CHARLOTTESVILLE -- In 1996, Chris Harrison showed up at the end-of-spring-practice picnic for the University of Virginia football team. He was living at the time with two UVA players who had eligibility remaining, James Farrior and Julius Williams, so I was like, `All right, I'm going to go,' " Harrison said.
The picnic was not, however, for former players, no matter how well-regarded they might have been. Head coach George Welsh used the annual gathering to help build bonds among the players who would take the field for the Cavaliers in the fall, and Harrison's presence did not please him.
"Welsh had a fit," Harrison recalled, laughing. "He said, `I'm never going to be able to get rid of you.' `I said, `I'm sorry. I love it here, so I want to stick around.' "
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Harrison enrolled at UVA in 1990. Six years later, he left with a bachelor's degree from the McIntire School of Commerce and a master's from the Curry School of Education.
As a standout lineman at St. John's College High in D.C., Harrison had earned scholarship offers from such schools as Virginia, Penn State, Syracuse, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Duke. The service academies also pursued him, as did Harvard, and his mother encouraged Harrison to take the Ivy League route.
Harrison resisted. He wanted to play football on a larger stage.
"We went back and forth on that, but it worked out," Harrison said. "Going to UVA was one of the best decisions I think I ever made in my life."
After finally leaving UVA, Harrison played four seasons in the NFL and then moved into the business world. For nearly two decades he's owned the C.A. Harrison Companies,which focuses on commercial and resident real-estate development, often in neighborhoods that have been neglected.
Harrison, 45, also serves on the board of directors for the Military Bowl, a role that holds special meaning for him this season. This year's game matches Virginia and Navy. They'll meet Thursday at 1:30 p.m. at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
For the Cavaliers (6-6), in their second season under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, this will be their first postseason appearance since 2011.
"I'm proud and honored to have them in the Military Bowl," Harrison said. "I'm so excited. I even went and got a suite of my own [at the stadium] just to host some alumni and get some guys back to see the game. It's just really, really exciting to see the program is finally on the right track again."
For most of the past decade, the Wahoos have struggled, and that's been difficult for former players such as Harrison to watch. But Mendenhall is bringing "the program back to the values that I think Welsh had in terms of not just playing great football, but creating and helping to mold and build good young men with some character," Harrison said, "and I think that's great."
The Cavaliers arrived in the D.C. area on Christmas Eve, and Harrison was there to welcome them at their hotel. He spoke with Mendenhall and UVA's new athletics director, Carla Williams, and told the team how proud he was of its accomplishments.
The `Hoos will practice at St. John's this week.. Harrison worked with Gerry Capone, UVA's associate athletics director for football administration, to set that up.
"I told Gerry, `Y'all better take a look at St. John's before you look anywhere else,' " Harrison said, "so he was happy to oblige."
The football facilities at St. John's were not so lavish when Harrison, now 45, was a student there.
"We played on a grass field that turned into dirt by the end of the year," he said, "but it was a great education and it provided me a segue to go to UVA, and I blossomed at UVA."
After redshirting in 1990, Harrison was in the offensive line rotation in '91 and '92, playing both tackle and guard. But he missed the entire 1993 season after suffering a badly broken right leg in practice.
"Remember [former Redskins quarterback] Joe Theismann?" Harrison said. "It was the exact same injury."
A long rehab followed, but his leg eventually healed, and Harrison started every game at right tackle for the `Hoos in 1994. The NCAA had granted him a rare sixth year of eligibility, but Harrison wasn't set on returning to UVA for the 1995-96 academic year. He had job offers from prominent companies and had been accepted by several law schools.
"I was ready to move on," Harrison recalled. "Because of my injury, I was not going to be a draft pick, but Welsh sat me down and said, `Listen, I think you have the ability to play professionally, and I'm not saying this to you [simply] because I want you to stick around.'
"He said, `I think you have a legitimate shot [to play in the NFL].' And so I came back and I was very glad I did, because we won the ACC [in 1995]. I went on and made Detroit as an undrafted rookie free agent, and the rest is history."
Welsh, who retired as UVA's coach after the 2000 season, remembers Harrison as a "top-notch person. He took the coaching very well. He was a good guy around the Grounds and a great personality. I always liked him. And as a player he was a very good offensive lineman."
An incident neither Welsh nor Harrison has forgotten took place on Oct. 7, 1995, during UVA's game with North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
"It was a close game," Harrison said, "and I actually had my back turned to the play. A safety comes up and hits me in the back, I turn around and push him, and I get a 15-yard penalty. And George goes nuts, because he saw [the initial blow]."
Harrison "was hit first in a pile," Welsh recalled, "and he retaliated. He got up and he pushed the guy, that's all he did, and he got 15 yards. And then I criticized the officials after that. As I recall, I said something like, `These guys never see the first blow. They always see the second one,' and his was the second one."
Welsh laughed. "So [ACC commissioner] Gene Corrigan fined me $1,000, but it was worth it."
UVA lost that game, but the victories far outnumbered the defeats during Harrison's college career. The `Hoos finished 8-4 in 1990, 8-3-1 in '91, 7-4 in '92, 7-5 in '93, 9-4 in '94, and 9-4 in '95.
Playing for Welsh, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004, was a positive and interesting experience, Harrison said. "He was such an introvert, you never knew how he felt about you or what he was thinking. But you always knew he cared about the kids getting their education."
That was important to Harrison's parents as well. His mother "always believed that education could get you wherever you needed to go," Harrison said, and that's a message he'd like to share with Virginia's current players.
It's easy for players to view college as "just a stepping stone to the NFL," Harrison said, "and they forget, especially at a school like UVA, the beauty of having that education.
"People fight and claw to get into UVA as just [regular] students, and to be able to go there for free and have access to every tool that those same people have and not use it to your benefit, you're doing yourself a disservice and you're doing the University a disservice. They just need to recognize that college football is about the education first. And I know that sounds so corny to some of these kids, but it truly is."
As the end of his NFL career neared, Harrison wasn't sure what his next step professionally would be, "but I wanted to buy a house while I was still playing," he said.
He ended up purchasing a block of run-down houses in D.C.. With help from his father, an accomplished carpenter, Harrison began renovations. He kept one of the houses for his residence and sold the others, whose value had increased substantially. Thus was born his real estate career.
His company has bought and renovated properties in the D.C. area, in Richmond, and in North Carolina, among other places. Harrison lives in Washington with his wife and their daughter, and another child is on the way.
He's been on the Military Bowl's board of directors for years. The bowl is a non-profit organization that supports and honors the military and veterans, and in April 2016 it purchased a 290-acre property, now known as Patriot Point, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
"It's basically a retreat for soldiers," Harrison said. "If they're just coming home or healing from injuries, they can come and relax and bring their families."
Patriot Point offers hunting, camping, skeet shooting and other outdoor recreational activities.
"Our ultimate goal is to raise enough money from the bowl game to support that. We're getting close," Harrison said.
"I love the bowl game. We're not a top-tier bowl, but I think for the local community, it's received very well. For the ACC and AAC" -- the conferences whose teams are represented in the bowl game -- "it's received very well, too. We're just trying to grow it to become sustainable in and of itself, and I think we're doing a good job of it."