Joining UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel at Pacific-10 football media day Thursday will be fifth-year senior defensive end Brigham Harwell. I find him to be a great kid, with a positive outlook on life whom many (including myself) could learn a lesson or two from in handling tough situations.
I wrote this story about Harwell in 2004, and thought it was worth sharing with everyone again.
So, here it is:
OBSTACLE COURSE OVERCOME
HARWELL TACKLES PERSONAL HARDSHIPS
By Brian Dohn
The family car was cramped, but Brigham Harwell, his two younger brothers and his mom called it home for a bit.
Later, the foster home provided shelter and food, but being detached from his family caused mental anguish for Harwell until his older brother, Joe Williams, stepped in and became his legal guardian.
Growing up was not easy for Harwell, nor his family, but UCLA’s starting sophomore defensive tackle shows no signs of bitterness or resentment for what he had to overcome.
He is a superb student, a star in the making on the football field, humble and quiet. But he believes he did not miss out on much growing up, and one day hopes to care for a mother deemed unfit to care for him.
“I think about where I’m at now, and I can’t even describe it. It’s a long time coming,” Harwell said. “I don’t know how I made it. It’s help from family and friends. Without my brother, Joe, I believe I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Harwell sprained his right ankle last Saturday against Cal, but expects to play this weekend. It is no surprise Harwell rebounded so quickly, because he has been doing it for many of his 20 years.
“Sometimes I listen to the stuff he’s told me about, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’d be crying like a little girl,’ ” said UCLA defensive tackle Kenneth Lombard, one of Harwell’s best friends. “What I admire about him is, he doesn’t complain about those things. One thing you never hear from Brigham, and I mean never, is ‘Woe is me.’ ”
It was difficult, Harwell recalls, because his parents divorced when he was in the fourth grade. He has six brothers and two sisters, and remembers his mother, Ruby, exhausting every option to provide for the family.
But the expenses became too high, the burden too expansive. Harwell said by the time he was in sixth grade, his mom couldn’t afford to pay the rent, so Brigham, younger brothers Brent and Byron, and his mom began living in the car.
“We would sleep in the car and wouldn’t eat for a day. There were times when things were rough. It was like, ‘Man, this is a reality check,’ ” Harwell said. “Now, I’m living it up. Living on my own, in a dorm. It’s great, but back then, I look back and I didn’t know if I was going to eat one day, or sleep or shower.”
Harwell said he and his brothers showered at friends’ houses, and went to the library after school to do homework because there was no light in the car at night.
The state got word of the situation, and declared Ruby an unfit mother, Harwell said.
According to Williams, who is 34, Ruby suffers from “mental issues.”
Harwell’s father, David, lives in Fort Wayne, Ind.
The older siblings were out of high school, some in college. Brigham, Brent and Byron were placed in foster care.
Williams visited regularly, and planned to become their guardian. But he and his wife, Jamila, who have four kids, were raising their own family, and the resources weren’t in place to add. So Harwell went to foster care for most of seventh and eighth grades.
“Foster care is not nice,” Harwell said. “From sixth grade through high school, I can name so many friends, and their parents, that helped me out. I love the Rodgers (Bill and Sheri). I played on their basketball team and every summer they took me to Palm Springs and paid for everything – clothes, food, a place to stay.”
Harwell said he didn’t see his younger brothers much, but that started to change when Williams, a bank manager, gained custody of Brigham before his freshman year at Los Altos High of Hacienda Heights.
The Williamses gave Harwell a structured family unit. Joe said Brigham did whatever it took to chip in. He would cut grass in the summer to earn money, and was a baby-sitter for his now 5-year-old nephew, Jeremey, who is autistic.
But after two years at Los Altos, the Williamses moved into a bigger home in Chino Hills.
Harwell, though, was fitting in at Los Altos, and didn’t want to transfer. That’s when a neighbor, who worked in the Hacienda Heights area, stepped in. The neighbor made the one-hour drive each day to drop off and pick up Harwell at Los Altos.
Through all of this, Harwell, who said he had very little contact with his parents during high school, never was in trouble, and maintained a B average in school.
“I’m so proud of him,” Williams said. “You’re not going to find a guy that is as humble as him, and as genuinely a good person. … I can’t remember having to ever tell Brigham, ‘Did you get your homework done?’ He worked so hard, and that’s why I’m so proud of him.”
Harwell also turned into a tremendous football player. Conquerors coach Greg Gano said Harwell, who played defensive end, finished his career one-half sack shy of former USC standout Shaun Cody’s school record. As a senior, Harwell had 22 sacks.
“We could have given the sack to get the record, but Brigham would never have taken it,” Gano said. “Everything he gets, and everything he got at Los Altos, he deserves. He’s a very loving kid. When he comes back, you don’t shake his hand, you give him a big hug.”
Harwell played defensive end as a freshman at UCLA, but in the spring was asked to move to defensive tackle, a position he did not want to play coming out of high school.
Although Harwell was willing to make the move, Williams stepped in and met with Bruins coach Karl Dorrell. Harwell also sought advice from several of his high school coaches, and chatted with Cody online.
A transfer was contemplated, which Williams said he initiated, but Harwell, maintaining UCLA was the right place for him, stayed. He has 14 tackles for the Bruins this season, and leads UCLA’s defensive linemen with five tackles for loss.
“There’s two things that attracted us to him,” Dorrell said. “One, he’s a great person. And two, for his background, for all the things that he’s had to endure, and for him to be as good a student as he was, and keep focus on being as good a football player as a student, those are things that were really, really intriguing, and special, about him. He takes a lot of pride in everything he does.”
Things are falling into place for Harwell.
The Williamses became guardians of younger brothers Brent and Byron, now 16 and 15, respectively. Harwell’s dad attended the Sept. 10 game against Rice. Also, after being out of contact with his mom for a while, Harwell got her phone number about a month ago, and the two talk every weekend.
‘`She watches every game on TV, and I talk to her and let her know everything is good,” Harwell said. “My mom, she’s my hero. Even though she has problems, she cared for us really well, no matter what. … It got to a point where we got older and she couldn’t do it anymore.”
Ruby is living in a hotel in Arcadia, and the family remains fond of her.
“We still love our mom, but right now there’s nothing we can do,” Williams said. “Brigham says, ‘That motivates me to do something, to help my mom.’ ”
But all is not perfect. Harwell said his 26-year-old brother, Daydrain, “is messed up on drugs,” and the family has been unable to locate him.
“(Brigham) could have felt sorry for himself and folded it up, and he didn’t do that. He never made his family situation a deterrent,” Gano said. “Of any kid I coached, I think Brigham had the most fun on the football field. I think it was his outlet.”