Boise State football coach Chris Petersen mentioned the 2007 Hawaii Bowl in a team meeting recently. He glanced around the room, looking for signs of recognition, and asked if anyone was on the team that lost that game.
And slowly but surely, D.J. was the only guy who held his hand up, Petersen said.
Senior tailback D.J. Harper played as a true freshman that year the first of what will be six seasons of college football for the twice-injured runner.
And finally in 2012, the longest-serving Bronco on this years team will be the featured back for the first time in his career.
Harper has rushed for 1,642 yards and 24 touchdowns at Boise State on just 319 carries, little more than a seasons worth for a starter.
Hell be awesome, senior tailback Drew Wright said. I dont know how many people would go through two ACL tears and be able to come back and be so productive, like he has been. Hes been waiting a long time. Its really time for him to shine.
Harper moved into the spotlight just once before in 2009, when he and Jeremy Avery shared the workload and Doug Martin moved to defense.
Harper tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the third game that season, Martin returned to offense and Harper became a role player for two more years. He re-tore his ACL in the third game of the 2010 season, which enabled him to petition the NCAA for a rare sixth year of eligibility.
The length of Harpers career has obscured the quality of it. He has averaged 5.1 yards per carry and he delivered one of the biggest plays of the 2010 season a 71-yard touchdown run against Virginia Tech.
D.J. has always been an explosive player for us and the guy has gone out there and made plays, running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said. This is his opportunity to go out there and really be the alpha dog. Im excited to watch him play this year.
Harper (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) has been one of the teams best athletes throughout his career. He excels in the weight room and his strength paid off on that Virginia Tech run, a third-and-1 play that initially was stuffed before he broke loose and showed his breakaway speed.
I feel like Im better (now), Harper said. My bodys had a lot more time to mature. Ive been in the weight room for six years. Ive been in the college environment for six years.
And its not just Harpers body that has matured.
Im actually really glad everything that has happened, happened, Harper said. Having gotten hurt twice really made me a stronger person more mature, tougher, learning how to overcome things, not just for football but for the real world.
The first injury was by far the worst, he said.
He watched as Martin took his place and became one of the teams biggest stars. He also watched his teammates play in the Fiesta Bowl without him.
I was in a dark place, he said.
He credits his family and coaches for pulling him out of the funk.
They credit his desire to stay on the field.
Even after the second knee injury, Harper never wavered on what he wanted.
We worried more than D.J. did, Harpers dad, Damon, said. He always knew he was going to make it back.
Harper, 22, has played football since he was 6.
Toughness was a requirement, both because he played in ultra-competitive Texas hes from the Houston area and because he started kindergarten a year early and often was surrounded by older, larger kids.
Even going through junior high, he was 5-7 and some change, Damon said, but he was the toughest 5-7 and some change you could put out on the field. He just wanted to keep proving himself.
Harper has done that repeatedly.
He rushed for 1,088 yards as a high school junior and 1,570 as a senior to attract the interest of Boise State, which was just beginning its push into Texas.
He recorded his first college 100-yard rushing game as a true freshman and rushed for a team-best 284 yards and three touchdowns in three games in 2009 before the first knee injury.
Last year, he answered any lingering questions about his body by rushing for 557 yards and nine touchdowns in a backup role.
This year, hell try to replace the lost production of NFL first-round pick Doug Martin.
Im not nervous at all for it, Harper said. Im excited for the challenge.
And hes trying to rally his teammates around the same idea of beating expectations, of disproving doubters.
Hes been a great leader on the offense, offensive coordinator Robert Prince said. Hes really gotten those guys going. Were really relying on him to carry the load.
Those are words Harper has waited five years to hear.
Words his parents thought they might never hear.
Hes been such an inspiration to us, Damon said. His expectation this year is to really show people that hey, you can have these kinds of setbacks, but if you work hard, you can accomplish your dreams.
Chadd Cripe: 377-6398,