Al Harris (pictured above) never thought he would be a target. In 1997, the cornerback was drafted by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and relegated to the team’s practice squad. By 1998, he had been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, but he was hardly a superstar. He was modest, rarely wore jewelry, drove a 1999 GMC Suburban and a late-1970s Cadillac Fleetwood.
“Back then, guys who got money legally didn’t get robbed,” says Harris, 34, now a Pro Bowler with the Green Bay Packers. “People respected you. But it’s different now. If you’re a young successful male, especially a young black male, you’re a target.”
Harris got his wake-up call in 1999. While staying at his brother’s home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., shortly after his first season with the Eagles, he hopped into his Cadillac to make a trip to the grocery store. Arriving home minutes later, he was confronted by a masked gunman who forced Harris into the house where another gunman was waiting. The pair pushed him and several other guests to the floor, duct-taped their hands, feet, and mouths, and pressed a pistol to the back of Harris’ head before making off with a small amount of cash, a watch and
“Before that, I’d never heard about any of my teammates getting robbed,” says Harris, speaking publicly about the incident for the first time. He’s since gone through firearms training and is now licensed to carry a concealed weapon in Florida. “I never thought in a million years that would happen to me.”
Harris wasn’t the first professional athlete to get robbed—and he certainly won’t be the last—but his story sheds a light on professional sports’ dirty secret: Athletes have turned into targets, and they’re taking matters into their own hands.
“More athletes are carrying guns today,” says Harris’ agent Jack Bechta, who has been working with NFL players for more than two decades. “They have more to protect. The Sean Taylor incident scared a lot of players.”
Taylor was a Pro Bowl safety for the Washington Redskins before he was gunned down in his home in November 2007 in Palmetto Bay, Fla. A group of intruders broke into his house—thinking it was empty—and shot Taylor in the upper leg when they discovered him with his fiancée and child in a bedroom. Taylor had been criticized in ’05 after he was charged with felony aggravated assault with a firearm and two counts of misdemeanor battery for an altercation (he later pleaded no contest to the two lesser charges and received 18 months probation), but some wonder if he’d be alive today if he’d had a gun nearby to protect himself that night.
“Most people don’t understand what it’s like to live in their reality,” says Jemele Hill, a columnist for ESPN.com who covered Taylor’s death, as well as the tragic drive-by murder of Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams in 2007. “We see a guy making $20 million and can’t fathom why he feels unsafe. Money doesn’t make you any safer. A bullet doesn’t stop to ask for a bank statement.”