Photography by Greg Pallante
Bruce Harper doesn't mind being remembered as one of the NFL's smallest running backs in the late '70s and early '80s – if anything, it's his calling card in high schools throughout New Jersey. Harper, a 5-foot 8-inch former New York Jet, has to suppress a smile every time he introduces himself to a new group of teenagers. Their expression requires no translation: How could anyone that undersized be tough?
"That's why I show them a 10-minute highlight film of my career, just to get their attention," Harper says. When the lights come on, the vibe in the room has morphed beyond curiosity, blown past acceptance, and gone straight through to respect. That's the hook Harper needs as he begins a lesson in leadership.
His program is called Heroes and Cool Kids, and if you think it's just another celebrity ex-jock reciting the usual just-say-no platitudes, Harper insists you think again. The foundation turns those skeptical high school seniors into mentors who pay it forward, turning into role models – Heroes – for the community's fifth and sixth graders, a.k.a. the Cool Kids.
When the machine is working properly, Harper is no longer the star – he's part of a team that produces a generation of young leaders.
"When my career was over, I kept telling myself, 'I have to do something, there has to be a way to make a difference,'" Harper says. There were other avenues to choose – real estate, the corporate world, maybe even a return to football, this time as a coach. But he says none would've been as satisfying as watching teens make good decisions, which has kept Heroes and Cool Kids growing since its inception in 1998.
Harper, a lifelong Bergen resident currently living in Closter, and co-founder Susan Rudolph have expanded the program to 52 schools in the Garden State, including 19 in Bergen, cutting across every demographic: from urban (Lincoln High School in Jersey City) to suburban (Northern Valley-Demarest), from single-district (Hackensack) to regional (Westwood) – even to Harper's alma mater, Dwight Morrow in Englewood.
Regardless of race, ethnicity or economic status, the kids receive the same training in Harper's workshops. Sometimes it's the ex-Jet who does the teaching, although, as the program has gained traction, he increasingly relies on trainers, often ex-athletes themselves, to deliver the life-lessons.
"The idea is to take positive people passing along positive messages," Harper says. "It starts with pro athletes, and they pass it down to kids who aren't so positive, or the ones who are on the fence. After that, they pass it down to the next level, at the middle schools. We stress, 'It's cool to play it straight.'"
Harper talks about reaching into south Jersey, then to the west. Heroes and Cool Kids is already in a handful of schools in Rockland and Westchester counties, the stepping stone Harper hopes will lead to a national roll-out.
It's an ambitious vision of the future, but not altogether unrealistic – not to a guy who beat the odds for most of his athletic career. Yes, you're allowed to ask Harper about being vertically challenged, if only because the memory is a bridge to the magic he once created on the gridiron.
What other description could there be for a running back who weighed a mere 174 pounds? Harper was a Lilliputian, even before the NFL started cranking out 250-pound ball carriers and 330-pound linemen. What the league lacked in size 30 years ago was made up in sheer brutality. Yet, somehow, Harper became the Jets' all-time leading kick returner with 5,407 yards, totaling more than 11,000 yards by the time he retired in 1984 at age 30.
Harper had dreams of lasting a full 10 years with the Jets, but considering his size, and the fact that he already suffered from chronic neck pain, eight was a miracle. "I got out just in time," he says. "I was too dumb to realize I was too small."
Harper is still an active member of the Jets' alumni, continuing to follow how the NFL has evolved since he stopped playing.
"It used to be about who was the toughest. The teams that won were the ones that beat you up the most," Harper says. "Strategy is so much more of a factor today. So is scouting. The role of the head coach is more important now than it ever was."
He concedes the modern-day athlete is bigger, faster and stronger than players of his generation, but to even suggest that Harper couldn't survive in today's NFL raises his blood pressure a tick.
"If I could use today's training methods and what they know about nutrition, there's no doubt I could've played in the present-day league," Harper says. That's the dreamer in him talking. Reality, however, is less generous. Harper is within hailing distance of his 60th birthday and wears an internal defibrillator that monitors a damaged heart. Not long ago, Harper suffered a mini-stroke that came and went without inflicting any permanent damage
Still, the brush with mortality has kept Harper's hubris in check. He's no longer wired for preening or self-congratulation – not that he ever was. But now, more than ever, Harper lives in 24-hour increments, which adds greater urgency to the lessons in the classroom.
"You never know what's in store, what's coming around the corner," Harper says. For the kids, it means being prepared for bullying or how to stay away from gangs. The organization has been prepped locally by the prosecutor's office, learning to identify troubled and aggressive behavior that may threaten the student body.
Even simple, common sense reminders about nutrition are brought to the forefront. The Heroes talk about the pitfalls of junk food and how it negatively impacts everything in a middle school student's day – how they think, act, even play.
Of course, Harper could drive home the same point, recreating past glories on the gridiron. But that would nudge Heroes and Cool Kids off its direct path to the future.
"This isn't about me," Harper says. "It's about young people with their whole lives in front of them. That's why I'm here, for them."
Committed to Community
In addition to his hard work with Heroes and Cool Kids, Bruce Harper serves on the board of trustees for Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.
"Bruce Harper has been not only a good friend to me personally, but a great friend to our hospital," says Douglas Duchak, President and CEO of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. "In spite of his celebrity status, he remains a very humble man who truly loves his community and we are thankful to have such an influential and proactive individual give valuable time for the good of our hospital and our communities."
A Partnership for a Positive Future
by Brooke Perry
It all started 14 years ago when Bruce Harper and co-founder Susan Rudolph found themselves weighing the pros and cons of mentoring programs that brought professional athletes into schools for motivational speeches, which, though inspiring, were ultimately too brief.
"We felt that an ongoing initiative would be more effective," Rudolph, a resident of Haworth, says, "and that high schoolers have a natural platform to elementary and middle school-aged kids. We envisioned a program that would allow younger kids to connect with high school students who, through their commitment to academics and extracurricular involvement, are positive role models. A program like this is needed in all districts, from inner cities to affluent suburban towns. The demographics may be different, but the problems are the same."
Indeed, Heroes and Cool Kids is well established in a dozen counties in New Jersey and is "slowly creeping over into New York State," says Rudolph, who along with Harper envisions the program going nationwide one day. The key to the program's success is training. To prep high schoolers for their role as a "hero" to the "cool kid" younger set, they are extensively coached by a select group of trainers, including professional athletes, newscasters, and other influential and inspiring leaders. The trainers then help the high schoolers develop and fine-tune their own motivational message.
"Our goal is to show the younger kids that being a good kid can be fun," Rudolph says. "This is absolutely the age at which they haven't started to make bad decisions. We're getting to them before they start making those decisions."
Over the course of three visits, the mentors tackle timely topics ranging from bullying to preventing drug, alcohol and tobacco use, but not before they've made a meaningful connection with the kids. The first visit to the elementary school is focused on getting acquainted with their high school mentors and gives the high school "heroes" an opportunity to dispel fears and myths about the high school experience. With a comfort level established, the next visit targets bullying, prevention and conflict resolution. On the third school visit, the high school students address how to make positive lifestyle choices, including drug, alcohol and tobacco avoidance.
Interestingly, Heroes and Cool Kids has been addressing bullying for more than 10 years – long before it became a hot-button legislative issue. "We work on bystander responsibility," Rudolph says. "We say , 'How would you feel if...,'" kicking off a conversation that highlights the importance of inclusion and empathy.
With some 2,000 high school "heroes" on its rolls, the program is working wonders in communities from Rahway to Ridgewood. Best of all, local businesses and foundations are enthusiastically signing on to adopt entire districts. United Water Foundation and NFL Charities, for example, fund Heroes and Cool Kids in several schools each year. In addition, the program receives donations from individuals who admire its positive impact. "It's a win-win for everyone," Rudolph says.
For information on Heroes and Cool Kids, visit heroesandcoolkids.org.
Photos by Greg Pallante.
Vintage Bruce Harper Photos from the Record Archives.