The call came during ballet class. Auburn football coaches had told CJ Harris the lessons would improve his footwork and develop new muscles so by the time he arrived at campus this fall, he’d be ahead of the regular “preferred walk-on.”
But between pliés and pirouettes, Doug Goodwin, the team’s director of high school relations, called CJ’s father, Curtis, and everything fell apart.
Auburn had been CJ’s dream school for as long as he could remember. He loved the campus, loved the Tiger blue and orange, loved the rivalry with Alabama. But after a dominant senior season as a safety at Warner Robins High School in Georgia, he barely was being recruited.
His father sent his film to Auburn coaches on a whim. The Tigers thought he was such a steal, they offered him a roster spot in January and said he could play his way into a scholarship. Word spread, and Warner Robins started to celebrate its prized defensive back.
And then the questions started: How would Auburn handle CJ’s medical condition, epilepsy, and the medication he takes to control it, a hemp-based cannabis oil?
In April, Goodwin asked for Harris’ complete medical records. He called back weeks later, in the middle of ballet. CJ couldn’t come to Auburn if he kept taking the cannabis oil, he told Curtis.
“He said, ‘It hurts us because we really like CJ as a player and he was going to do good things for us,’ ” Curtis Harris told The Washington Post in an interview.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said in June that Harris’s medication was not what caused the football team to withdraw the roster invitation.
“He wasn’t cleared by our medical staff. That was really the bottom line,” Malzahn said. “It didn’t have anything to do with anything else like some people reported.”
CJ had his first seizure as a seventh grader in 2013 and didn’t have another until three years later, when he was a sophomore in high school. But when the episodes returned, he’d sometimes have multiple seizures each month.
During one episode, he fell while strolling down the sidewalk and cut his head. Curtis rushed his son to the hospital, where CJ had another.
“If you see your child have a seizure, it’s hard to watch,” Curtis said. “You don’t know what’s going on. You just want it to stop.”
Doctors prescribed Keppra, an anticonvulsive medication, but the substance made Harris irritable. Curtis dropped his son off at school each day and stared at his phone until Warner Robins’ lunch period hoping he wouldn’t get a call from the school nurse. Mornings were CJ’s most vulnerable time.
Doctors kept upping his doses – at one point, he took four pills in the morning and two at night, and a missed dose could result in more episodes – but the seizures continued.
Desperate for a better solution, CJ switched to cannabis oil, which he squirts beneath his tongue with a syringe and waits for it to dissolve, in January 2017. He takes a dose every six hours. He hasn’t had an episode since. Doctors were so pleased with the results, they told him to keep playing football and there was no reason he couldn’t play in college.
“Any time you have a situation like that, you got to be concerned about it, but I never, not one time, saw anything close to him having any sort of episode or health problem,” Warner Robins coach Mike Chastain told The Post. “When you get that paperwork in, you’re a little concerned, but I never had any problems with him at all.”
Still, CJ wasn’t getting much recruiting attention, unusual for a defensive back who stands 6-foot-1, weighs 201 pounds, runs the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds and excelled both defensively and as a running back for one of Georgia’s top teams.
“I couldn’t believe none of the college coaches would recruit him,” Curtis said. “He’s a good kid. He’s a great student, teachers love him, he’s a great player, got the size. I had no idea why no one was coming to talk to him.”
Neither did Auburn – which knew about his epilepsy diagnosis when it offered him a roster spot, Curtis said – until it reviewed his medical records.
That night after ballet practice, Curtis stood in the doorway of CJ’s bedroom for 20 minutes trying to find the words to tell his son his college football dream was over.
“Once he told me that, all my dreams were crushed,” CJ said. “I knew, if Auburn was my dream school and they won’t let me play, none of the other schools would take me either.”
The NCAA bans consumption of THC, the active chemical in marijuana and hemp that causes a high. It classifies the substance in its drug-testing handbook as an “illicit drug” and does not have a medical exemption, even though medical marijuana is legal when prescribed by a doctor in Georgia and Alabama, where Auburn in located.
The father and son spent the summer traveling to recruiting camps around the South hoping another coach would think enough of CJ’s talent to fight the NCAA. They went to camps at Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Miami. At each university, coaches told CJ pretty much the same thing: “I hope they clear you, and we’ll talk.”
“It’s kind of heartbreaking when I hear it,” CJ said. “They like me during the drills, but they hear my story and they say, ‘That’s too bad.'”
By mid-July, Curtis was tired of hearing it. He took CJ to a family doctor to get tested for THC, hoping just maybe he’d test below the 15 nanograms per milliliter threshold proscribed by the NCAA.
Cannabinoids “were present,” the doctor wrote in the test results, a copy of which was provided to The Post, “but no THC metabolite is detected even down to the cut off of 15ng/ml and below.”
“I was thinking, all my prayers, God answered them,” CJ said when he read the results. “I thought I was clear. I didn’t think the NCAA would have a problem.”
And the NCAA indeed doesn’t have a problem, but college coaches still do. Multiple recruiters have told Curtis they risk too much offering CJ a roster spot when the test was conducted by a family doctor and not by a lab that works with the NCAA.
That leaves the Harris family hamstrung; the NCAA contracts with anti-doping agency Drug Free Sport to administer its banned substances policy, and Drug Free Sport does not test individual athletes.
“We are essentially client driven,” said Mark Bockelman, the agency’s vice president of collegiate and amateur sport. “We do not take walk-in individuals to do testing.”
Additionally, the NCAA only accepts test results from World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited laboratories. There are only two such labs in the United States, one in Salt Lake City and one in Los Angeles.
“If the NCAA will test him and clear him, then coaches will come recruit him,” Curtis Harris said. “It’s easy for the coaches to blame the NCAA right now and for the NCAA to blame the coaches.”
In the meantime, CJ enrolled at East Coast Prep in Monterey, Massachusetts, for this school year, where he can take college-level courses, play a full football season and retain all four years of NCAA eligibility while waiting for some sort of official green light or for a coach to offer a roster spot while allowing him to take his medication.
“Every day I wake up,” he said, “and the first thing that comes to my mind is that I have to be ready for that call from a college coach and I pray that someone takes a chance on me.”