Daughter, Former Teammate Motivate Harper in Closing Campaign
By Matt Kovatch
Originally published Nov. 17, 2007 in the Miami game program

In the tunnel leading from Virginia Tech's practice field to Lane Stadium - the one from which the Hokies bolt out of to the tune of 'Enter Sandman' prior to each home contest - there are placards adorning the wall beginning at the entrance and ending about halfway down the corridor. A new one is added each year, complete with the names of each member of that year's senior class. Those who have completed their graduation requirements will get an orange sticker of a graduation cap and tassel next to their name. It's the same sticker that is placed on the helmets of a select group of players - those who have either graduated already, or are on pace to by December of the current season.

Thus, Virginia Tech's football players - whether entering the field, leaving it, or playing on it - are constantly reminded of why they are Virginia Tech football players in the first place - to earn a degree as a student. The 2007 roster features 20 players who hope to place that sticker next to their name, and who will play their final home game as Hokies today vs. Miami.

One of those seniors, wide receiver Justin Harper, faces another constant reminder even when he is away from the Hokies' athletic complex in the comfort of his own home - and it comes in the form of a little girl named Jaidyn (pronounced JAY-den).

"She's something else," Harper said with a smile. "She keeps me moving. She keeps me going."

Harper is, for those who don't know, referring to his 17-month-old daughter, whom he shares responsibility for with his girlfriend and Jaidyn's mother, Joselyn (pronounced JOSS-ul-in). Though Harper and Joselyn live in separate residences, he said they are doing a great job taking care of the youngster.

"[Joselyn] has her place and I have my place, but we stay together a lot as far as the little one [is concerned]," he said. "We make sure she sees both of us when we go to bed, and she sees both of us when we wake up. We're doing a great job right now and I have no complaints."

When thousands of fans look up to Tech's football players on a weekly basis for their performance on the field, it's sometimes easy to forget that the Hokies are just like any other college student who is simply trying to make it through their coursework. Harper is no different, and he said that having his daughter has taught him a lot, not only about managing his time, but also about how important it is to complete his education.

"It's a big-time commitment because of all the responsibility that comes with [having a child]," the Catawba, N.C., native said. "It actually made my schoolwork more important to me. Having her, and having people staying on me about having to get my degree now - it made [me wanting to get my degree] more realistic.

"[Jaidyn] really opened my eyes up to my academic level. That's where I think she helped me the most, believe it or not, because my degree is huge for me. For me to get that degree, and to go back to the small town of Catawba County and say I got a degree from Virginia Tech, that'd be big. It's a dream waiting to come true."

While Harper credits his daughter with the ongoing motivation needed to succeed as a student, he also cites one of last year's seniors - rover Aaron Rouse - as the guy who really woke him up to the reality of finishing what he started. Rouse, who is now a member of the Green Bay Packers, also had a child while playing for the Hokies, and he actually spurned a shot at the NFL following his junior season to come back, graduate, and put together a backup plan in case the professional ranks didn't work out.

"Rouse was a prime example," Harper said. "He stayed on me all the time. He had a little boy and could've left early, but he committed to getting his degree. He got it, and we're still communicating - his little boy is doing great now. Even though he made it [to the NFL], he still has his degree just in case something goes wrong.

"I've never had a father, and Rouse was the same way. We used to be roommates sometimes and we would talk. I really saw how he would interact with his little boy and how he would handle himself. When he stayed and got his degree, it helped me so much. Sometimes I can't explain it, because I looked at Rouse and thought, 'Man, he was about to be a first-round draft pick, and he's going to stay here for his little boy? That's big.' For him to stay and come back with us and get his degree, that was big with me being a junior at the time and looking at that. Coming back as a senior, that helped me tremendously."

At 6-foot-4 and nearly 200 pounds with 4.33 speed, Harper certainly possesses the tools needed to join Rouse in the NFL. It doesn't hurt that through nine games this year, he had already recorded career highs with 25 receptions and two touchdowns, and was well on his way to another in yards with 323. Though he will probably get a look somewhere with a professional team, he remains focused on the necessity of having a fall-back option, one that he is close to having as he nears the completion of his studies in residential and property management.

"I'm sticking around here and graduating in May, and that's the biggest thing for me," Harper said. "To graduate with a degree, I'll be the first one with the Harper name in my whole family to have it, and that's big. If the league doesn't work out, I always know I'll have my property management degree."