Fighting for a chance: NCAA rules dashes dreams of Auburn football hopeful with epilepsy

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WARNER ROBINS, Ga. (WIAT) — The journey to becoming an NCAA athlete is long and arduous–only the best of the best gets a shot to play on Saturdays. CJ Harris was supposed to be one of those with a chance. He was supposed to be a preferred walk on defensive back for Auburn. But a life altering medicine is keeping him from achieving his dream.

It’s 6:00 in the morning just outside Warner Robins, Georgia in the middle of July. Harris should be preparing for his first camp and the rigors of college football. Instead, he’s getting in a morning workout at a local CrossFit gym 

“For me, it’s just keep working out, keep doing what I’m going to do to stay prepared, because you never know when you’re going to get the call and a coach is going to say we want you then you have to be prepared to show the coaches you can really play,” Harris explained.

Working, fighting and hoping his football career hasn’t heard the final whistle and his lifelong dream of playing college football isn’t over.

For Harris, the last few months have been a fight in a battle that started four years earlier. In 2014, eighth grade CJ passed out in the middle of one of his classes. At the hospital, they determined it was a seizure. His first. Two years later, it happened again with much more serious results 

”I get to the hospital you know, he’s got scars. [I asked] what happened–they said he was just walking down the sidewalk and he started spazzing out, we don’t know what happened,” CJ’s dad Curtis recalled.

CJ was diagnosed with epilepsy, a neurological disorder which causes unexpected and often unpredictable seizures. The disorder kept CJ from living a normal life. He couldn’t swim. He couldn’t play football. He couldn’t drive. The family tried everything to help curb his seizures. But the side effects outweighed the benefits.

“He went from taking one pill a day to four pills a day and I can tell you what that did to his attitude and demeanor,” his dad Curtis remembered. “CJ is a great kid he’s got a great personality you know people love him but that changed he wasn’t the same person you see now so I wanted my son back.

Until they finally found something that worked—CBD oil.

“The first thing when you say the name people be like, “oh you smoking!” and I’m like, no it’s just an oil that I put under my tongue you don’t get high or none of that,” CJ explained. 

CJ started taking cannabid or CBD oil, an extract derived from the hemp plant. He started taking the oil in January 2017, and hasn’t had a seizure since.

The oil did more than just get CJ’s epilepsy under control. It gave him his life back, and Curtis Harris finally felt comfortable to let his son play football again.

CJ’s senior year…the Warner Robins Demons went to the 5A state championship game and came close to winning the first title in a long time, and CJ landed a preferred walk on spot at his dream school of Auburn.

Everything was falling into place, until suddenly it wasn’t. 

“I got a call or text from Auburn and they [were] like you can’t play because of your disorder,” CJ said.

CJ was told he would not be eligible to play at any NCAA division one or two school due to his use of CBD oil.

“Why take something from someone who has worked so hard and tell them they can’t play because of something they can’t control?” CJ wondered.

Auburn rescinded the preferred walk on spot, saying Harris wouldn’t be cleared due to his epilepsy.

“If I remember correctly that was an NCAA issue, so we wish him nothing but the best,” Auburn football head coach Gus Malzahn said when asked about CJ.

“For them to say I can’t play because of my epilepsy–it really crushed my dreams,” Harris said. 

Under the NCAA’s drug guidelines athletes are not permitted to have tetra-hydro-cannabin-oil or THC in their systems.

Dr. Charlie Dean is a family medicine doctor in Warner Robins who works with CJ, and says neither his epilepsy nor the use of CBD oil should be a concern and keep CJ from playing football.

“The concern about the THC level in what CJ is taking, in my opinion, is misplaced,” Dean said. “Just because he has seizures, if they’re well controlled, I don’t think I’d be adamant about him not playing football.

So began CJ’s fight for a chance to fulfill his dream of playing college football. And to prove that others who suffer from epilepsy should be judged by their ability not their disability.

Through it all, CJ has kept an even keel. He knows that he faces an uphill battle. But he says even if he doesn’t get to play on Saturdays, this is for the ones that come after him 

If he must be the first, he hopes his fight will pave the way for someone else to achieve their dream. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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