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J.W. Harper: a life remembered

Posted on Wednesday, November 1, 2023 at 9:00 am

True Blue Pioneer. J.W. Harper, the first African-American football player at Middle Tennessee State University, was joined by family members on “True Blue” Pioneer awards day in 2020.


When J.W. Harper passed away earlier this month he left a legacy that could not be adequately covered in an obituary.

He was a pioneer — though he never planned to be — when he became the first African-American football player at Middle Tennessee State University when he walked on in 1968.

Football and family were his life and he found a way to combine both. His two sons, Jarrett and Harvey Harper, followed in his athletic footsteps. They both played for him at Texas Southern University, where they both earned their degrees and pledged the same fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. After graduation Jarrett became a football coach at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga.

J.W. began his football career at Harris High School playing two seasons for a pair of local legends – Will Porter Martin and Lendell Massengale. He remembers them as being tough but fair.

While at Harris he also was percussionist in the marching band forcing him to make some quick changes at halftime.

He closed out his high school career playing for Doug Langston at Shelbyville Central High School. He made a seamless transition from a Tiger to a Golden Eagle.

In fact, he earned Most Valuable Player honors his senior year at Central where he did double-duty as a center and defensive end. He also played basketball and was a member of the track and field team.

J.W. had a simple philosophy in his approach to football which was instilled in his mind at Harris.

“In football you go out and hit,” J.W. said. “I was going to hit you until I whipped you.

“We went head-to-head at Harris. Once you stepped over the line onto the grass field the only question was if you were better than the person in front of you. If you beat the other guy you got to play. It was just football.”

That relentless spirit helped earn him a spot as a walk-on at MTSU when he broke the color-barrier.

Coach Charles “Bubber” Murphy allowed Harper to try out for the Blue Raiders. In 1969 he was a tight end but move to defensive end for the 1970 through ’72 seasons.

“My philosophy was you might be bigger, and you might be faster than me, but I am going to be better than you,” J.W. said. “Coach Murphy called me in and said, `I can tell you really want to play.’

“He said I was as good as or better than some of the players on the team. He told me he was going to redshirt me. He said they weren’t going to win many games that year and he didn’t want to waste my eligibility.”

Despite his talent, which also included time with the MTSU basketball team from 1968-69, he was never awarded a scholarship. He admits he didn’t want one. He worked his way through school on a work-study program.

Every day after practice he washed the football uniforms, cleaned equipment and made sure everything was in place in each locker the next day. He repeated the same job for the basketball team.

Jimmy Earle, long-time MTSU men’s basketball coach, served as J.W.’s work-study advisor.

“After practice I would put loads of laundry in, go the cafeteria and eat and then come back to the locker room and put everything in the lockers.

“Most of the players didn’t know I was doing that. I enjoyed it. It was something I can’t explain.”

He earned a B.S. degree in health, physical education and recreation from MSTU. He received his M.Ed. degree in administration and supervision from Tennessee State University.

From 1973-81 J.W. was the head football coach and athletic director, as well as the head boy’s and girl’s track coach at Tennessee Preparatory School. He also served the assistant principal. During his time there he worked with James Scott, a former principal at Shelbyville Central High School.

In 1981 he moved to Houston, Texas where he learned there was a need for teachers. He was a coach and teacher at two high schools in Houston. In 1991 he became an assistant football coach at Texas Southern University where he coached Michael Strahan, a National Football League Hall of Famer and television personality.

He also worked as a language arts teacher at Alief Learning Center in Alief, Texas from 2002-21. He was also a substitute teacher in Pearland, Texas.

“I grew up very, very poor,” J.W. said. “People gave me chances in sports. My love was sports and to coach and try to give back.”