McDevitt's Harris honored for helping police officer
Instead . . . "It was an angel, coming out of nowhere."
Steve Harris doesn't have wings, but he's now basking in the glow of multipronged appreciation resulting from an act of heroism he performed last football season. Not on the field. At his neighborhood recreation center.
Harris, a 6-2, 185-pound senior wideout at Bishop McDevitt High, is receiving recruiting interest from schools such as Robert Morris, Millersville and King's, and there has even been a recent nibble from Pittsburgh.
Here's hoping those schools find out what kind of young man they would be getting.
The date was Oct. 6. Since it was a Monday, the Lancers only watched film, and then Harris headed home to Fox Chase. From there, he made the 5-minute walk to Fox Chase RC and went inside to lift weights.
A shade after 5 o'clock, he finished and walked outside, where he noticed some buddies in one group over here and a larger group of strangers over there.
He also noticed a man who was arguing with the strangers, including juveniles and young adults.
That man turned out to be Robbins, an off-duty SEPTA officer, who, just a few hours after receiving distressing medical news, had come to the rec, in plain clothes, to try to forget his problem by kicking around a soccer ball with his 10-year-old daughter, Brooke, before later holding practice for a team he coached.
"This large group of kids walked past us," Robbins said. "At least 20. Maybe more. I didn't recognize any of them. One of them was carrying a stick, like the shaft of a hockey stick. Another had a belt. I didn't know what was going on, but I knew they were up to no good. For my job, I'm underground in the subway. I see bad kids all day.
"I told my daughter to sit tight, that I was going to follow them around front to see what was happening. I identified myself as a police officer. Told them we didn't want any trouble. Told them to leave. Several of them were mouthing off. Cursing. The usual stuff. 'F- you . . . We'll roll you . . . We don't like cops.' They were starting to surround me.
"Just then, I felt the tap on my shoulder. It was Steve Harris; I didn't know who he was then. He said, 'I'm on your side. I'm with you.' "
"At first, I was just looking over there," Harris said. "I was hearing a lot of negative comments to Officer Robbins, and I was thinking, 'This is not going to be good. It's going to get bad.' "
Harris' friends remained spectators. Not an indictment. Just a fact. He did not.
"I just felt I should go over and help," he said. "I don't know if I'd call it bravery or courage, I just knew what could have happened."
. . . What could have happened.
Steve Harris had heard the stories about Eddie Polec. From a firsthand source, even.
Everyone of a certain age remembers Eddie Polec, and how his life ended in horrible circumstances. On Nov. 11, 1994, in a crime that drew national attention, Polec, a student at Cardinal Dougherty, was clubbed to death by bat-wielding youths from nearby Abington.
Harris' uncle, Bill Oehler, at that time a La Salle High basketball player, was one of Eddie's good friends and wound up testifying at trials.
That tragedy occurred on the front steps of St. Cecelia Catholic Church, and that's within footsteps of the rec center where the gym is named in Eddie's memory. It would not be repeated Oct. 6.
Yes, there were punches and kicks, and more, right outside the rec and an adjacent day-care center. Robbins got tuned up pretty good. Luckily, an off-duty Philadelphia police officer happened to notice the melee. An assist-officer call went out. The troublemakers scattered, but Robbins and others were able to make three arrests.
"Two were juveniles," Robbins said. "I had to testify. One pleaded guilty to simple assault, one to aggravated. The adult's trial is soon. I'll be testifying there, too."
Steve Harris suffered very little, thankfully.
"I know they pounded my head. They might have kicked me. Everything happened so fast," he said. "I guess I had a mild concussion. Had a ringing headache. Couple bruises. I missed Tuesday's practice, then got back at it."
Wheels began turning behind the scenes.
Robbins made efforts to discover Harris' identity. He then made sure that Steve Phillips, president of Fox Chase Town Watch, was informed of Harris' bravery; FCTW was started as a response to Eddie Polec's death.
Last night, at the Loudenslager American Legion Post, Steve Harris was honored by FCTW as the 2008 "Hero of the Year." Aside from a plaque from that organization, he received citations from the city and state.
"As we looked into this, we found out Steve was very humble," Phillips said. "He almost had to be forced to tell about his involvement. We're all very proud of him."
Harris and Robbins had not spoken since the incident. Robbins thought Harris might have recognized him because his son, Sam, 17, had played youth basketball at the rec with Steve. Nope, Harris hadn't recognized him. He'd just noticed a guy in trouble and did the right thing.
Earlier this week, Dan Robbins said of Steve Harris: "I can't wait to meet him, and thank him for what he did. He could have been severely hurt. He didn't think about that. Only of trying to keep that from happening to me. He's a credit to his parents [Michael and Elizabeth Graeff]. He's been raised the right way.
"I just want to tell him, 'I hope my kid's like you.' "