Five-Star recruit

The journey of Zach Harrison

Olentangy Orange football star eager to leave recruiting process behind and make college decision

UPDATE: Zach Harrison has decided to sign with Ohio State. Read the story here

Zach Harrison is not an introvert. That’s despite what you might have encountered in different mediums, be it on an Internet message board, an online chat or a radio interview. But it’s not an accurate descriptor of the five-star defensive lineman from Olentangy Orange High School.

Wednesday marks the start of the early signing period for college football and, like hundreds of high school seniors across the country, Harrison will officially end his recruitment and sign with a college.

Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, listed in alphabetical order, are the finalists for the 6-foot-5½, 243-pound defensive end who runs the 100-meter dash in 10.82 seconds and also lines up at tight end for the Pioneers.

The day will complete a much-scrutinized recruiting process with obsessive fans analyzing everything from his choice of sweatshirt to the bands his mother, Tracey, wears around her left wrist. 

Aside from the obvious talent, the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions or Wolverines (again, in alphabetical order) will be getting a young man who, at age 17, is active in his community. He’s fiercely loyal to his friends, most of whom don’t ask about his college choices because it would be uncouth to do so. He usually prefers staying home to going out, much like his father.

There’s one thing he’s definitely not, though – and seated in a reclining chair in the family’s living room in Lewis Center with the television turned to a local news broadcast barely two weeks from signing day, Harrison will tell you what that is.

He’s not reserved, and he’s certainly not quiet.

“I’m a big relationship guy,” he told The Dispatch. “It takes a lot to get in, because if you didn’t know me you would think I was quiet. But if you ask anybody who’s close to me, that’s the last word they’d use to describe me, the very last word.”

Zach Harrison is one of the highest recruited player in the the last 20 years from Central Ohio. He poses for a photo on December 4, 2018. 


Signing day is a day he’s been waiting for, but not for the reasons you might expect.

“I kind of can’t wait for it to be over, but just as much as I can’t wait for it to be over, I don’t think it’s ever been harder than it feels right now in terms of where I’m going because I only have like 2½ weeks left,” he said in early December. “It’s like climbing a mountain. I’m almost to the top, but those last couple feet are the hardest. I want to get to the top so I can look back and be like, ‘Wow, I’m done. Now I get to just focus on playing ball and being a kid again, making friends and hanging out.’ ”

From the start of his senior season until signing day, Harrison and his parents, Tracey and Jimmie, have allowed The Dispatch to come along for the journey and document what it has been like for them to navigate the entire recruiting process. It all began on an unseasonably cool August morning.

Olentangy Orange's Zach Harrison lines up to start warming up before the start of practice on July 30, 2018.

An unusual start

It’s overcast and not even 65 degrees as the Pioneers take the field for their first preseason practice. Dressed in a plain white T-shirt and black shorts, Harrison would be indistinguishable from his teammates if not for the fact that he’s a head taller than most of them. It’s most glaring when he spends significant time with the receivers and towers over them.

Under the eye of Matt Lattig, one of two Orange assistants who oversee line play, Harrison is the first defender in a zone-read drill in which he is instructed to pressure the quarterback to make a decision. After two reps, though, Harrison has a question: What if I get there and both the quarterback and running back are in the backfield deciding what to do with the ball?

“Well, that’ll be a fumble, then,” Lattig says with a laugh.

Harrison is occasionally quiet and often instructive throughout the practice, which lasts nearly three hours. When groups huddle up and “get a word” before they start working, it’s Harrison who provides it. In an open-field “tackling” drill in which one player has to chase another toward the sideline from 17 yards away and tap him to signify contact, Harrison covers 10 yards before his opponent goes 7. When the speakers play “The Walker” by Fitz & The Tantrums as things are winding down, Harrison shows off a few dance moves.

As players breathe sighs of relief when coach Zebb Schroeder blows the final whistle, a few are overcome and throw up. One of them happens to be next to Harrison, who gets an unwanted splash along his right calf.

He turns to his teammate and good-naturedly calls, “You just puked on my leg! We gotta fight!”

A local television station has arrived to interview Schroeder and Harrison along with senior quarterback Robbie Dayhuff, and Harrison lets his classmate go first so he can watch his first-ever on-camera interview.  

Then it’s Harrison’s turn in front of the camera. Before he grabs a seat, Harrison said he’s learning to ignore the growing media presence surrounding his recruitment.

“I don’t notice them as much as I used to,” he says. “All I hear is the ‘click-click-click’ noise” of the cameras.

Barely a week later, Harrison’s season is thrown for a loss when, at the end of a play, a teammate rolls up on his leg and sends him to the hospital for testing on his right knee. It’s a sickening feeling for the Harrison family, one tempered slightly by the fact that he suffered a similar injury as a junior.

“Last year’s injury was hard for me because it was one of those, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s happening? How does this impact everything else?’ ” Tracey Harrison said. “Then I was told, ‘There is a 100 percent injury rate, mom, so relax. I’ll be OK.’ At some point, anyone that plays football is going to be injured.”

The diagnosis this time is a bone bruise and a slight sprain of the medial collateral and lateral collateral ligaments.

Harrison takes the news in stride and, with a crutch tucked under his right armpit, trundles his way down an empty hallway to await a ride home. It’s a stoic contrast to what he felt when the injury initially occurred.

Olentangy Orange's Zach Harrison and teammate Mitchell Gifford watch freshmen move throughout halls while waiting for a football meeting to start during practice on August 10, 2018. The day before a teammate fell on the knee of Harrison and was crutches for a week.


His final season with Orange would be shortened. That realization was hard to stomach for someone whose closest friends dotted the two-deep for the Pioneers and had been on the sideline with him for four years. The friendships run deep: When one of them sends Harrison a selfie later in the season with a girl who’s maybe, possibly going to become a girlfriend, he nearly tears up out of happiness. Other mothers will tell Tracey that they know Zach is comfortable at their house because he’ll be on the couch in their basement with his socks off.

He wanted to play every game of the year for his teammates, not for his personal glory.

“I was real upset when it happened,” he said. “Like, real upset. I was mad. My coach told my mom, ‘I’ve never seen Zach like that.’ I was mad. It just happened again, like why does this keep happening?”

Walking out for the season opener with his jersey on but a brace on his right knee, Harrison wore his U.S. Army All-American Bowl backpack for the entirety of a 27-26 win against Worthington Kilbourne. As the players huddled before the game, Harrison was there, albeit at the back of the group alongside younger players. As coaches broke down film from an end-zone camera that livestreamed the game, there was Harrison, looking at the tablet and helping guide his teammates.

After swallowing his initial anger, Harrison was able to channel it in a positive manner that his parents appreciated.

“We were like, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ ” Jimmie said. “His spirit that he has, he just pushed right through that. Never missed a practice. Was always right there encouraging his teammates.”

Olentangy Orange's Zach Harrison pulls himself up during a workout in the gym after practice on August 2, 2018.

Off the field

In between two-a-days, players lift weights inside a spacious room bisected by two head-to-head rows of six bench-press stations.

Harrison takes a turn spotting for a teammate on the bench press, then limps around and does his own reps. Then it’s to the hallway, where typical banter among teammates begins as players pull out lunch bags and enjoy a break. NFL issues are argued and stories from playing the most-recent Madden football game are traded. The conversation reaches its way to Harrison, who loves the game of football but is not a gamer. As the alpha of the group, though, he is challenged by at least one teammate.

He doesn’t bite.

“I’m so bad, my badness will confuse you,” he tells a teammate in response to a challenge.

The entire time, bells ring and announcements are made throughout the school. It’s freshman orientation day as the newcomers make their way around the school to their new classrooms, and several actually gape open-mouthed as Harrison dwarfs over them. Throughout the hallway congestion, he’s affable but not overtly vocal and the crowd effortlessly follows him from place to place. He’s popular, but clearly more comfortable with a select group of close friends.

“The funny thing is, they’re probably the same age as me,” says Harrison, who is four days shy of his 17th birthday.

With an early graduation looming, Harrison’s senior year will last just one semester. With extra schoolwork already done, he’s been able to schedule a light load that includes five electives. The easiest class: “college survival skills,” which ironically for Harrison covers learning how to interview for scholarships and how to apply for college. Two girls give him some good-natured grief about being in the class, which comes right after lunch. That is typically spent in Schroeder’s office microwaving and eating the lunch he packed himself.

Olentangy Orange students Elise Shnider, left, and Ruth Bruning, center, help Zach Harrison work on his college schedules during Mrs. Vescelius College Survive class at Orange High School on October 26, 2018.


“I knew I was graduating early so I wanted to enjoy my senior year, build relationships and kind of hang out for five periods,” he said. “That’s always fun. I like all my classes. I like all my teachers, so that helps.”

On a Sunday night, he’s in his living room watching the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles with his dad, who gets the recliner. In addition to watching the game, Zach Harrison is constantly on his phone that is filled with music “from all genres,” he said, with an emphasis on rappers Meek Mill, Young Thug and Gunna.

Olentangy Orange's Zach Harrison checks out Twitter and Snapchat while watching Sunday NFL Football with his father, Jimmie, at their house in Olentangy on October 7, 2018. 

“If you looked at my playlists you’d be like, ‘Zach listens to that kind of music?’ ” he said.

He’s never been to a concert, though, and has no plans to start – although he’s heard good things about Travis Scott live. It’s a character trait inherited from his dad, who laughs in solidarity as his son discusses it.

“Too many people,” Zach Harrison said. “It’s kind of funny, because I don’t know if I’ve ever said this out loud, but I don’t want to go to concerts because I don’t want to deal with parking after and having to leave and fight to park and the traffic on the way home. I see the concert and that’s so many people who are all going to leave at the same time.”

Dad nods: “I guess that’s rubbed off on the kids, too. I like it.”

His social media accounts on Twitter and Instagram are set to private, but if you visited the latter during the season you could click on a link to a GoFundMe page he created for a fundraiser titled “Toys for Columbus Kids.”

The idea grew out of an experience while at the Nike’s “The Opening” summer event in Dallas where Harrison was introduced to an organization called Never Ever Give Up that provides toys and such to children who are confined to hospitals.

It left an impression, hence the fundraiser. On the morning of Dec. 9, Harrison and his parents dropped off six bags of toys that had been sitting underneath their Christmas tree at the front window for weeks. The GoFundMe raised $750.

“When I first heard about it at ‘The Opening,’ it made me sit back and think and reflect on how fortunate I am and how lucky I am to even be able to go home at the end of the day,” Harrison said. “Sleep in my own bedroom. Some of those kids who are struggling for their lives, they don’t have that luxury so anything I can do to make their time easier, make them happier, I’m happy to do.”

There’s also the time the Harrisons have spent volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House in Columbus, where Zach Harrison has gotten the family involved in some of the behind-the-scenes work needed to keep things running at the home for families experiencing a serious illness.

On a mid-September Sunday when he would normally be watching football, Harrison and his parents are in the basement doing laundry. With his long arms, Harrison can fold a fitted sheet by himself. In a gray, hospital-like environment with sterile, white overhead lighting and pipes running along the ceiling, Harrison provides a contrast to the gray industrial-sized washing machines with his blue Orange shirt.

“He knew what he was doing,” his dad said. “There’s a process when you go to the room, where you start. He ran that down to me, what to do and how to do it.”

The clock hits 4 p.m., and the Harrisons’ shift is over. The work isn’t done, though.

“Mom, we can’t leave until we’re done,” Zach tells Tracey.

They stay.

Olentangy Orange's Zach Harrison is tripled blocked late in the second half of his game against Olentangy Liberty on October 19, 2018. Olentangy Orange beat their cross town rival 17-3.

The season

It wasn’t until week 4 that Harrison was finally able to take the field for Orange in what would be a 35-0 blowout against Big Walnut that moved the Pioneers’ record to 2-2. The following week was another lopsided result, this one a 41-12 win at Westland that featured two rain delays.

On a muddy field, Harrison still played on both sides of the ball while wearing braces on both knees and dealing with double- and triple-teams and plenty of chop blocks. On offense, he couldn’t quite catch up to a pass around the 8-yard line that would have been a sure touchdown, and an opposing defensive back taunted him with something to the effect of, “Come on, bro, you’re all-Ohio.”

Olentangy Orange's Zach Harrison wears a knee brace on both knees after a teammate fell on his right knee during a scrimmage and missed the first three games of the season on September 6, 2018. 

Like what you're reading?

Stories that inspire. Coverage that informs. Investigations that affect change. This is real news just when it's needed most. Subscribe today.

Heading back to the line of scrimmage, Harrison replied, “All-Ohio D-end,” while shaking his head.

The Pioneers won their first three games with Harrison by an average of 34.7 points, letting him ease into playing condition.

“I was so out of shape,” he said. “I only had to play a half or three quarters and I got acclimated. I’d be in for every play on offense, every play on defense. For four quarters and potentially overtime? I don’t know if I would have been able to do that coming right off, so it helped.”

Among the highlights, both on and off the field, was a playoff-clinching win against rival Olentangy Liberty. Harrison was a constant presence in the backfield, recording 2½ sacks and multiple tackles for loss in a 17-3 win.

“Beating Olentangy Liberty was the best,” said Tracey, who works for J.P. Morgan Chase Bank. “Even though (the Pioneers) were up by a lot, they played like they were down a lot because they understood that the game wasn’t over.”

Homecoming wasn’t a big deal, his mom said, noting that it wasn’t until the Thursday before the dance that she found out Zach was planning to attend. His only request was for a haircut. To Jimmie’s chagrin, he didn’t even wash his used, goldish Lexus ES300 (his dad works at Carmax).

Senior night, though, was special — even if some playful family banter came at the expense of mom, who wanted to get a nice photo as mom, dad, Zach and his sister, Zahara, walked across the field. His older sister made the drive from Athens, where she attends Ohio University, just to be there for the pregame festivities before immediately heading back.

The Harrison's family Zahara, Jimmie, Zach and Tracey figure out how to hold arms while being introduced for Zach's senior night on October 26, 2018. 


That’s how important the night was, a reflection of the values instilled in the Harrison kids.

“We’re just doing the best that we can (as parents),” Jimmie said. “It’s not anything special that we do.”

Olentangy Orange's Zach Harrison walks down the hall and outside before the first game of the season on August 24, 2018. After a long season Zach will pick between Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State on Wednesday afternoon.

The decision

All of this has played out against the backdrop of a recruiting process that the Harrisons have kept close to the vest. Harrison is the most highly regarded recruit in central Ohio in at least 19 years. According to the composite recruiting database, which dates to 1999, Harrison is the third-highest-rated recruit to come from Ohio.

Only Ted Ginn Jr. (tied for 23rd) from Cleveland and Prescott Burgess (tied for 113th) from Warren rank higher than Harrison (No. 130) in 247sports’ all-time rankings.

Nationally, Harrison is the No. 4-ranked recruit in the class of 2019.

During the season, the family had a calendar for keeping track of when his three top teams were playing at home and which coach from where would be visiting. It was a lot to juggle. But it wasn’t as stressful as what the family said was a consistent flow of often false and occasionally creepy information being passed around.

A wall calendar with the dates of home games of final three schools, (Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State) for Zach Harrison hang on a kitchen on at his house on October 7, 2018. 


“Probably the biggest thing that drives me crazy and probably drives Zach crazy is that people know before we know where we’re going to be or what we’re going to do,” Tracey said. “We’ve made the decision in our house and we might’ve mentioned it to a coach in passing – Hey, we’ll see you on the 12th. And then an hour later it’s published that five-star recruit Zach Harrison will be on campus on the 12th and he’s bringing his mom, his sister, his dad, his dog and his aunt. They’re driving a blue car and it’ll have this license plate. The details!”

Jimmie said he’s seen people report that they’ve seen him driving south on I-71. One rumor had the family relocating to Florida so Zach could commit to a school other than Ohio State and avoid angering the locals – although Tracey joked that she’s considered putting a “for sale” sign in the lawn just for kicks. Tracey said her son has reached out to reporters asking where they heard false information they had published.

He’s gotten to see some of the best games in the Big Ten during the last two seasons. Ohio State’s shocking, second-half comeback win against Penn State in 2017 is the highlight, but not because of the result.

“I brought four of my friends there,” he said. “It was the five of us in the stands, cheering and watching the game. After the game one of my friends jumped over the railing onto the field and then we got separated and he got lost. He kept using his badge like, ‘I’m a recruit, I’m a recruit,’ even though he wasn’t.”

Within his circle of friends, Zach said his college choice is an afterthought. His wardrobe, nationally, is more heavily scrutinized. When he was on hand to watch Michigan host Wisconsin, Harrison wore a white hooded sweatshirt emblazoned with the Wolverines logo. Then when Ohio State hosted Nebraska, Harrison was there and dressed in black like the team but without a Buckeyes logo on his person.

To some, that’s proof positive that he is headed to Michigan. To his mom, that’s just the wardrobe of a typical high school kid.

“The biggest thing I struggle with is the fact that he can’t go see Ohio State’s campus without a big deal, or he can’t have a Penn State shirt on at school without it being a big deal,” she said. “He can’t wear a Notre Dame hat at school without it being, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s one of those he can’t be a regular kid because everything is assumptive.”

Zach said, “I don’t really care. I just pick something and wear it and let outside people talk. They don’t really know anything.”

Olentangy Orange's Zach Harrison meets Penn State head coach James Franklin at midfield before Penn State game against Ohio State game at Beaver Stadium on September 29, 2018. Zach was the only recruit who got to meet Franklin on the field before the game.


Not apt to long interviews, Harrison and his family have grown close with coaches at all three of the schools still under consideration. Those relationships will officially end with two of them once he signs with the third.

“That’s the hardest part, yeah,” he said. “The hardest part is going to be saying no. Some of these coaches and the recruiting guys have gotten to know me, and I’ve kind of opened up to them. Having to shut that door is going to be tough.”

When he puts pen to paper Wednesday and makes his decision final, Zach Harrison said he has an idea of what will be going through his head.

“I’ll just be happy and proud of myself that I did it, I got through it, I’m going to live out my dream,” he said. “It’ll be almost surreal to go play college football now. No more politics. No more visits. I’ll just be playing football again.”

Harrison chooses Ohio State

After a recruiting process he tolerated much more than he enjoyed, five-star defensive end Zach Harrison has signed with Ohio State.

The 6-5½, 243-pound senior at Olentangy Orange, who revealed little publicly throughout his recruitment but allowed The Dispatch to document his senior season, had narrowed his list of finalists to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

The decision gives the Buckeyes the nation’s No. 4 overall recruit and the top strong-side defensive end prospect in the country according to the composite rankings.

Harrison will graduate high school early and enroll next semester.

He was in a reclining chair in his family’s house in Lewis Center a little more than two weeks from signing day when he looked ahead to finally being done with the recruiting process.

“It’s like climbing a mountain,” he told The Dispatch on Dec. 4. “I’m almost to the top, but those last couple feet are the hardest. I want to get to the top so I can look back and be like, ‘Wow, I’m done. Now I get to just focus on playing ball and being a kid again, making friends and hanging out.’ ”

Read more: Getting Zach Harrison 'huge' for Ryan Day

Befitting to his attitude toward the recruiting process as a whole, Harrison didn’t make his announcement live on ESPN or hold a jam-packed press conference. He did it at his high school via a live video stream on Twitter with only invited guests in attendance. He did not do interviews before or after the event, and the school requested that media members not be on its grounds because it’s a semester exams day.

Leading into signing day, Harrison and his parents allowed The Dispatch to follow him through his senior season. He suffered a knee injury during the preseason that cost him the first three games of the year but returned to help lead the Pioneers into the playoffs and finish 7-4 overall.

Throughout, the process was a necessary evil for a 17-year-old who just wanted to play football.

“If we do discuss it, it’s a sit-down for 30 minutes and then we’ll carry on with our regular day,” he said in early December. “It’s not something that’s constantly on our minds, constantly talking about it, constantly thinking about it. (If it was), I feel like it would just overwhelm and consume me. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy being a 17-year-old kid anymore.”

Harrison is the third-highest-rated recruit from Ohio since the inception of the 247Sports rankings in 1999.