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Jack, left, and Carol Harris say they will miss having their son Peyton at home when he leaves for college at The University of Alabama in the fall. Peyton, who plays golf and football at Lawrence County High, is the school's valedictorian.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Jack, left, and Carol Harris say they will miss having their son Peyton at home when he leaves for college at The University of Alabama in the fall. Peyton, who plays golf and football at Lawrence County High, is the school's valedictorian.

Peyton, parents, pride
With family support, Harris succeeds on field, in class

By Brooke Milam 340-2460

RUSSELLVILLE — Like many high school athletes, Lawrence County High senior Peyton Harris knows who his biggest fans are: "Definitely my parents," he said.

Jack and Carol Harris have been cheering on their son since he was born Sept. 17, 1988.

"That's the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (Md.) — one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War," said Jack, history teacher and golf coach at Lawrence County. "Kind of appropriate because he's a fighter."

The Harrises found out in the delivery room that their baby boy was born without a right foot or a right hand.

But the confusion and frustration for their new son wore off quickly and after they accepted the situation, the couple were ready to be fighters with Peyton.

Eighteen years later, there is plenty for which the Harrises can be proud.

Peyton is the valedictorian of Lawrence County's 111-member senior class with a 4.15 grade point average.

He scored a 32 on the ACT and was named a finalist for the Bryant-Jordan Award, selected the regional winner in the achievement category. Athletically, he has been the place-kicker on the varsity football team for three years and is considered the Red Devils' top golfer.

"If I had the determination he has, I'm not sure what I'd be doing right now. I'd probably be on the pro golf tour," Jack Harris said.

Carol Harris added: "I think I've come to the conclusion to never say never with Peyton when it comes to the right things."

To fully understand Peyton Harris and what he's been able to accomplish, you first have to understand his parents.

As they described their son in their multi-acre home in Russellville along Alabama 24, it's obvious that the traits they so admire in Peyton were learned from them, though they are too humble to admit that.

They are fighters. They are smart, accomplished, strong-willed individuals, and they've always had faith in Peyton.

They lost their first son, John Wyatt Harris VI, to a brain tumor just five weeks before Peyton was born.

"We've always said that having Wyatt was the preparation for having Peyton because we didn't pet him. We didn't pamper him," Carol Harris said.

"Wyatt had both hands and feet, but they were totally useless to him because of the brain tumor. If you've got your brain, you've got it all — nothing can hold you back."

Wyatt was 14 months old when he died.

His parents had dedicated every minute caring for him, spending the majority of their time in Birmingham Children's Hospital.

"Once you've seen the things that go through that children's hospital, being born without a hand and foot is no big deal" Jack Harris said.

Peyton has the same attitude, and was never afraid to try sports or an activity that might be thought impossible for him.

He got his first prosthetic leg at 18 months and had to be fitted up to three times a year until he was 9, working with physicians in Birmingham, Anniston and Florence. The visits aren't as frequent now. He's had his current prosthetic leg for more than a year.

A bright child, he could have stuck to the books. His mother is a Spanish teacher at Lawrence County High after a long tenure at Hatton, where Peyton attended elementary school. She said her son liked to be read to as a child and listened to books on tape with his mother.

But Peyton also played youth league baseball just like his friends.

"He had really good hand/eye coordination even with one hand," she said.

Jack Harris said he showed his son former one-handed Major League pitcher Jim Abbott's catch-and-throw method only one time and Peyton taught himself to field at third base.

"He did some pretty remarkable things on the baseball field as a kid," Jack Harris said. "We've always told him you can do anything you want to do if you put forth the effort."

Peyton started place kicking in the seventh grade and improved steadily with the help of his father, a junior varsity football coach at Lawrence County at the time. Peyton's methods worked, and he was perfect on extra-point attempts as a freshman before moving up to varsity.

Jack Harris is also Peyton's golf coach. He said he made Peyton his first putter when he was 4 to use on frequent trips to the golf course. He made his son a 7-iron the next year, and Peyton had his first set of clubs as a 6-year-old. Jack Harris said teaching Peyton the mechanics of a golf swing was a challenge, but now he's averaging near 40 in a nine-hole round.

"Once we had a method of getting his right hand on the club, he took that and adapted his own technique," Jack Harris said. "He has to use his shoulders a lot more, which is something you teach them to do, but he can't do it any other way. It's natural for him. He really takes a rip."

Carol Harris said that in some ways her concerns for her son playing varsity athletics were no different than any other mother's. But the uniqueness of Peyton's situation also offered a different perspective.

"I wasn't ever worried about him getting hurt, but I knew he had to work even harder to be better because I didn't want other parents to think 'Oh he's just getting to do that because of his handicap or because his dad is a teacher at the school,' " she said.

Added his father: "We wanted him to have it because he deserved it."

The Harrises said they have dealt with some backlash, but Peyton was always able to put criticism in perspective and prove himself on the field. "I don't think we've ever limited him as much as other people have limited him," Carol Harris said.

Sports were in Peyton's blood. Jack played football, baseball and basketball at Russellville High before playing golf for the Crimson Tide, as a student at The University of Alabama. Carol Harris is also an Alabama graduate.

Peyton will continue the family tradition when he heads to Tuscaloosa in the fall.

After earning a perfect score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery military testing last fall, Peyton is drawing interest from the service academies.

Alabama Public Television recently chose Peyton one of six students in the state for its "Young Heroes" honor, awarding him a $3,000 scholarship and a laptop computer.

His parents say Peyton is interested in medicine but is also looking into several branches of government work.

For now, he's enjoying spring break in Destin, Fla., with friends, and after graduation, he'll be on a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico.

Jack and Carol Harris beamed as they recalled a recent statement by Lawrence County guidance counselor Amy Martin, who has known Peyton since he was in elementary school.

"She said, 'Peyton's best is ahead of him.' And I think she's absolutely right," Jack Harris said.

This summer, Peyton said he will be spending time with friends "one last time before we go our separate ways." He also said he knows parting with his parents in the fall will be difficult.

"I'll miss them," Peyton said, before joking, "... I don't know how much they'll miss me."

The Harrises will keep busy teaching full class schedules at Lawrence County, hanging around the golf course, remodeling their large classical home built in the 1800s, and tending to their 130-something head of cattle.

Peyton said he always will take a piece of his parents with him — their common interests, their determination to overcome obstacles and their fighting spirit. And he knows that no matter what, they are always in his cheering section.

"I'm grateful for all the support they've always given me," Peyton said. "They've definitely been a big influence on my life."

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