As for the significance of the name, Bible readers know that Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego were made to walk into Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace because of their devotion to God. Yet they miraculously walked out alive -- and Nebuchadnezzar changed his tune. (Martin Luther King Jr. cites the same story in his famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail.")
Shack risked heat just by playing football at Monroe's Carroll High: his mother, Lula, had forbidden Harris to play because his older brother had broken his collarbone in the sport.
"I had to sign my mother's name to the permission slip," says Harris' older sister, Lucille. "You're not going to get me for forgery now, are you?" (A retired nurse still living in Monroe, she's on a conference call with her little brother, and they both laugh.) "Eventually, she came around after the coaches convinced her football might get him into college without having to pay for it."
"I still had to report to her at every halftime," Harris says. "She wanted to make sure I was physically OK."
He was more than OK. As a sophomore, he led Carroll to a state championship, then starred in both basketball and semi-pro baseball. "My father was a baseball guy," says Harris, a straight-A student. "Played for the Monroe Monarchs, rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Didn't know much about football."
Football, though, became Shack's greatest love, and playing quarterback in the NFL became his dream. In an interview with Samuel G. Freedman, author of Breaking The Line, a recently published book about the confluence of black college football and the civil rights movement, Harris says he used Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech as inspiration: "When you heard the part about one day we'll be judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin, I started thinking that one day I might get a chance to play quarterback."
At the time, few if any white coaches thought blacks were ready to lead a major college offense, much less one in the NFL. Michigan State was one of the predominantly white schools that recruited Harris, but, when he got to Lansing, he overheard an assistant tell coach Duffy Daugherty about his "great hands" and not his prodigious arm.
To James' great sorrow, his father passed away just as his senior year was starting, but another father figure came into his life, legendary Grambling coach Eddie Robinson. "He won over my mother by reading the Bible with her," Harris says. "Before long, it was pretty clear I was going to Grambling."
Robinson had another card up his sleeve. As it happened, legendary announcer Howard Cosell had recently asked the coach in a radio interview why he hadn't been able to produce any NFL quarterbacks. "Coach Robinson told me if I came to Grambling, I'd be ready to be an NFL quarterback when I left," Harris says. "He said, 'Howard Cosell challenged me, and I think you could be the one.'"