TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Khari Harding loved Auburn. The Edmond Santa Fe product loved competing on college football’s biggest stages in the nation’s best conference. He loved the friends he made over the course of two seasons in Alabama.
But he loves his father more.
After learning in late December that his dad Corie was battling cancer for the second time, Khari Harding made the difficult decision to transfer from Auburn to Tulsa.
The 20 year old traded in Auburn’s navy blue and burnt orange for Tulsa’s royal blue and gold; college football palace Jordan-Hare Stadium for H.A. Chapman Stadium, which seats about 60,000 fewer fans; and the mighty Southeastern Conference for the American Athletic Conference.
But none of those things are nearly as important as the 725 miles Khari Harding shaved off of trips home to see his dad, who for the past eight years has been his best friend and the most important person in his life.
He’s spent the past several weeks going through classes and workouts at Tulsa, and will begin practicing with the Golden Hurricane when spring football starts in one week.
Now, he’s anxiously awaiting the NCAA’s response to his waiver request for immediate eligibility, The Oklahoman (https://bit.ly/1GTVreQ ) reports.
“I’m ready to go,” Khari said. “I’m ready for spring to start.”
Corie and Khari Harding weren’t close before the summer of 2007.
Khari lived with his mother in the Dallas area, and the father and son rarely saw one another.
That is, until Corie got wind of his son’s living conditions and took action, driving to Dallas and rescuing Khari from misery.
The then-middle schooler was constantly hungry, didn’t have shoes that fit and been living in a one-bed hotel room with his mother and two sisters for six months. After Corie brought Khari back to Edmond, the two struggled for awhile to get used to one another, but Khari’s life improved beyond measure.
“It was just us,” Khari said.
Once he got to high school, major college football programs started to take notice of Khari’s athletic talent. He began picking up scholarship offers after his junior season, committed to Arkansas the next summer and flipped to Auburn a couple weeks before signing day 2013.
But during Khari’s senior season, Corie was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors removed a two-inch tumor, forcing him to spend three weeks in the hospital and endure chemotherapy for several more months.
By the time Khari left for Auburn the next summer, though, Corie’s cancer was in remission. He went to four Auburn games during Khari’s freshman season, witnessing Ricardo Lewis’ 73-yard, tipped touchdown pass that beat Georgia; Chris Davis’ legendary field-goal return in the Iron Bowl; Auburn’s SEC championship game win; and the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif.
Even though Khari only appeared in two games that year, the freshman fell in love with his new school and surroundings.
He moved from safety to linebacker the next spring, but still had trouble cracking into the defensive rotation as a sophomore. He made three tackles in three games in 2014.
Corie Harding found out in October, but waited waited two months to tell his son the heartbreaking news: His cancer had returned, and another painful round of chemotherapy was necessary.
Khari was more than 800 miles away at Auburn, and - even though he wasn’t playing much - was staying out of trouble and doing well in school. Corie knew exactly what would happen if Khari found out about his dad’s illness.
“We didn’t want him to get sidetracked,” Corie said.
Khari Harding returned home to Edmond for Christmas break and after learning that his dad’s cancer was back, struggled mightily during Auburn’s trip to Tampa, Fla., for the Outback Bowl.
“I didn’t go down to Florida with the right mind,” Khari said.
Not only that, but Khari’s 19-year old sister - who has been living with Corie and helping take care of him - plans to leave in April to join the Air Force.
That’s why shortly after the bowl game, Khari walked into Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s office and said he wanted to transfer. Corie Harding said his son had some big-conference options - Arizona State and Nebraska, to name a few - but the best choice to make immediate eligibility more attainable and be close as possible to home was new coach Philip Montgomery and Tulsa.
Corie Harding isn’t able to work through this latest round of chemotherapy, and even though Khari has been more than 800 miles away, has had a strong support system at home in Edmond.
He points to his landlord, Ron Ackerman; his brother, Rodney, and good friends like Reggie Smith Sr. and Stevie Sumpter as vital to his financial and emotional well-being.
Ackerman, though, said Khari’s decision to come home has “meant everything” to Corie.
“Khari’s been the light of his life ever since he came back in his life,” Ackerman said.
Khari is able to visit home a lot more now that he’s at Tulsa. He hitches rides to the Oklahoma City area with Tulsa running back James Flanders, a former Midwest City star.
“It would be hard for me to deal with something like that,” Flanders said. “Now that he’s closer to home, he’s gonna get to see his dad a lot. That’s great for him.”
Corie’s prognosis remains unclear at this time. This bout with cancer has been especially painful and difficult, but many more tests and lots more chemotherapy stands between any certainty either way.
Right now, Khari’s family and new coaches and teammates are hoping he’ll be eligible to play this season. Linebacker is a position of need for the Golden Hurricane, so if the NCAA rules in his favor, he’ll have every opportunity to make an instant impact.
“We’re hopeful,” said new Tulsa defensive coordinator Bill Young. “He’s a very good athlete. I remember him when he was a senior in high school. We’re really excited about him being part of the team.
“He has a redshirt year if he’s not able to play this year, then he’ll be able to have two more. So either way, it’s a win-win.”
Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com
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