Qadree Ollison: Next in line


Thomas Yang | Visual Editor

Former Pitt tailback Qadree Ollison escapes a shoestring tackle during the ACC Championship game.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

Every college football player’s dream is to hear his name called on Draft Day, to join the ranks of the best in the world in the National Football League. For most, that dream never comes true — only 1.6% of NCAA football players ever become professionals. Pitt tailback Qadree Ollison was one of the select few to beat the odds when he was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons as the 152nd overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Panther running backs tend to thrive in the league. Lesean McCoy is a borderline Hall of Famer and Dion Lewis has thus far had a nice career. More recently, James Conner has thrived as the hometown Steelers’ starting back. Ollison, the only Pitt player in the 2019 draft, will join their ranks with the Falcons, a team whose backfield has been plagued by injuries in recent seasons.

Many players of Ollison’s caliber have no bumps in the road and are superstars cemented at the top of the depth chart their entire careers. But for others, the journey is an uphill climb. Conner was suddenly diagnosed with cancer in 2015, managing to beat it in 2016. Ollison’s story, too, contains a tragic chapter that has made him into the man he is today.

But before that chapter was written, Qadree Ollison was a stud at Canisius High School in New York. He was a top, if not the top, running back prospect in the state. Ollison earned two all-state selections, broke his school’s rushing record, racked up almost 60 career touchdowns and led his team to two Monsignor Martin Association titles.

Many players enter college and get relegated to backup roles, even those as talented as Ollison. After redshirting as a true first year, Ollison began the 2015 season stuck in third on the depth chart, but a James Conner knee injury threw him into an active role in the offense. He made the most of his opportunity, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and 11 scores on his way to earning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year and All-ACC second team honors.

James Conner’s return relegated Ollison to the backup role in which he began his Pitt career. He turned in only 127 yards and reached the end zone just twice before his world was turned upside down in his junior season.

On Oct. 14, 2017, Ollison and the rest of the Panthers were gearing up for their seventh game of the season against ACC foe NC State. The Panthers would lose to the Wolfpack 35-17.

After the game, Ollison found out his brother had been killed early that morning. Lerowne “Rome” Harris, 35, was shot three times, twice in the back, by 22-year-old Denzel Lewis after a gas station encounter. Harris was put into a vehicle and sped to a hospital after the incident and passed away at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. 

“Everybody was just devastated,” Ollison told ESPN. “It’s not something that you can prepare for.”

Ollison and Lewis attended middle school together and were friends at one point in their lives. The two drifted apart, but Ollison has still made the choice to have compassion for his brother’s killer.

“Now here I am, and I have this choice to hate you or not. I choose not to,” says an excerpt from Qadree’s 800 word letter to Lewis, read by his father Wayne in court on the day of Lewis’ sentencing. “I hate what you did, most certainly. But I still think your life is just as precious as the next person’s. No life means more than another’s.”

Ollison said he hopes Lewis finds peace through God — the Falcons rookie has become quite faithful since entering college.

“If you don’t want to believe in God, you want to believe in something,” Ollison told ESPN. “[I would tell Lewis] try to find whatever it is that would bring peace to him and help him.”

To pay homage to Rome, Ollison wore his brother’s youth football number, 30, his senior year. The New York native proceeded to have a career season, spurring the Panthers to their first ever Coastal Conference title.

In his final season, Ollison racked up 1,213 yards on the ground en route to reaching the end zone 11 times. He became only the sixth Panther ever to rush for 1,000 yards more than once, joining the likes of Pitt legends such as Tony Dorsett and Curtis Martin. Ollison stampeded nearly every opponent in a victory lap of sorts that earned him second team All-ACC honors.

He was able to perform like this, at least in part, thanks to the spirituality he discovered in college that helped him through his brother’s death and allowed him to forgive Denzel Lewis. When he got to Pitt, Ollison was convinced to attend Bible studies by former teammate Kellen McAlone, jumpstarting the path of faith that has helped him through tough times. As Ollison’s faith grew, the Bible studies led to him reading a verse every night before praying.

Many football players play the tough card at all times, but Ollison chose to be open about his excitement when he heard the Falcons gave him the call, shedding tears of joy while embracing his father and mother.

He still has to make the Falcons roster, though, and even if he does, he won’t be satisfied.

“Just because you’ve been drafted doesn’t mean you’ve arrived,” he once said.

The latest in a long line of prolific Panther running backs won’t be content unless he’s made an impact on football fans and future hopeful players.

“That’s all I really want to do,” Ollison told ESPN. “I just want to be an inspiration.”