A month after his standout junior season of college football, wide receiver Deonte Harty returned to his high school in Baltimore to help carry the casket of his running backs coach, who died on Dec. 30, 2017.

Outwardly, Harty (who went by the name Deonte Harris in high school) and Bill Oxnard could not have been more different, said Sean Murphy, who was Archbishop Curley’s football coach at the time. Oxnard was a stoic white former military man in his 70s who grew up in a small New England town. He was known for being exacting and blunt, an old-school “curmudgeon,” his friend and colleague athletic trainer Marty McGinty said. Harty was a small, quiet Black teenager from Baltimore County.

The two circled each other at first, but once the ice was broken, they found they weren’t so different, despite Oxnard’s difficulty pronouncing “Deonte.” There wasn’t much for Oxnard to teach Harty on the field, Curley teammate Cyrus Boardman recalled, but there were certainly life lessons to be shared.

Beth Provost, Oxnard’s daughter, said her father had earned an athletic scholarship for football that he lost because of his academics. He found his path through the military instead, so he was passionate about passing his lessons on to kids — and Harty was one who initially needed a nudge academically.

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The relationship went from coach-player to mentor-mentee to grandfather-grandson, McGinty said. Oxnard became Harty’s fiercest protector and advocate.

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Watching their relationship evolve was Murphy’s favorite memory of his four years coaching Harty. It was amusing yet beautiful. And, when Oxnard died, Harty not only came to pay his respects but to serveas a pallbearer.

“He would be honored that somebody he cared about would care enough to stop what they were doing in life to come be a part of honoring him,” Provost said. The fact that Harty stepped away from a busy career as a successful student-athlete would have made him burst with pride.

Seven years later, Harty is returning to Baltimore again. It’s not the first time he’s come back since graduating from Archbishop Curley, but it’s the first time he’s returning as a member of Oxnard’s favorite team, the Ravens. The news, announced April 10, has stirred up the Archbishop Curley community. And Oxnard, Murphy said, is beaming from heaven, ready to watch every game on a 60-inch TV.

Kinda like Keaton Mitchell

A recent Ravens undrafted rookie who burst onto the scene has a lot of similarities to Harty. Sure, Keaton Mitchell might be listed as a running back while Harty is a wide receiver, but there was a time “RB” stood next to Harty’s name.

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MaxPreps, a site that tracks high school stats, lists Harty as a running back. That’s accurate — and also not, Murphy said. Harty was pretty much just “offense,” doing it all for Archbishop Curley.

Undersized, soft-spoken and humble, Harty was easily overlooked by many of the high schools around Baltimore, but his speed was too much for Murphy not to take a chance on. In return, Harty helped the Friars to an undefeated season, including a win over Delaware’s Caravel Academy in which Harty broke future first-rounder Darnell Savage’s ankles.

Harty has returned to Baltimore frequently since he left for Assumption College, where he set multiple school and national records. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Colleges didn’t learn from their high school counterparts. They were scared off by his size, and Harty went to an NCAA Division II school, Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

McGinty understood scouts’ concern. As someone paid to keep athletes healthy, McGinty said, he was always worried about the “physics” when someone as small as Harty collided with much bigger players. But he saw Harty’s potential rather than his limitations.

“He’s so difficult to get a complete tackle, like somebody to really hit him hard, because he’s so shifty that I think that certainly helps,” McGinty said.

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But Harty not only starred in college, he went on to make an NFL 53-man roster as a rookie, despite being overlooked by every NFL team in the draft.

Both Archbishop Curley and Assumption teammates and coaches watched intently as Harty battled through New Orleans Saints training camp as an undrafted rookie in 2019. Boardman even bought tickets to one of the preseason games, so he saw in person the moment everyone realized Harty was truly going to make it: when he returned a punt for a touchdown against the New York Jets.

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“It was kind of jaw-dropping,” Boardman said. “As soon as he kind of split the defenders and saw the open field, we knew that he was going to score. … It wasn’t surprising, I guess, that he did it, because I knew what he was capable of doing. But it was just kind of awesome to see that it actually happened in reality.”

And Harty has stuck. He’s played 56 NFL games over five seasons, with a Pro Bowl season his rookie year.

Now he’s on a team that has found recent success with undersized players. Last year, the Ravens saw 5-foot-9 wide receiver Zay Flowers, a first-round pick, and the 5-8 Mitchell, an undrafted rookie, take off. Murphy, who now coaches in North Carolina, saw Mitchell play at East Carolina and said he and Harty have similar speed, quickness and hands.

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Between the Ravens’ willingness to overlook size concerns and coach John Harbaugh’s propensity for coaching special teams, Baltimore is an ideal landing spot for Harty as change comes to the league. Plus, with Harty signing another NFL contract, Murphy gets to tell the college scouts he’s friends with “I told you so” yet again.

Special teams specialty

At the owners’ meetings in Orlando, Florida, Harbaugh quizzed Dallas Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel and New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi on their proposed changes to the kickoff rules. Once the proposal passed, Harbaugh and the Ravens signed Harty.

Thanks to the encouragement of former Assumption coach Bob Chesney, Harty added punt returning to his repertoire in college. It soon became his specialty.

If you watched every Assumption game while Harty was there, you would have seen him return a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown approximately once every three games (14 touchdowns across 44 games). He set nine school records, seven of which were on special teams, four DII records and one NCAA all-divisions record (14 career combined return touchdowns).

Chesney explained that Harty has next-level speed, vision and something he calls “leverage” and Murphy refers to as “shake.” Harty can accelerate, decelerate and change direction rapidly, making it difficult to get a clean hit on him.

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Andy McKenzie, who took over at Assumption after Chesney left, said Harty has the unique ability to catch punts moving forward, which gives him momentum and creates space.

Deonte Harty, from left, poses with Archbishop Curley athletic trainer Marty McGinty and Fr. Michael Heine on one of his returns to his high school. Harty, who is heading into his fifth NFL season, makes sure to return to his school to visit with students and staff when he can. Photo provided by McGinty
Upon a return trip to Archbishop Curley, Deonte Harty (left) visits athletic trainer Marty McGinty (center) and Friar Michael Heine. (Photo courtesy of McGinty)

With Harty returning the ball, McKenzie said, they focused their special teams more on blocking for the return (“hold-up” returns) than trying to block the kick. And, man, did his teammates love blocking for him, Chesney recalled. The prospect of laying down a crackback block on a touchdown return spiced up typically routine plays.

And now the NFL is trying to increase the number of kick returns. When Boardman saw the new rules, his first thought was how it would unlock Harty’s game: Players for the kicking team now line up at the opposing team’s 40-yard-line, but can’t move until a kick is caught. McKenzie and Chesney knew exactly what that meant — more opportunities, more space and lower-speed collisions, plus a special teams-minded head coach, seem to signal good things for Harty’s homecoming.

Baltimore in his blood

When Chesney met Harbaugh, he refrained from name-dropping Harty.

He didn’t show that same restraint with anyone else. After four years of working at Johns Hopkins, Chesney had connections in Harty’s home state of Maryland, including the Ravens director of football research Scott Cohen.

Whether it was because of Chesney’s not-so-subliminal messaging, when Harty’s name came up this offseason in free agency, Ravens special teams coordinator Chris Horton was excited.

Horton said when he thinks of Harty, he thinks “electric.” With the departure of the Ravens’ All-Pro and Pro Bowl returner Devin Duvernay in free agency, Harty gave them the chance to fill the spot with another All-Pro, Pro Bowl returner.

Harty’s reputation preceded him, Horton said.

“When I talk to the guys, some of the veteran guys, [say] ‘Hey, we’ve got Harty coming in.’ Those guys ask, ‘Is that the guy from the Saints, the guy who used to be on the Saints?” Horton said. “I say, ‘Yeah, man, that’s the little returner from the Saints.’ So, he’s a well-known and respected returner in this league, and we love him.”

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Harty is aware of his reputation on special teams outshines his accomplishments on offense, especially for a team loaded with stars, but he hopes to make a difference in multiple ways.

“Hopefully, I can shake some things up in the return game and possibly get on the field,” Harty told The Baltimore Banner. “There’s already a lot of talent on offense, so hopefully I can get in the mix and make some plays.”

The Ravens signed him on April 10, 2024, and a purple devil emoji announced Harty’s return to Baltimore after eight years.

The meaning of the emoji, sent to a group chat with his friends from Archbishop Curley, didn’t take long to set in. Immediately, his friends to started planning to buy tickets and jerseys, Boardman said.

“Dream come true, really,” Harty said. “This is something that as a kid, you always dreamed of, being able to play at home in front of your family, and playing in front of the city you grew up in.”

Meanwhile, back at their alma mater, McGinty’s phone started blowing up. While the Curley community as a whole is excited to see one of its own play for the Ravens, they know McGinty’s one of the remaining people on the athletics staff who got to see Harty dominate on football fields across Baltimore — which means former opponents, especially those at Loyola Blakefield, might be having some bad flashbacks with their nemesis returning home. Despite only playing twice, the school is featured prominently on Harty’s Wikipedia page and highlight reel because of his incredible games against them.

Although Harty hasn’t yet played for the hometown team — Harbaugh said he was excused from organized team activities and mandatory mini camp because his newborn daughter was in the hospital — Harty has been a fixture in Maryland over the years. Harty said his daughter is out of the hospital and healthy now, which is a relief.

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Almost every one of Harty’s bye weeks featured a trip home, and that often included visits to Curley, where he seemed bemused by the attention he got. His charitable efforts followed him from New Orleans to Buffalo, but they always included donations to Baltimore no matter where he was. He’s run Christmas drives and donated meals to families and the Baltimore Police, among other things, with help from his stepfather, Marlon Harty, whose last name he took.

A lot of it was kept on the down low, but Chesney kept abreast of it. It’s what he’s most proud of Harty for, and he can’t wait to see what Harty does once he’s in Baltimore full time.

“I think that, really, for him to be back in that community where he came back once in a while and would do those things, now to live there and take care of that community even more — that’ll be his mark not only on the field but, most importantly, what he does off,” Chesney said.

Baltimore Banner reporter Andy Kostka contributed to this article.