Jackie Harris — whether or not he realized it at the time — has been preparing for his current career most of his adult life. The analogies between his first career and the next are hard to miss.
“It’s going well,” Harris said recently, speaking of his position as an attorney with Gene McKissic and Associate’s law firm in Pine Bluff. Harris has been with the firm for approximately two years and said the job was proving to be everything he thought it would be.
“I love the challenge. It’s the only thing that’s close to what I did before,” he said, smiling.
What he did before was football in the NFL. And he did it very well.
“Law is a lot like football,” he said. “In law school, it was all IRAC — issues, rules and reasoning, analysis and conclusions. Same on the football field. I’ve played for some coaches who scripted all the plays — I find myself doing that now, as an attorney.”
Harris, born and reared in Pine Bluff, graduated from Dollarway High School in 1986. The next year found him on the road, even farther south.
“I was recruited for football at Northeast Louisiana College, which is now Louisiana-Monroe. I drove down there and it was my first trip out of state. It was still the south, though, so it was like home,” he said.
His major at the Louisiana college was criminal justice, he said, and as early as 1988, he had begun to consider going to law school. However, fate intervened and took him in another direction when the NFL came calling.
“I was drafted to the NFL in 1990, left college and went to Green Bay. Now, I was from the south and hadn’t ever been to a place where there were no black people. I don’t know the number, but the percentage of African-Americans was very low. But, I treated it simply as an adjustment to a job and we all became like a big family. The community embraced us. I thought it was kinda weird that people I didn’t know, knew all about me (from the bios, he said), but it was COLD!” Harris remembers.
Harris and his wife, Letrece, were married in 1993 during his last year at Green Bay. For Letrece — a Louisiana girl, he said — Green Bay was a difficult transition from the mild southern climate of her home state. Although Harris said his best football memories were of Green Bay — “we were young and excited and we had a pretty good team” — it was as a free agent he moved with his family to the balmy regions of Tampa Bay and the Buccaneers, where he spent four “good” years.
Still on the move as a free agent, Harris traveled north again, in 1997, where he played for the Tennessee Oilers, later named the Tennessee Titans. A high point came in 1999, when the Titans and the St. Louis Rams squared off in Super Bowl XXXIV.
“My kids remind me all the time that we got stopped at the goal line and lost. They’ll dig out the tape of that game now and then,” he laughed.
Harris’ sons are Jackie Jr., 17, a senior at Watson Chapel High School; Joshua, 16, a sophomore; and, Jonathan, 12, a seventh-grader. All, he said, play football at Watson Chapel and all are interested in seeing how far they can travel in their dad’s footsteps.
“But, I tell them, even if you’re successful, then you retire in your mid-30s … what then? They need to do something that will be meaningful to them later in life,” he said.
Harris retired from football after playing for the Dallas Cowboys in 2000-2001.
“At my retirement, my mom reminded me that my degree was still waiting,” he said.
He came back to Pine Bluff and coached at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, finding himself “back in the atmosphere of college life.”
“So, I went back and got my criminal justice degree from UAPB in 2005,” Harris said, adding that he’d begun to think about law school again. With support from family and friends, such as Judge Earnest E. Brown Jr., who was at the time an associate with McKissic, Harris applied to the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Attending classes part-time in the beginning, Harris soon switched to full-time study.
“My boys thought it was so funny, seeing me having to study and do assignments. They thought is was hilarious, but they were good sports. They had gotten older and understood why I had to be away a lot … that I was doing this for my family,” he said. “I appreciate their sacrifices and my wife was a real trooper … doing things with the boys while I was busy at law school. I wanna tell you, in 2008, when it was over, it was a huge relief! It’s not easy … you have to really want this.” He passed his bar exam in 2009.
While in law school, Harris had clerked for the McKissic firm and says it was, and still is, a perfect fit.
Harris is a general practicing attorney, with a focus on probate law … helping people with orderly distributions of property, custody issues, visitation rights, guardianships, etc., but says he’s fortunate enough — with the McKissic firm — to be able to be involved in a wide range of legal experiences.
“I love solving problems,” he said. “Law school gives you an excellent foundation, but it doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the nuances of actually practicing law. I was told in law school that I knew more than I thought I knew, so I don’t really get overwhelmed, now. My job is to spot and analyze issues and try to find a way to have a solution for my client. All the battles are different and when something happens, it goes really fast … like football.”
Harris said he and his family have absolutely no intention of leaving Pine Bluff.
“There’s a lot of potential in this city and the positive things have to start with family,” Harris said. “There’s real opportunity here and, although I’m an attorney, my first priority is to help as an individual. Everything needs to begin with family and that’s my priority. Lots of people have given the outside perspective of this city, but it has to start with us … from the inside. Christmas is about family, but we need to make our families the focus all year long. I’m just an average guy who’s lived exceptional experiences in life, but I roll up my sleeves and get the most out of myself every day.”