Nyckoles Harbor, the Class of 2023’s top athlete, can conquer football, track or both — Andscape
He’s the most sought-after uncommitted football recruit in the class of 2023, yet the Maryland AAU staffer tasked with finding the star athlete appears momentarily flustered. There are over 400 attendees seated across 40-plus tables at the awards banquet in the massive catering hall, so locating one of the nation’s best athletes in this sea of teen humanity is expected to be distressing.
Crisis averted. Within 30 seconds of the search, the occupants at table 21 stand for their turn at the buffet, and one teen — his muscular 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame highlighted by the form-fitting white ribbed turtleneck he’s rocking — rises considerably taller than the others. “Right there, that’s him,” a visitor says to the staffer while pointing at table 21.
The visitor has never met the teen, but knows of his stature.
“That’s Nyckoles Harbor.”
Meet Nycokles Harbor, a unique blend of size and speed who in November helped Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., win its first conference football title since 1988.
On Tuesday, Harbor, ranked as the No. 1 athlete in the 2023 ESPN 300 for football recruiting, will play football in the Under Armour Next All-America game where he will line up at tight end (he also played defense at Archbishop Carroll where he was dominant as an edge rusher).
And on Feb. 1 Harbor, the most sought-after remaining five-star recruit, will announce his college choice among a list of finalists that includes Maryland, Michigan and South Carolina. Harbor, a standout during the Under Amor practices in Orlando this past week, just announced he’ll visit Oregon later this month.
Bigger than Randy Moss, with speed that nearly rivals that of the NFL’s fastest runner, Tyreek Hill, there’s no question Harbor has the potential to be a megastar. The big question: will his star shine brightest as an edge defender or tight end in football?
Or as a world-class sprinter in track?
If you’re a casual football fan who doesn’t closely follow college recruiting, there’s a chance you’ve never heard of Nyckoles Harbor.
But it’s likely you’ve probably seen him. A video of Harbor went viral in April after he ran a 10.32 to win a 100-meter high school race in Myrtle Beach.
It wasn’t just Harbor’s speed that had viewers watching the video on repeat. It was Harbor’s size compared to the runner, T’mars McCallum, that he edged out for the win.
ESPN’s Get Up featured the clip after it went viral, which left panelist and former NFL safety Ryan Clark shaking his head as the video rolled with Harbor described as a five-star defensive end recruit.
“The dude running next to [Harbor] looks like his son…like a kid he just birthed,” Clark said. “Just flat out phenomenal. We talk about Jadeveon Clowney and what he looked like in high school. Check out this dude.”
It’s dominance in a sport that Harbor initially embraced as a hobby. Track, for Harbor, was an activity that would help him with his asthma and stamina during the offseason away from the game that’s his first love, football.
Harbor credits his first track coach, Pam Crockett, as the person who first identified his potential at the age of 10, which is about the same time that his Archbishop Carroll track coach, Rafiu Bakare, first saw him run.
“He was already head and shoulders above the other 10-year-olds,” Bakare said. “Yes, he was raw. But once that rawness was worked into technique, you knew he was going to be something extremely special.”
Harbor embraced track quickly, with his only obstacle the rapid growth spurt that briefly caused him pain. The player that emerged from that growth spurt was a hulking combination of size and speed that made him desirable to every private and Catholic high school in the region.
“He was this tall, lanky kid who looked like he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time when I first saw him in a regional meet at the Prince Georges County Sports Complex,” said DeMatha Catholic High School track coach Buddy Crutchfield. “Then I watched him win the 100 with no problem. He was outstanding.”
So outstanding that Crutchfield recruited Harbor to run track at DeMatha, an athletic factory (alumni include Chase Young and Brian Westbrook in football; and Adrian Dantley and Markelle Fultz in basketball) with access to first-class athletic facilities. DeMatha’s track team has won the last three Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) outdoor track and field titles.
Harbor chose Archbishop Carroll, a school in Northeast Washington, D.C., which boasts a long list of notable alumni (Austin Carr, Johnny Dawkins and the late John Thompson Jr. in basketball; and Michael Steele in politics). But before Harbor arrived, the school —which plays in a stadium with sparse seating and on a field that’s extremely worn — hadn’t won a football title since 1988.
Since his arrival, Harbor has helped deliver two championships: a DCSAA Class AA football state championship in 2021, and a WCAC Metro Division title in 2022.
“To me, the glitz and glamor don’t make a school, it’s about what’s inside,” Harbor said. “When I came to Carroll in the ninth grade, it was my goal to help bring Carroll some football championships. And we did that.”
Harbor has helped create a winning culture at the school with his play on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Harbor demonstrated great blocking ability and sure hands, averaging 29.3 yards per catch. He was unstoppable in an Oct. 22 win over Bishop O’Connell, catching five balls for 251 yards and three touchdowns.
On defense, Harbor was effective at the edge, recording a team-high 5.5 sacks, 45 tackles, two forced fumbles and one blocked punt.
“When we first started him playing defense for us he had no real responsibilities other than see the ball, get the ball,” Archbishop Carroll head football coach Robert Harris said. “With his natural ability and instincts, there isn’t a tackle that can stop him once he gets started.”
Harris vividly remembers a play Harbor made his junior season when he hit a quarterback, snatched the ball from his hands before hitting the ground and advanced the ball for a score.
“He’s actually done that a few times, and he knows he has the ability to take a game over at any point,” Harris said. “On the football field, he’s a combination of Usain Bolt and Chase Young. With all due respect to Chase, who I coached against in high school, this kid as a high schooler is probably better.”
Harbor takes the comparison to two great athletes in stride.
“Since I was a kid, I’d go to sleep and dream of all the things I want to accomplish,” Harbor said. “If my coaches say that I have the potential to be those athletes, then I want to live up to that potential. And better [it].”
He possesses that potential, which is why the top college football and track and field coaches from USC to Maryland — and every major program in between — have expressed interest in Harbor.
“I’m traveling with my family and Nick Saban [Alabama] is on the phone one day, and Mike Locksley [Maryland] on another,” Harris said. “When I took this job in 2015 this program was in a low place, and he’s been a big part of restoring and elevating this team to a different level.
“I don’t know what it’s like to coach Michael Jordan or Kobe or LeBron, but I feel like he’s in that group of great athletes.”
Harbor’s holding court just outside of the banquet room where the Maryland AAU luncheon was held when a man leaving the event politely interrupts his conversation.
“You’re the future, bro,” the man said, extending his hand. “With your stature and hard work, you can go all the way. Nothing like meeting the future.”
The man should know: he’s Bernard Williams, a former sprinter and two-time Olympic medalist who in 2004 won gold in the 4×100-meter relay, and silver in the 200-meter dash.
Seated alongside Harbor as he receives praise from Williams is Azuka Harbor, who has become accustomed to seeing his son being embraced.
“We are so proud of him,” Azuka Harbor said. “God has truly blessed him.”
Harbor’s been blessed by his parents as well, especially the athletic DNA carried over from Azuka Harbor, who was born in Nigeria before attending college at Alabama A&M where he was a three-time All-American. He played professional soccer in Nigeria and the United States and did a stint on the U.S. national team after becoming a citizen in 1992.
Of course, Azuka Harbor introduced his son to soccer at a young age.
“He didn’t have it — he just stood out there in one place,” Azuka Harbor said. “Soccer is something you’re born with. I didn’t want to push him into something he didn’t want to do.”
So Azuka Harbor, a NASA engineer, and his wife gave their blessings to Harbor to follow the first sport he fell in love with, football.
“The first time I saw him play and return a punt, I was like ‘wow,’ ” Azuka Harbor said. “I was also scared because with his speed, I felt when someone gets to him it’s going to be quite the collision. I can’t stand in one place when he’s playing, I’m always on the side praying.”
Now those prayers are directed at Harbor finding the ideal college to pursue his athletic career. When he makes his decision on Feb. 1 it will be a commitment to a school that respects his desire to compete in both sports.
“I’ve met with the track coaches and football coaches on my visits,” Harbor said. “A school that allows me to do both is important in my decision, because I want to be one of the greatest when I step on a football field and on the track.”
For the people who’ve witnessed his development, there’s no question that potential can be reached.
“He’s at a level where few get to in football, he’s 6-5 and 230 and fast, so he has the ability to set the edge for anybody,” Bakare said. “We’re at the point where the pieces are being put together; we’re getting the raw out and helping him become the next level athlete he wants to be.”