I had never cried while "committing journalism," as one of my favorite professors calls this thing we do. But this scene, which played out before me with all the drama of a Hollywood hit, brought me near tears.
Ojay Harris, the former lineman at Martin Luther King, confidently approached a current lineman during pregame warm-ups at the Germantown Supersite on Saturday afternoon.
Harris, who was diagnosed with autism in the third grade, put his hand on the shoulder pads of a recently admonished sophomore who might have been close but didn't quite match Harris' 6-foot-4, 310-pound frame.
Nearly face-to-face, the sophomore looked away from Harris, who is now an assistant football coach at King.
"Look at me, bro," Harris (below in red) said, his hands now on both shoulders of the sophomore. "I need you to wake up."
A different assistant wasn't pleased with something the player had done minutes earlier.
I steadied my hand and continued to watch while capturing the video on my iPhone. A previous life spent working with children on the spectrum helped me appreciate the scene's significance.
It is illustrative of the evolution of Harris, a young man bullied for being different as a child, struggling to understand the world around him, while it, at times, thought it had him figured out. A young man who found football — and perhaps more importantly — found people around the game who helped him find himself.
A young man previously overwhelmed easily by new and/or excessive stimulation, who last week stood on the field of a raucous Lincoln Financial Field as a guest of his favorite team and held a lengthy conversation with its owner, Jeffrey Lurie. Oh, and he has a part-time job at a grocery store.
I saw Dawn Harris, Ojay's mother, at last week's game and relayed that story. Her eyebrows raised and brought her eyes along for the ride.
"That never would have happened," she said, eyes now wide. "Never!"
Dawn Harris and her husband of 18 years, Shannon, knew Ojay was different in kindergarten, maybe earlier. A teacher once lectured her about Ojay's supposed inability to spell, claiming it was the reason he fell behind. By that time, Ojay had already learned the names of his classmates and his sibling's classmates and written them in crayon all over his bedroom walls, ceiling and closet.
It is not uncommon for those on the autism spectrum to have difficulty making and maintaining eye contact, as Harris (below in red) did before football. Keep in mind, though, that autism can present in different ways for each person, thus the popular saying among those in the autism community: "If you've met one person with autism, you've met ONE person with autism."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
As a result, Dawn Harris conceded the family probably "overprotected" Ojay at times.
He didn't want to ride a school bus to King because, at the time, the family lived across the street. Eventually he was allowed to walk, but someone, either Dawn, Shannon or one of the family's eight children, had to watch from the corner to make sure he arrived safely.
So for Dawn Harris to watch her son hold a conversation with Lurie and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell with thousands of rambunctious Eagles fans around brought a relief she had dreamed of since he was born.
"I know he's going to be OK now," she said. "He may always need help … but he'll be OK."
With a shrug and tears in her eyes, she added: "He'll … just be OK. And that is such a weight off my shoulders."
His siblings would always have made sure of that. Dawn Harris' brother, Rick Coles, would have done the same.
But her dad, Richard Coles, and his mother, Grace Coles, whom Dawn calls her mother, died before they found similar relief.
"I wish my parents were here because they worried for him," she said. "I just wish they could know he's going to be OK."
This semester, Harris had hoped to play football at Thaddeus Stevens, a two-year technical college in Lancaster. His family feared, however, that he wasn't ready. Plus, he needed more academic strengthening.
He believed he was ready, but a conversation with King coach Ed Dunn made Harris realize he wasn't and that it was OK.
So Dunn offered Harris a position coaching the linemen.
And because he is only a year removed from playing — and knows his craft well — the players listen to and respect him, Dunn said.
"I think it's a testament that we're doing the right things," Dunn said before the team's recent game against Olney, which was postponed because of lighting. "We're putting our emphasis and our priorities in the right places.
"At a lot of other schools, I don't think Ojay would have even gotten a chance to participate in football or have anyone to take him seriously."
Harris has already played four years at King. But by law he can remain a student there until he is 21.
The plan is for him to attend Thaddeus Stevens next fall and play football. He is still working part-time at a grocery store near the family's home in Germantown. And his dad, Shannon, hopes to teach Harris how to drive.
But before all that, he might be making a trip to Atlanta in February: last week, Goodell personally offered Harris tickets to Super Bowl LIII.
None of this is what made me cry. What got me was his answer to this question: How much do you love football?
Midway through his response, Harris was momentarily overcome with emotion. He apologized and wiped his eyes with his hand.
Then he continued.
He started at 9 but played football for only two years because he exceeded the 105-pound weight limit.
In his time away from the game, Harris said, he gained weight and didn't like himself because he didn't have anything to do except school. And he was bullied there and also by kids in the neighborhood.
That vulnerability, simultaneously mixed with the determination on his face, and the pure honesty in his voice was too much.
I slowly turned my face to hide my emotion. I'm not sure if my eyes actually spilled a single tear, and I'm not sure if anyone noticed. I think everyone in the room was crying.
Harris moved on to talk about playing at King.
"I love every single one of those guys, and they know that," he said. I stood up, got him to laugh and changed the subject to something happier.
I have interviewed a lot of people about a lot of emotional topics, including the deaths of young people by murder and suicide. My emotions are moved every time — but nowhere near tears. I don't expect it will happen again any time soon.
As a journalist, I'm trained to observe. But I'm also a human.
Observing and relating the truth beneath the surface is part of this gig. Ojay Harris' truth is an emotional thing to witness. Having written a few stories about him has made me better at "committing journalism." And as humans go, I don't know of any better than him. So I guess he makes me a better one of those, too.