Harper was acquired in the trade that sent Simon to the Saskatchewan Roughriders in January.
Rather than posing if he scores a touchdown, Harper will kneel in prayer, thankful for an opportunity with the Lions after he was deemed expendable in Saskatchewan.
The 28-year-old native of Catawba, N.C., is entering his second CFL season after he had nine catches last year for 95 yards with the Roughriders, but spent most of the season on the practice roster.
“It didn’t go the way I wanted it to go,” he said of his debut CFL season. “But, hey, I’m out here where a team definitely wants me.”
Before joining the Roughriders last March, the Virginia Tech product spent three seasons in the NFL with Baltimore, receiving limited playing time.
Although Harper plays the same slotback position as Simon, he is distinctly different physically than the established star. The six-foot-three Harper is huge by comparison to Simon (six-foot and 198 pounds) and has an extremely wide reach.
But Harper also has a number of similarities with Simon.
Like the ex-Lion, he is a former high school basketball star. He planned to pursue a career on the hardwood, but took a different path after he suited up in a North Carolina state high school football championship game and drew the attention of college gridiron scouts.
He wound up going to Virginia Tech, where he had 83 catches for 1,338 yards and averaged 16.1 yards a catch while scoring nine touchdowns over four seasons, and was then chosen in the seventh round of the NFL draft by Baltimore.
Harper also shows signs of the impeccable character that Simon, extremely active in the Vancouver community, possesses. One of seven children, Harper was raised by his grandmother Oddie Harper, who looked after him and his siblings and six children of her own.
He launched a charitable foundation in her name, which provides turkeys for 250-300 families every U.S. Thanksgiving, also aids families at Christmas, runs football camps for kids. The organization will hold a golf tournament fundraiser for the first time this year in his hometown, which has a population of 700.
“She’s definitely a strong woman – and the backbone of everything that I do,” he said.
According to Lions coach Mike Benevides, the newcomer’s main strength is his size, which also sets him apart from the player that wore No. 1 before him – fellow slotback Arland Bruce, who was released earlier in the off-season and signed with the Montreal Alouettes.
Bruce played a key role in B.C.’s 2011 Grey Cup championship season. But Benevides stressed that Harper can’t replace either Bruce or Simon, whom the coach is convinced are future hall of famers.
“I certainly don’t try and replace Wally (Buono, the team’s former iconic coach who remains general manager),” said Benevides. “We’re different people. You just want to be yourself and be the best you can be.”
The coach also stressed that Harper, acquired along with a third-round pick in the 2014 CFL d=Draft, was more than just a throw-in after the Lions sought to get some value for Simon. But Benevides noted that Harper is just a candidate to make the team, pending his performance at training camp in early June in Kamloops, B.C.
But he feels that Harper has a big advantage over other hopefuls after he was invited to attend the mini-camp that was open primarily to veteran offensive players.
In addition to receiving a head-start on learning the club’s 40-chapter playbook, Harper has gained insight on what his conditioning must be like when main camp opens. He currently weighs 240 pounds and continues to shed excess girth after he was more than 250 pounds when he joined the Riders.
“When I got released by Baltimore, I definitely went into a depressing state where I thought football was over for me. Coming out here definitely shows me where I need to be for training camp, and I’ll definitely be in shape and get that weight down,” he said.
Benevides, impressed with Harper’s comprehension of the playbook on the second day of mini-camp, stressed that attendees are not expected to be at their peak physically at this point in the year.
But after the club investigated Harper’s character and football acumen extensively and received a positive response every time, Benevides expects the newcomer to shine at the ultra-competitive” main training camp.
“People can say what they want about you,” said Benevides. “You’ve now gotta prove you are who people say you are. So time will tell. Time reveals true character.”