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On the prowl
Kalispell wrestler Tiger Harris, left, concentrates on the work at hand as he battles Butte's Ben Schmidt to a 10-7 decision Friday at the Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic wrestling tournament at Sentinel High School. Harris, the defending state AA heavyweight champion, would prefer to play football in college next year.
MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Kalispell's Tiger Harris is a force on the football field and the wrestling mat

By JON KASPER of the Missoulian

Meet a Tiger who doesn't golf.

Kalispell senior heavyweight Tiger Harris is all about football and wrestling.

"I hate golf,'' said Harris, who is competing at this weekend's Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic wrestling tournament at Missoula Sentinel. "I've never golfed. It doesn't interest me.''

The golfing question usually comes right after people ask the defending state Class AA heavyweight champion if Tiger is in fact his real first name. Turns out it is, and there's quite a story behind it.

"I was born about five weeks premature and weighted a little over 5 pounds,'' Harris said. "The nurses and doctors didn't think I was gong to make it. The nurses kept telling me to, 'fight like a little Tiger,' and the name just stuck.''

Harris has seen the pictures of his frail little body lying next to a Cabbage Patch doll.

"We were about the same size,'' Harris said. "Preemies don't normally get that big. I've been lucky that it has not affected by growth or anything.''

Today, Harris stands 6-foot-3 and tips the scales at 235 pounds. He's a state champion and could pursue a collegiate wrestling career.

"I don't think he's fully matured,'' said Kalispell coach Jeff Thompson. "He could be a solid 275-pound heavyweight. You don't see a lot of guys that size even think about the sport of wrestling.''

But wrestling isn't Tiger's first love. Football is.

Harris was a first team all-state defensive end for the Kalispell Braves this past fall. He was also a second team all-state offensive lineman. He's been invited to play in the Shrine game this summer, and is being recruited by Montana, Montana State, several of the NAIA state schools, and well as some out-of-state institutions.

Harris said he wouldn't mind following in his father's footsteps and play football for the Grizzlies. Greg Harris, who owns Grizzly Security, lettered at UM from 1972-74 before a two-year stint in the NFL with the New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers.

"If the opportunity is there that would be my first choice,'' Tiger said. "I'm still weighing my options. I'm not going to say much until I get what I want from someone. I've talked to Coach (Bobby) Hauck quite a bit and they are very interested.''

Because of some nagging shoulder injuries, Tiger's wrestling season is just getting going. Harris wrestled the first weekend of the season, winning the Polson Invitational. He took the next five weeks off to rest his shoulders.

"It's nothing real serious,'' he said. "I've got some strained tendons and some tendinitis. I'm trying to get healthy again. I'm still going to be careful. If I'm still hurting, I'll pull myself from the tournament. I'm not here to win the Rocky. I'm just trying to stay healthy for the state tournament and that's what counts.''

Harris earned a hard-fought 10-7 win over Butte's Ben Schmidt in the first round. In the quarters, Harris pinned Hamilton's Garrett Koppes in 34 seconds. If he feel's good enough, Saturday he'll take on Great Falls Russell's John Turrin in the semifinals.

Most wrestlers would love to have a title from the prestigious Rocky Mountain title on their resume, and Harris, who finished second last season, feels the same way. But the third-ranked Braves have a chance at the state title next month in Billings, but they need a healthy Tiger to have a chance.

The Braves placed third last season when Harris finished 38-5 and captured the state championship with a 10-4 win over Great Falls High's Aaron Papich.

"It was great,'' Harris said. "I improved so much last year. A couple of years before that I was on varsity, but I wasn't an impact wrestler. I just turned up the dial and started wrestling to my potential.''

At 230 pounds, Harris is fairly light for a heavyweight. He's dropped 15 pounds and competed at the new 215-pound weight class earlier this season, but will likely stay at heavyweight for the state tournament.

Thompson said Harris' speed on the mat helps him compete against the bigger heavyweights.

"He's extremely fast for that weight,'' Thompson said. "He's strong enough to compete even though he doesn't weigh 275. He's very intense and he has very long arms. That helps him for when he's wrestling on top. He can cradle a lot of guys. He's hard to take down because he stays in such great position.''

Harris said there's no doubt wrestling has made him a better football player.

"Without wrestling I wouldn't have the footwork and balance I do playing football,'' he said. "It's really done wonders for my career in football.''

Reporter Jon Kasper can be reached at 523-5247 or by e-mail at jkasper@missoulian.com.

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