Reggie Harper, who was one of the crown jewels of the University of Tennessee football recruiting class of 1977 and still holds two career records for tight ends, died Sunday at the University Medical Center in Lebanon, Tenn. He was 53.
Mr. Harper and Trousdale County High School teammate Donnie Oldham were both highly regarded prospects in 1976. Not far removed from the excitement of the 1976 national championship season and Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett, new Tennessee coach Johnny Majors found himself in Hartsville in January of 1977 as the featured speaker at Trousdale County's football banquet in Hartsville.
Mr. Harper and Oldham were in attendance, and both of them eventually became Vols. There sat Majors, a national championship coach, eating off a plastic school lunch plate with plastic knives and forks and sitting on one of those circular metal seats attached to the table.
"Reggie was a great football player," said teammate and fellow recruit Clark Duncan, now assistant principal, coach, and athletic director at South-Doyle. "I first met him at the Tennessee East-West All-Star Game. He was a phenomenal athlete who was fun to be around. Everybody gravitated toward him."
Mr. Harper, who played for UT from 1977-80, and wore No 85, was a freshman All-America selection in 1977 by The Sporting News and an All-SEC selection in 1979 by The Associated Press.
"We were buddies," said teammate Alan Duncan. "He always called me 'Duncan.' I had the greatest respect for his abilities. I was a walk-on kicker from Kenya, but I knew a great athlete when I saw one."
Mr. Harper holds the Tennessee career record for catches and yardage by a tight end, with 98 catches for 1,141 yards. The 6-foot-3, 227-pound tight end led the team in receiving in 1977 (30 catches for 331 yards) and 1978 (31 catches for 356 yards).
He won the Mickey O'Brien Award in 1980 for the player who overcame "physical obstacles" during his career to make a valuable contribution to the team.
"We looked up to him," said teammate Danny Spradlin. "He had a big heart. He had a bad knee, but played through adversity. He loved the game and wanted to play."
Services are set for 2 p.m. Central on Saturday at Jim B. Satterfield Trousdale County Middle School, 210 Damascus Street, in Hartsville. The family will receive friends from noon-2 p.m.
Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor.