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Najee Harris’ draft night turns from anxiety to elation, as Steelers take him at No. 24

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 4/30/2021 By Ron Kroichick

Najee Harris fidgeted. His familiar smile vanished. He moved to the outdoor area of his draft-night event in Emeryville to chat with his agent, Doug Hendrickson.

As prospective teams passed on Harris — most notably Arizona at No. 16, then Miami at No. 18 — the leading rusher in Bay Area prep history appeared increasingly uncomfortable.

“I was getting really nervous, just because I’m a running back and I know running backs are devalued,” Harris said. “So what’s going to happen? I’m just happy it worked out the way it did.”

It worked out this way: The Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise with rich tradition and a strong history at running back, chose Harris with the 24th pick in Thursday night’s first round of the NFL draft. He was the first running back and sixth Alabama player selected.

Not incidentally, Harris, an Antioch High alum fresh off a record-setting career at Alabama, landed on a team with six Super Bowl titles and without a losing season since 2003. Opportunity awaits: James Conner, Pittsburgh’s leading rusher last season, signed a one-year contract this month with Arizona.

Harris clearly had done his homework on the Steelers, and he craved a call from them. So when his cell phone rang shortly after 8 p.m., with Pittsburgh preparing to go on the clock, he quickly answered.

Later, surrounded by family and friends and with his smile back in place, Harris exuberantly popped open a bottle of Champagne to celebrate.


Video: Bay Area Football Phenom Najee Harris Drafted by Steelers (CBS SF Bay Area)

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“It almost seemed fake, like it’s too good to be true,” he said. “It’s a perfect spot for me. ... Just the history of their running backs: Jerome Bettis, Franco (Harris), Le’Veon Bell. Franco and Jerome were really bruising, downhill running backs, and I feel I can do that, too.”

Long before he blossomed into a dynamic athlete, Harris often got into trouble in elementary school. Then football helped transform him as a teenager: He worked hard on his craft while remaining goofy and playful with his Antioch High teammates, good-naturedly chirping at them during practice.

Harris, 23, traced a turbulent path to Thursday night’s triumphant moment. His family moved frequently during his childhood, bouncing back and forth between the Bay Area and Seattle. The family spent time in homeless shelters and run-down hotels, searching for stability but seldom finding it.

Finally, in 2013, he moved from Richmond to a rough neighborhood in Antioch. Harris threw himself into football, resurrecting Antioch’s long-dormant program and earning recognition as the nation’s No. 1 college recruit in the class of 2017.

Several of his coaches from Antioch, including head coach John Lucido, attended Thursday night’s party at Marshawn Lynch’s restaurant. Lynch, another powerful running back with East Bay roots, has become a mentor for Harris.

“I’m emotional right now,” Lucido said. “It’s very special to me, seeing where Najee started and the things he’s accomplished. He had every excuse to fail, and he refused to do that.”

Harris chafed at his lack of playing time as a freshman and sophomore at Alabama. He contemplated transferring, decided to stick it out and thrived in his final two years — becoming the Crimson Tide’s all-time leading rusher and winning the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back in 2020.

He spoke with pride of his evolution into a complete back — running with power and elusiveness, pass blocking and catching passes (43 receptions last season). All that — and striking size, at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds — vaulted Harris atop the list of running backs in this year’s draft. .

More than anything, he wanted to become a first-round pick. And he did.

“You could say it shows the value of the work,” Harris said. “But the work I put in doesn’t just stop. To get there, yes. Finished product, no.”

Ron Kroichick is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rkroichick@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ronkroichick

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