She is not the popular rap king, Tupac Amaru Shakur, who had all eyes on him but Antoinette “Toni” Harris does have her own share of eyes following her as she charts her unique path.
Harris, according to theundefeated.com, came to notable attention when on February 3, during Super Bowl LIII, a Toyota commercial of RAV4 Hybrid debuted, featuring her and her quest to play football. Tens of millions of viewers saw Harris running, training, lifting weights and driving a Toyota.
Narrator Jim Nantz thunders: “They’ve said a lot of things about Toni Harris”. “They said she was too small. They said she was too slow. Too weak. They said she’d never get to the next level. Never inspire a new generation. Never get a football scholarship. Yeah, people have made a lot of assumptions about Toni.”
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Harris then looks into the camera and delivers the closing line; “I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”
Since then, folks have wondered how a girl came to be a football player. But Toni’s difficult past made her passion for the sport even more resolute.
It emerged that Harris was put in foster care at the age of 4, ending up in three different homes by the age of 15 on Detroit’s West Side.
Harris had also not met her biological father, Sam Clora till a few years ago. Even though he is now a part of her life, including her nine biological siblings (five sisters and four brothers), her birth mother, Donyale Harris, with whom she always maintained a relationship, died in a car accident this past spring.
These incidents perhaps showed that misfortune loved lurking around her but the determined and strong-willed damsel did not succumb.
At age 5, Harris got hooked with the game of football upon seeing her older cousin Demetrius and the Westside Steelers win the national Police Athletic League (PAL) championship.
As Harris remembers it, what she saw on the field that day was a happy, teary-eyed family. “After that, I kind of fell in love with the game of football and never put the ball down.”
Earlier this year, the 23-year-old became what is believed to be the first woman to accept a scholarship to play football at a four-year college — not as a kicker, as other women have done — but as a position player.
Harris, a free safety, signed with Central Methodist University, a school with 1,000 undergraduates that plays in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
She arrived on campus three weeks ahead of camp to get extra time with the strength and conditioning coach. And, like everyone else on the team, she is hoping to see some playing time when the season starts on August 31 against Clarke University.
Already, women seeking to play the sport ask her what to do.
“There have been so many women — I can’t even count, like over probably 100 or 200 — that contact me every day, whether in middle school, high school or getting ready to go to college, that want to play [football] at the next level,” she says.
“They say I’m an inspiration and ask if I have any tips on how they can become better football players. I tell them to just keep pushing and working hard, and just never give up believing in yourself.”
Several women have kicked for four-year schools since Liz Heaston did so for Willamette University in 1997, becoming the first woman ever to score in a college football game.
Others include Ashley Martin at Jacksonville State, Katie Hnida at Colorado and New Mexico, and April Goss at Kent State.
But not one received a scholarship to a four-year school at the Division II level or higher until 2018 when Rebecca Longo signed to kick for Adams State in Colorado. (Shelby Osborne, a defensive back, signed with Campbellsville University in Kentucky in 2014, but she was not initially on scholarship).
Harris, who had a plan to play in college, had enrolled at the University of Toledo intending to walk onto the team. But fate dealt her a blow. In her freshman year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer aged 18.
“The chemo was really hard to handle because my body went from 170 pounds to 90 pounds,” she said.
“The chemo was worse than the cancer was. Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome? And so just after the chemotherapy, that’s when I decided to go back to football and try to gain back my weight.”
Harris will be on the field with 21 other guys and after college, dreams of playing for her favourite team, the Seattle Seahawks, or “any other team in the NFL — as long as I got my chance,” she said.
Additionally, she plans on becoming a “homicide detective with a background in forensics.”