On a scruffy side street in Antioch, in a storefront gym next to a hair salon, across from an auto parts store and within shouting distance of a bar named ABC Rendezvous, the No. 1 college football recruit in the country puts in his work.

Najee Harris arrives at Malu Fitness in a good-natured mood on this mid-August morning. He wears a gray USC T-shirt and black gym shorts, and he spends nearly as much time fiddling with the music - settling mostly on a mix of old-school rap and reggae - as he does lifting weights.

The scene offers a revealing portrait of Harris - equal parts diligent, big-time athlete and distracted, playful teenager.

He's a muscular, 6-foot-2, 226-pound running back with distinctive dreadlocks, a magnetic smile and all the powerhouse programs on his tail. Harris enters his senior year at Antioch High widely regarded as the nation's top recruit, a ranking built on his size, elusiveness and power - not to mention 2,744 yards rushing and 36 touchdowns as a junior.

The designation has earned him a slice of celebrity in our football-obsessed culture. It's why he occasionally receives fan mail, mostly requests to autograph photos of himself dodging would-be tacklers. It's also why drivers he doesn't necessarily know often honk when they see him, just to say, as he nonchalantly puts it, "Hey, wassup Najee?"

Harris usually responds with a friendly wave, though he's become more wary of strangers - especially those who decide to stop by his family's apartment unannounced.

"People know where I live, so they just come to my house and knock on the door," he says. "Random people ... I don't care if it's little kids, but adults? That's kind of crazy. I'm like, 'What the hell?'"

This is symptomatic of Harris' increasingly tricky balancing act: chasing his football dreams while trying to remain a regular 18-year-old.

He finds a measure of refuge working out with Marcus Malu, the proprietor of the comfortable if modest gym on Walter Way. Harris has trained under his watchful eye since his freshman year, including virtually every day this summer.

Malu barks out encouragement as Harris moves casually from the bench press to resistance exercises designed to strengthen his hamstrings. The workout stretches for more than an hour, including the frequent musical breaks. Harris' speed on the field - he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds - doesn't necessarily match his pace in the gym.

As Harris wraps up his workout, Malu reflects on his star pupil's rising stature in his neighborhood. Antioch is a diverse but challenged city where incomes are low, crime is high and nationally renowned football players are rare.

"Najee can walk anywhere around here and nobody will touch him," Malu says. "I believe everybody around this area of Antioch understands he's the one bright light in a place where it's dark."


Big-name college coaches historically do not include Antioch High on their itineraries, but that's changing.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly stopped by after his team's game at Stanford last November. Cal's Sonny Dykes has visited. Assistant coaches from countless schools across the country have showed up to express their intense interest in Harris, a player anointed the No. 1 recruit by several prep rating services, including rivals.com, scout.com and maxpreps.com.

And then there's Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.

On one of his two visits this year to Antioch High, the former 49ers coach sat in Principal Louie Rocha's office, his feet propped on Rocha's desk and his cap pushed back from his forehead as he chewed on licorice.