ZaBrien Harden, like other future collegiate athletes, has had a tough time nailing down the future of his athletic career because of the pandemic, but he can breathe a little easier now. As of late last week, he is officially inbound for Middle Tennessee State University.
The 17-year-old standout middle linebacker had originally committed to Arkansas State University in July 2020. He had to re-evaluate when the NCAA gave every senior an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19. Some of the funds A-State had planned to give its recruits were now questionable because the NCAA’s granting of an extra year for seniors meant the university had to pay for returners instead of scholarships for recruits. The silver lining of COVID-19 as it relates to collegiate athletics is that this situation wasn’t one Harden faced alone. On the contrary, every athlete at every university in every sport has had to, in some way, navigate the waters made tricky by the healthcare crisis. Harden and other recruits across the country became uncertain about their futures and the details of playing at the next level because many scholarships were eliminated upon the NCAA’s decision to extend eligibility. The son of Pamela Harden was smart enough to see the writing on the wall at Arkansas State, and he de-committed November 25, 2020.
In doing so, he signed back up for the painful recruiting process. Harden says the process of being recruited all over again was “very stressful,” especially given the fact that he couldn’t visit campuses in person because of the pandemic. Instead, he had to do those virtually. While he could literally see on his screen what was being shown to him, the experience wasn’t the same as what it could’ve been had he been allowed to travel to the different universities that were pursuing him. Among those institutions were Army, Mercer, Kennesaw State, Morgan State, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and, of course, Middle Tennessee State. Had he been physically allowed on campus, the tours would’ve been different in that he could have felt the atmospheres and met players, coaches, and students face-to-face.
Nonetheless, Harden learned enough about MTSU through his virtual dealings to pull the trigger. He says the school stood out from the others and the coaches emphasized how badly they wanted him to become a Raider through their constant communications. Harden also looked to Swainsboro High School coach Dwight Smith, a former Raider himself, who offered valuable, first-hand insight about MTSU itself and its football program. However, the most important determiner for Harden was the educational aspect. Middle Tennessee had everything Harden wanted in a school. With that in mind, Harden knew he belonged in Murfreesboro. He committed January 20. His mom and coaches, Smith included, were there for him every step of the way.
Harden will be arriving on campus sometime in June or July, depending on how the pandemic shakes out in between now and then. The plan for now has him being a hybrid linebacker/safety-type player, but he and the MTSU coaches have also talked about him playing defensive end.
“I had a lot of great options, but at the end of the day, it felt like I was making the right decision by choosing Middle Tennessee. My coaches and family were going to support me whether I went to MTSU or went to junior college. The biggest thing for them was for me to find somewhere I’d be happy, so they really helped out a lot,” Harden said. “I’m very excited to get to campus and get to work. I’ve heard a lot of great things about MTSU. This will be my first time leaving the nest, so I’m very excited. With it being Coach Smith’s and Mrs. [Chawny] Stewart’s old stomping grounds, it’s very exciting. I’m ready to experience the next level.”
Harden adds he would like to thank God for blessing him with he opportunity to play college ball. He also thanks his mom for pushing him to be a better ZaBrien on and off the field and for her many sacrifices. Lastly, he is grateful for his family, friends, and coaches for keeping him focused on his main goal of playing college football. In his own words, he wouldn’t be where he is today without any of these individuals.