Dec 26, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) congratulates running back Damien Harris (37) after his touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Although the sound of a coach’s whistle signaled the end for others, Damien Harris wasn’t done. He’d press the football tight against his body and keep pumping his arms and legs until he could go no farther on the practice field, all the way to the end zone.

This was how he both continued and concluded virtually every one of his training camp runs. It was, like the everyday sight of him toting a ball seemingly anywhere he went – including a Gillette Stadium press conference – more ritual than routine.

Which is why the irony of his final carry of the first game of Harris’s third NFL season was especially cruel. Eleven yards from a Patriots lead over Miami in the final 3 1/2 minutes, Harris took a handoff to the right and reached the Dolphins’ 9-yard line. As his 23rd attempt of the day, it put him at exactly 100 rushing yards.

But despite all those reps when he would not stop and all those times he couldn’t let go, Harris lost the ball. Miami’s Xavien Howard forced it loose, then fell on it. New England never got it back.

Soon after the final kneel down of the Dolphins’ 17-16 win, Harris stood before reporters and cameras and vowed that “one mistake” — that fumble — “won’t define me.”

Months later, sitting in a South Boston restaurant for teammate Kyle Van Noy’s YouTube series, “Elite Eatz,” Harris admitted that he “felt like the world was ending.” At the same time, Harris recalled, he drew from a saying his former college position coach and self-described father figure, Burton Burns, made a mantra for University of Alabama running backs.

“So what. Now what? Play the next play.”

  • The next play for Harris was a four-yard gain on the first snap from scrimmage against the Jets in Week 2. Nice start, but not quite career-defining. That one might just turn out to be Harris’s first run of the second half, when he plowed through more than a half dozen would-be tacklers — all trying to take the ball away — for 26 yards and a 19-3 lead.

    Harris has since followed that first score of 2021 with at least one touchdown rushing in eight of his last nine games, including a career-high three in Sunday’s 33-21 loss to Buffalo. In fact, three weeks apart because of a scheduled bye and a hamstring injury, Harris recorded back-to-back 100-yard games vs. the Bills, totaling four TDs among 28 carries overall.

    There was his 64-yard burst up the middle, off a cut-back on a crack-toss in Week 13. Then came the counter pitch left from 16 yards out with a spin off a hit by Jordan Poyer; his one-yard backward plunge to the end zone; and an eight-yard, pile-drive-and-dive across the goal line.

    With each effort, Harris was the embodiment of something else Burns used to preach to his backs in Tuscaloosa.

    “He wants running backs who don’t want to be tackled,” Harris said in 2017, while splitting reps for the Crimson Tide with Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris. “Just because there is a guy there doesn’t mean he should tackle you.”

    What Harris’s college mentor wanted is what his current position coaches get.

    “[Damien’s] never going to shy away from contact,” says Patriots assistant Vinnie Sunseri. “He’s a physical guy, he’s strong and it’s one of the things that he’s good at.”

  • FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 26: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots runs the ball during the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 26: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots runs the ball during the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

    Sunseri, a former safety at Alabama and current understudy to longtime New England running backs coach Ivan Fears, has seen Harris develop the position’s subtleties while displaying his strength.

    “I think he understands the concepts of the runs a little bit more (as) he’s been running them,” Sunseri told reporters on Tuesday. “(Damien) has a better feel as the game goes on and he’s a really smart football player that has good vision, that runs the ball extremely hard and I think he’s a good overall back. That’s just who he is. That’s the makeup of his personality.”

    Understanding opposing defenses, and how they react to the Patriots’ blocking schemes. Seeking coaching, processing sideline adjustments and implementing them in games. All of the above are ways in which Harris has grown

    Another, as evidenced on a fourth-quarter completion Sunday from Mac Jones to Jakobi Meyers, is the progress Harris is making in pass protection.

    “Damien’s been on early downs a lot more in pass situations instead of just run situations,” Sunseri said. “So I think he’s really grown in that field. He understands what his job is, what his blitz responsibilities are and he’s gotten a better feel of knowing when they’re coming…what pressures they like to bring.

    “So it’s just been another year where he’s grown, he’s developed more, he understands it and he’s getting a better feel for playing professional football.”

  • FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 26: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots runs the ball and is tackled by Tremaine Edmunds #49 of the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 26: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots runs the ball and is tackled by Tremaine Edmunds #49 of the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter at Gillette Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

    On Sunday, minutes after his blitz pick-up and three touchdowns and 103 yards rushing overall, Harris returned to the auditorium adjacent to the Patriots’ locker room. Again he met the media following a bitter division loss.

    Sleeveless in a white, lycra mock turtleneck, turf tape still stuck on the back of his arms, from triceps to wrists, Harris looked determined to keep going.

    “It’s not the end of our season,” he said. “We’ll show up tomorrow ready to work, ready to improve.”

    MORE: Patriots-Bills ‘Ups’ & ‘Downs’, Week 16

    Asked at one point if his team’s confidence was shaken, Harris replied with one word.

    “No,” he said resolutely.

    Sure, the Pats are now 9-6 and no longer the leaders of the AFC East.

    So what. What now? Play the next play, next Sunday vs. Jacksonville.