By Lisa Godley,
Sr. Producer, WHRO’s Another View
Special to the New Journal and Guide
“I started playing football in middle school and. I just fell in love with it.”
Elisha “Cadillac” Harris describes his life growing up as challenging. As children, he and his brothers worked on the family farm. This required he feed more than 100 hogs each morning before school, and when needed, pick crops by hand.
“I can remember picking 30 bushels of cucumbers with rows was as far as you could see. That kind of living and then not having indoor plumbing until I was a junior in high school just made me a different kind of person. Learning how to tackle hogs and get them back to where they needed to be made it very easy for me as a football player to tackle a person. Those conditions became a driving force that made me fall in love with playing the game.”
In fact, it was his middle school football coach who gave him the nickname Cadillac.
“I was his running back, linebacker and tight end in different formations. In one game in particular I looked a mess. He ended up having to give me another jersey and at the end of the game he said, Boy, you know what? You run just like my car (an old Cadillac) all beat up and dent up, but it gets me where I need to go. You do that for a football team. And the name stuck.”
Cadillac would go on to play for Kempsville High School.
“I was the only African American kid on the team my senior year in high school, and I was elected captain. That was quite an experience in and of itself.”
He would spend his college career playing for the Norfolk State University Spartans.
“I really wanted to go to an HBCU. After a big football game against Kellam in which I was able to intercept a pass and score the winning touchdown, my coach told me that Norfolk State wanted to see me. After I took that visit. I didn’t want to go anyplace else. I knew that was home.”
But with college football came injuries both to his shoulder and his knee. And even after rehab and taking a time off, Cadillac says he wasn’t as fast as he’d been. But that, made him smart.
“It made me want to become a coach, because I had to dissect what the game plan was and decide how best to move from my position and take the proper angles as an outside linebacker defensive end.”
He got a free agent trial with the Dallas Cowboys, but didn’t make the team. So, he returned home to coach and teach. But his dream of becoming a head football coach would be an uphill battle.
“I tried for seven years to be a head football coach in Virginia Beach and there was some push back in that area, just a mindset that the city wasn’t ready for a Black head football coach.”
He credits mentors like Dick Price, Wylie French and Tommy Rhodes who continued to advise and encourage him.
“I had been turned down from the job at Princess Anne High School and Wylie French, who was my principal, took me down to the superintendent’s office and he said the superintendent wanted to meet with me, and he told me that I was the most qualified candidate for the job. But I can’t give you the job because the city is not ready yet. And if you go over to Princess Anne High School, that principal is going to fire you as soon as the first white parent complains.”
Cadillac had won two state championships coaching track by the time he got the job as the City’s first Black Head Football Coach at Green Run High School in 1988. He would remain in that position for 7 years. He became emotional when he shared what his friend Tommy Rhodes once told him.
“He said you know, I hope you don’t take this personally, but I wouldn’t want to be Black for anything in the world because of what I’ve seen you go through. It’s an emotional moment, just to relive it.”
Cadillac would later serve as head coach at Maury and Indian River high Schools, as well as Elizabeth City State University. He would spend 42 years as an educator and coach before retiring in 2021. And on August 26th , all he’s given to sports was recognized when the Green Run football stadium was named after him.
“God, you’ve taken me from not being able to be a coach, to now, where a place that I loved and labored in, is now being named after me. I couldn’t ask for any more. Couldn’t be more filled.”
Cadillac is credited with coaching hundreds of athletes who went on to play college football, five who played in the NFL. He describes his ability to coach and spot talent in athletes as a gift.
“It’s just something God has given me, a gift to be able to see the potential that an athlete has and then give them the tools to be successful at their craft. I try to give kids principles to help them be successful for a lifetime. I love it when they come back and tell me that they’re still using those applications in life. That’s a reward…that’s priceless!”
Photo: Retired Coach Cadillac Harris applauds the new stadium sign bearing his name. Photo: Courtesy