The bond between Ohio State junior sprinter Eric Harrison and his high school track mentor runs deeper than the typical player-coach pairing.
Alonzo Ruffin, who has trained professional athletes for the NFL and NBA, is like a second father to Harrison, a relationship that has helped Harrison grow into an All-American runner for the Buckeyes and kept him grounded as a person.
“Eric is like a son. We developed something really close,” Ruffin said.
This bond developed, unknowingly, when Harrison was young.
“There was a picture of him standing along a fence at a track meet at a young age, watching others that I used to train,” Ruffin said. “It’s kind of funny that he watched me coach as a young kid and I end up having the opportunity to coach him.”
The two were officially introduced to each other at the end of Harrison’s eighth-grade year. Harrison began working with Ruffin –– now a volunteer coach at University of Maryland –– and eventually became a staple for the St. John’s College High School track and field team in Washington, D.C.
The relationship did not flourish immediately, however.
“We kind of had a disagreement a little bit as far as the type of runner I was,” Harrison said. “He assumed I would be a 400 [meter dash] runner, not really knowing me that well. He put me in a sprint event at a track meet, and I blew him away.”
From that moment on, the two were on the same page on and off the track. Ruffin allowed Harrison to stay true to his roots and developed him as a sprinter.
The speedster was graced with raw talent that his coach said he saw in him early on.
“Eric had all the ability in the world when I first met him,” Ruffin said. “I knew he had something working with him.”
Ruffin did not let Harrison’s talent go to his head, though. During practices, there would be instances in which Harrison became sidetracked, and Ruffin was right there to zero him in.
“When it was time to focus he would always say, ‘Eric, focus. Eric, focus,’” Harrison said. “I had a lot of friends on the team, and he wanted me to be able to separate myself so that I could compete at a high stage.”
A typical week for St. John’s track consisted of practice every day but Wednesday. Despite the day off, though, Harrison and Ruffin would still talk with each other as they did every day at practice.
The topic of conversation was rarely about coaching.
“Believe it or not, we talked little about [track and field]. I gave him a lot of life stories of what I went through and tried to make sure he didn’t screw things up with his life,” Ruffin said. “I would tell him a lot of stories that were not true that my coach told me that scared the hell out of me, and I did the same with Eric.”
Ruffin’s resume includes training retired NFL linebacker Ray Lewis, retired NFL wide receiver Brandon Stokley and NBA center DeMarcus Cousins.
Ruffin has also served as a speed consultant for the Baltimore Ravens, Army football and the USA Gymnastics team. He is the founder, owner and director of Accelerate Your Game, an agility and speed training company based in Columbia, Maryland.
“When you get to this level –– high school and college –– I feel like it’s necessary to have somebody that’s experienced what it’s like and can be hands on,” Harrison said. “Coach Alonzo and coach Joel [Brown] are both similar in that area. They can show me what I’m doing wrong instead of just telling me.”
In high school, Harrison took full advantage of Ruffin’s hands-on coaching approach, compiling impressive results for himself.
In 2016, Harrison was a member of the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation team that traveled to Cuba to compete in international competition. He followed that up with a 2017 campaign that featured a District of Columbia State Athletic Association Indoor Track and Field state championship in the 55-meter dash and 300-meter dash and was named a New Balance Indoor All-American.
This caught the attention of Ohio State assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Joel Brown.
“When we look at athletes, we don’t only look at results and times, but we look at the ability to go out there and compete,” Brown said. “A lot of times, people talk about being state champions and local champions in their respective state, but when you can go compete against all the kids in the country, it’s a whole different story.”
Now in his third season at Ohio State, Harrison has done just that. He has been named a first team All-American and competed for Team USA in the U20 World Championships.
Despite his success, he’s never forgotten where he came from. He said he maintains contact with Ruffin and his family to this day. Harrison said it’s not as frequent anymore, however, in part because of Ruffin’s focus on his daughter Amanda’s success as a high school track and field athlete at Glenelg Country High School.
“Me and coach Alonzo still talk at least once every other month,” Harrison said. “Me and [Ruffin’s son] A.J. talk all the time, so if I don’t hear from coach Alonzo, I’ll hear from A.J.”
Ruffin said he cherishes his time with Harrison.
“My son graduated, and I chose not to leave St. John’s. People were like, ‘Oh, your son finished there. You’re leaving.’ Well, I wasn’t going to leave Eric because he’s like my son,” Ruffin said.
At the end of Harrison’s senior season, Ruffin stepped down as head coach of the St. John’s track and field team, a memory that Ruffin said is one of his favorites during his time with Harrison.
“The last day, when I told everyone I wasn’t returning, he and I just hugged each other really tight,” Ruffin said.
The two were attached at the hip from 2013 to ’17. Despite their initial differences, Ruffin served as a father figure to Harrison, getting on his case when necessary and shaping him into the athlete and man he is today.
“There’s nothing really for him to coach me on at this point. He just makes sure I’m good mentally, kind of like a second dad,” Harrison said.