The Virginia locker room was quiet – maybe too quiet – before the kickoff at 17th-ranked TCU in 2012. So Eli Harold broke it.
“Out of nowhere comes his voice, and he starts getting all the guys riled up, getting the guys amped,” said Demetrious Nicholson, a Virginia defensive back. “And the one thing he said – and I remember it like it was yesterday – was, ‘I don’t care if I’m a freshman. I’m going to lead.’”
Eighteen-year-old freshmen, as Harold was at the time, typically are seen and not heard in college locker rooms. Harold, however, always has felt compelled to take charge.
That’s the way he was in high school, where he lined up at defensive end, quarterback, running back and wide receiver, sometimes in the same game. Early in his Virginia career, he rallied the freshman squad at practice and made sure the players arrived on time to lift weights during the week. As a junior last season, he was a member of the team’s leadership council, and his voice typically was the one booming from the center of the pregame huddle.
He hasn’t been shy about his desire for a similar role with the 49ers, who drafted him in the third round last month to play outside linebacker.
“I don’t know what it is,” Harold said. “It’s just something God blessed me with. Obviously, I’m not going to overstep my boundaries. But I feel like in the near future, I can definitely help be ‘that’ guy, that voice that people will listen to.”
Speaking up is in his blood. His brother, Walter, is a pastor in their native Virginia Beach, Va. Walter is 23 years older than Eli and, initially, was not someone to be emulated.
Walter was charismatic and charming as a young man, and his voice was so rich and full that he figured he might become a rhythm and blues singer. He even recorded an album.
But he also was trouble. Walter, 44, estimates he might have been picked up by police as many as six times one particularly sketchy year, on offenses ranging from driving on a suspended license to drug possession. And Walter doesn’t hide from his crack cocaine-dealing past.
“You do what you do,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to be a kingpin. But it was easy, fast money. You could get anything you want. Anything you want.”
Walter said he was facing up to 12 years in prison on drug charges when the judge hearing his case learned about the R&B album and asked to listen to it. According to Walter, the judge was impressed and decided the young man standing before him had enough talent to shed his criminal lifestyle. He reduced the sentence.
Walter rewarded the decision by cleaning up. But it wasn’t the recording industry that saved him.
“I was in and out of jail and always in trouble with the law,” he said. “And I just got tired. I got tired of the lifestyle. I figured I had tried everything. Why not try Jesus?”
Walter had three sons who were around Eli’s age. They are technically his nephews, but Eli grew up with them, played sports with them and always has considered them brothers.
One of them, Forrest, died suddenly while playing recreational basketball in 2010 of was later determined to be an undiagnosed heart condition. He was only 20. Another nephew, Sage, was a pass rusher at James Madison and signed with Kansas City as an undrafted free agent last month. Eli and Sage are training together in Virginia Beach during the long lull before training camps begin.
Eli Harold largely has been shaped by those no longer in his life.
In 2011, just two months after Forrest’s sudden passing, Eli’s mother died of pancreatic cancer, prompting him to move in with Walter’s family. The double blow floored Eli. But it also focused him.
“From that moment, I felt like I was a ball of fire,” he said of his mother’s passing. “Everyone I touched, they felt it.”
His father mostly was absent when he was growing up, but he, too, has provided motivation.
“Not having his own biological dad around, I think that helped drive him to be a better man than his father was,” Walter said. “I know that’s an underlying motivation for him.”
Walter served the dual role of father and older brother. The guidance ranged from small things – enforcing curfew, making young Eli take out the trash – to more powerful concepts. Eli had a front-row seat, literally, as Walter shed the streets and began to grow his congregation.
It began in 2004 with Walter, his wife and their kids as the only members. Today, approximately 200 members listen to Walter’s voice fill the church on Sundays.
Eli has said he, too, would like to become a pastor. For now, he’s content to preach inside a football locker room.
Said Mike Moore, who is expected to take over Harold’s pass-rushing role with Virginia: “He’s got one of those voices that you can’t not listen to. He’s got a voice that grabs your attention.”