actually my first career,” he noted with irony in an interview with OperaOnline.us in mid-June, “but without a doubt singing has always been my vocation.”

Explaining the lifelong and unusual convergence of music and football and how he came ultimately to chose one over the other, Harris said that as a young boy the influence of both was equally strong and at times the choice wasn’t always that clear – which probably explains why the two occupations kept crossing paths and reemerging throughout his life. “I was raised in a home with music,” he said of his early years, noting that his mother’s family sang gospel. Some even enjoyed a degree of success singing as a gospel quartet. “I grew up around that,” he explained. Interestingly, it wasn’t just gospel he heard, but opera, too. As a young boy he often listened to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts on the radio from his closet, of all places. “No one else knew at the time,” he said. Secret’s out of the bag now, though.

While he enjoyed listening to opera privately, it was Football that he pursued outwardly. “My uncles were all football players,” he explained. “My cousins played football.” Indeed, his first “icon,” he recalls, was his cousin Curley Johnson, who played with the World Champion New York Jets (1965-67) with Joe Namath. “So that was also in my blood.”

When he entered high school (Sherman High) he played both football and was a member of the school choir, a juxtaposition he said, that earned him some occasional good natured ribbing from classmates. “People started realizing eventually,” he said, “that they shouldn’t give me such a hard time about it. My friends, of course, they did it in fun and it was understood.” It was a good-natured ribbing, he noted, that continued right up to his professional football years. “After I got out of football,” he recalled, musing over a conversation he had with an old acquaintance who recalled the first time he heard Harris sing, “I went to see Dan Pastorini; he was a quarterback with the Oilers. He had gone into car racing and was racing a dragster at the Texas Grand National Speedway. I saw him in the pit. He was working on an engine [and when he saw me] he said, ‘Yeah, I remember when you were a rookie. You rookies had to get up and sing something in front of all those veterans. And most everyone else sang, ‘I’m a little teapot,’ or ‘Jesus loves me,’ or ‘Do re me,’ and I remember you got up and sang that Italian song and everyone’s jaw dropped. I knew you were going to do something with it at that time, you know.’”

After high school Harris entered Oklahoma State University where he majored in Botany, showing an interest in wildlife and flowers. Oddly, in the early years it wasn’t a career in music or football that interested him; he wanted to return home and open a business. “I had hopes of actually coming back and moving into a music store business. I wanted to supply the community with musical instruments.” 

But with his imposing size and obvious ability on the football field -- at the time he was approaching 300 pounds -- the offensive lineman potential was just to strong to be ignored – or missed. Professional teams started taking an interest in the young man who, when he wasn’t jostling defensive linemen, enjoyed singing and studying wildlife and flowers. Before he graduated from college an offer was made which he accepted. He was drafted into the NFL by the Oilers. The year was 1979. 

Even the lure of a professional football career, however, didn’t dissuade him from pursuing his singing interests. “I studied voice at the University of Houston,” he said, adding with a hint of pride, “and I had a few productions with the Houston Grand Opera where I was a chorister while still playing football.” It was always one avenue or the other, it seemed. Indeed, he was apparently good enough that at one point he was offered an opportunity to sing in a production of Gian Carlo del Monico’s “Il Trovatore”. And this wasn’t the only opportunity he had to abandon a football career and plunge headlong into singing. He was offered a chance to travel abroad and study with Gian’s father Mario del Monico – an offer which he turned down. “I wanted to continue my football career, so I graciously turned him down.” Of that decision, he looks back now and laughs, adding, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that. But I did.”

A career in professional football takes its toll, though. He played with the Oilers 8 years. 

Wracked by a growing list of football injuries: a bad hamstring tear, a back injury, a knee injury and a host of other problems, Harris grew wary of the toll the game was taking on his body and by 1987 made the decision to leave the NFL altogether. It was a decision made not in haste, but arrived at, he realizes now, before his mind was fully settled on the question of his fitness to continue. The lure to play was too strong to resist. If he couldn’t play for the NFL, he figured, maybe there was another option. So after the NFL he played a season with the Canadian Football League (the Toronto Argonauts) and a year after that with the USFL’s Boston Breakers. By 1989, however, he knew he wasn’t up to the rigors of professional football any longer. His body couldn’t take any more. “So I went back to Texas and I immediately enrolled in the opera program at what is now Texas State University.” (In those days it was known as Southwest Texas State) It was while at TSU, he recalls, that an opera professor by the name of Dr. Burt Neely, recognizing his potential, told him that if he wanted to succeed in opera he would have to focus on his craft no less than he focused on professional sports. “You know opera is like football,” Harris recalled Neely telling him, “you have to commit totally to it. And you have to give all of yourself to it. But if you do that I believe you will see some results.”

Dan Pastorini, Former Houston Oilers Quarterback

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