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John Harrar’s Humble Beginnings Highlighted In Big Ten Network Documentary

Before cementing himself as a formidable All-Big Ten force in the paint for Penn State men’s basketball, John Harrar’s road to on-court stardom began nearly 200 miles southeast of Happy Valley in blue-collar Delaware County.

Recently, the Big Ten Network featured Harrar’s inspiring story of humble beginnings on its latest episode of “The Journey: Big Ten Basketball,” which gives viewers a unique, all-access look into the conference’s 14 programs throughout the regular-season slate.

As the product of a small town, Harrar and his brother, JT, were influenced early by their father’s love of sports, ranging from football, basketball, and baseball. Initially, Harrar began his athletic prowess on the diamond where his father helped mold him into a well-rounded, three-sport athlete almost immediately upon scratching the surface.

Although the pair of young brothers’ posed no shortage of athletic talent, their role model, Jim, involved the tandem in athletic-based settings to teach critical life lessons and values spanning far beyond the field or the hardwood.

“They always threw baseballs out in the front yard or backyard,” Harrar’s mother, Sue, said about Jim. “Everybody was just like, ‘OK, Jim’s working out the kids again.’ Both kids would be there with their gloves. [He would be] teaching them the fundamentals and teaching them how to be a better person through sports.”

Tragically, the unbreakable bond between the Harrar boys and their father took a turn for the worst on Jim’s 49th birthday. Over the course of only hours, a yearly routine check-up forever altered the course of Harrar’s childhood.

When Harrar was just 9 years old, his seemingly healthy father relayed his diagnosis of stage-four esophageal cancer.

“We came home, and I think he just told us that he had cancer, and I was [about] a nine-year-old,” Harrar said. “I didn’t know what cancer was, but as the progression [continued], you’d see him losing over a hundred pounds.”

Jim’s diagnosis rapidly progressed throughout a hard-fought 16-month period. Less than a year and a half after embarking on his battle with cancer, he passed away. At such a young age, Harrar looked toward sports as an outlet to escape his own daily struggles. Furthermore, the 11-year-old used competition to honor his father, just as Jim would have admired.

“When my dad passed away, I think I was 11-years-old,” Harrar said. “Sports helped me in ways [that served as] kind of that distraction. I liked basketball and had fun with it. I saw my dad with all the sports, but I didn’t know it really took sacrifices and hard work [at the time].”

Harrar continued to grow in stature, allowing his massive 6’8″, 230-pound frame to help garner a plethora of offers on the gridiron, doubling as a tight end and defensive end. During his senior year, the rangy two-sport phenom verbally pledged to Army’s football program.

“As soon as he said the verbal commitment, he knew he had made a mistake,” Sue said. “He committed to Army, I believe on a Sunday, and then on Monday, he said, ‘I’m not sure what I just did. I don’t think I can do this.’”

The brash change in heart led to Harrar’s de-commitment from West Point, allowing him to pursue a future centered around his first love: basketball. However, the dominant forward failed to amass any Division I offers as a hooper throughout his senior circuit.

Fortunately, Harrar’s high school head basketball coach, Daniel Spangler, knew Patrick Chambers from his brother’s playing days with the Nittany Lions’ head man at Philadelphia University in the early 1990s. The personal connection opened up the opportunity for Harrar to “try out” for a potential roster spot as an unestablished, no-name prospect.

“I was fortunate to get a tryout [at Penn State],” Harrar said. “When you say a tryout for a high major program, there are usually players with like 10 to 15 offers. You have to prove to people that you belong here, and I didn’t during AAU and I didn’t during high school basketball, so I called myself a zero-star.”

Chambers instantly latched on to Harrar’s style defined by hustle and determination, earning him instant minutes on the Nittany Lions’ NIT Championship-winning unit as a freshman. After entering the program’s premises as a bench player, Harrar admirably stepped in at center for an injured Mike Watkins and never again found himself outside of Penn State’s core rotation.

Following Harrar’s first campaign without the guidance of Chambers following his departure a year ago, the tenacious paint presence entered the transfer portal for six weeks. While searching for a new suitor for his services, Harrar decided he couldn’t come to grips with leaving Penn State: a place that he claims ‘changed his life.’ For many within the program, Harrar’s attitude and toughness define the program better than anyone else ever could.

“I joke with him all the time, but he’s a different breed,” senior guard Myles Dread said. “There are very, very few like John. He’s superman — the epitome of Penn State basketball. When he wants something, he goes after it.  I hear him all the time, ‘I want to win at Penn State.’ That’s why he made the conscious decision to come back.”

With a solid 8-8 record, including three pivotal conference victories, Harrar has once again made well on his promise to win meaningful matchups at Penn State as a senior. His leadership, along with the unwavering support from first-year head coach Micah Shrewsberry, have only enhanced his strengths on the court. Currently, the Delaware County native is enjoying his most productive season yet, with career-high marks in points (10.1) and rebounds (9.6) per outing.

“People say all the time, ‘Don’t leave anything in the tank’,” said Micah Shrewsberry. “John empties his tank every single game. We’ll be showing film on John long after he’s gone here. I get him for one year, [and I’m] totally happy that I get that one year. But John’s going to be remembered for a long time. I’m going to make sure of that.”

The full version of Harrar’s mini-documentary is available here, courtesy of the Big Ten Network’s YouTube channel.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a sophomore from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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