MANHATTAN, Kan. Weston Schartz was Elmer Fudd angry, his face contorted and red, smoke shooting from his ears the way steam leaves a copper kettle. He was so cheesed that he clicked on the tweet and printed it out. Printed it out and saved it.
This was two autumns ago, and the Twitter miscreant, one of the local Wichita wiseapples, had asked in so many words what was going through Chris Harper's mind now that he was stuck at middling Kansas State while his former team, Oregon, was playing Auburn for the national title. For those closest to the Wildcats' star receiver, including Schartz, it felt like a cheap shot, a pillar of salt dumped on old wounds.
"(It said) he went from playing for a national championship spot to being at K-State and being an also-ran," recalls Schartz, who coached Harper at Wichita Northwest High School. "And I'll never forget that. I'm thinking, 'Dude, that's unfair.' I always thought Chris would reach (the top) and have great things happen to him. And, hopefully, it will happen to him."
A few years later, Schartz still has the tweet, and Harper, for his part, has no regrets. "Middling" K-State takes a 10-0 record into Baylor this weekend ranked No. 1 in the latest Bowl Championship Series standings. No. 2? The Ducks, with whom Harper began his collegiate career in 2008. If both teams win out, they're on a collision course for Sun Life Stadium on Jan. 7.
Small world. Big stakes. The biggest.
"I've been talking to those guys this week," says Harper, who leads the Wildcats in receiving yardage (604) and is tied for the team leads in catches (36). "Because I guess a lot of them watched (the TCU) game, they hit me up on Twitter, texting me, all that kind of stuff. So it definitely . . . would be good to see them. That would be fun.
"(Former Oregon players) Jairus Byrd, Pat Chung, T.J. Ward, Drew Davis, those are the guys that brought me up and kind of showed me what college is about. . . . Those guys have the mentality to play here. Those are tough-minded guys that would able to play here. Getting to see those guys, you know, that would be nice."
It would be closure, if nothing else. The short version of the story goes like this: Having grown up in the shadow of coach Bill Snyder's first great Wildcats dynasty of the late 1990s, the 6-foot-1 Harper blossomed into one of the nation's best athletic quarterback prospects as a prep senior during the fall of '07, a multi-tool stud who could play anywhere on the field and make it look easy.
Despite some reservations about Snyder's replacement, Ron Prince, Harper formed a bond with James Franklin, Prince's offensive coordinator and initially committed to K-State. But when Franklin bolted for the same role with the University of Maryland after the 2007 season, Harper de-committed and cast his lot with Oregon, having developed a rapport with Chip Kelly, the Ducks' new offensive coordinator. He was part of a wicked recruiting class that included LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.
In the fall of 2008, Harper became the first Ducks player since 2000 to throw for a touchdown, run for a touchdown and catch a pass for a touchdown in the same campaign. But after five games, he found he was being converted to receiver on a full-time basis. Harper caught a TD pass in Oregon's 31-24 win over UCLA on Oct. 11 of that year, but Schartz, watching the game back home, noticed something different about his former prodigy.
"I told my wife, 'He's not happy,' " the coach recalls. "And she said, What are you talking about?' I said, 'It's after the game. He should be celebrating. And he's kind of standing around, looking for someone to bond with.' Everyone else was kind of hanging with their families. At that time, I felt bad for him he didn't have anybody there."
Before long, like a lot of college freshmen, Harper began thinking less about the fun and more about the miles. About how much he missed his friends and his family, especially his brother William. At the same time, fate played an unexpected hand.
Word came from back home that Prince was out in Manhattan, and that Snyder, whose teams Harper had grew up idolizing, had been coaxed back to the throne. A little later, Kelly ascended to the role of Oregon's head coach, but Harper had already made up his mind. His heart bled purple. And this time, he would listen to it.
"Coach Kelly is the reason he went to Oregon," says Corby Milleson, another of Harper's former coaches and mentors. "All he wanted was a shot (at quarterback), and he felt like he got that shot. I think it came down to the fact that he was homesick."
Let's be clear on one thing. From Wichita to Eugene, it's a 1,781-mile drive; from Wichita to Manhattan, Kan., it's roughly 130 miles. For Harper, it wasn't about anything sinister. It wasn't about any agenda. It was about the math.
And yet confidants thought he was bonkers. Even loved ones thought he had flipped.
"Family members, they were like, 'You're stupid. What are you doing? (Oregon) had all the jerseys,' " says Harper, who is taking graduate classes after having already received his communications degree. "And I was like, 'I don't care about the jerseys.'
"What does that mean? All that stuff doesn't matter to me. I could care less. Seriously, I like our jerseys. But that's what everybody comes to me and says. They're like, 'Oregon, Nike University, what are you doing?' I said, 'Dude, the reason I came home was to play in Kansas and be with my family. That was the reason I came back.'"
He came back for them. He came back to push a proud program back on to the national stage, to give Heisman Trophy front-runner Collin Klein the pair took part in 7-on-7 drills together during K-State summer camps while they were teens a viable deep threat. Through the Wildcats' first eight games, Harper had accounted for seven of K-State's offensive plays that went for 20 yards or longer, tied for the team lead with fellow receiver Tyler Lockett.
"I definitely knew when I came, we could definitely do the same things that they're doing out there," Harper says of Oregon. "(It's) just (that) we're going to do it in a different way."
Those two disparate paths almost crossed sooner. Before he left, Prince had scheduled a home-and-home series with the Ducks for 2011 and 2012. Both parties agreed to cancel the contract in 2010, with neither school incurring a financial penalty, but some spin artists tried to paint the move as another case of Snyder "ducking" pardon the pun a marquee nonconference opponent. Considering that the Wildcats visited Miami (Fla.) in 2011 and hosted the Hurricanes in September, that argument doesn't exactly hold up in the wash.
"I wanted to play them this year," Harper says. "And everybody was saying we backed out of it. I've heard people say that, and that wasn't the case. People that don't understand the situation don't know what they're talking about. But I would like to play them."
The K-State wideout still chews the fat with this old Ducks teammate, Barner, every week. But he doesn't sweat what could have been in Eugene, what he might have missed. The only thing going through Harper's mind is that he made the perfect choice. The path was long. Long and winding. But, in the end, it was right.
"The success that we're having is big for me," he says. "It's personal. It's not just me playing for the university. It's me playing for the state that I've been from. . . . I've always tried to represent Kansas and Wichita. It means a lot to me."
With that, Chris Harper smiles. Every also-ran should be so lucky.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org