The Linebacker, the Dead Body and a Pizza Delivery from Hell

Napoleon Harris may not be Bruce Wayne—he was in the NFL and politics, and he's real—but for at least one night, to one community on Chicago's South Side, he was as close to Batman as this world has to offer

By Brandon Sneed

Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

December 7, 2016

A large man named Lawrence Hines, a beefy 6'1", sits on the tiny front porch of a small, light blue house. He makes a phone call. It's an order for pizza, from Beggars, a popular South Chicago chain.

Delivery. 15800 Paulina St.

Hines, 26, doesn't live here. Nobody lives here. He used to, years ago, but he moved away, and the house is now vacant. His neighbor, Toya Bishop, was confused to see him back there earlier that afternoon, but then, he'd always thought Hines was pretty weird anyway. "Loud," Bishop says. Intense eyes, furrowed brow. Made you uncomfortable, made you nervous, compelled you to keep an eye on him. "A loose cannon."

Hines is here because he's hiding out, on the run, wanted in Iowa for kidnapping, torturing and stabbing a man. And those are just the alleged crimes police know about so far.

Soon, he will also be wanted for murder.

And he's not alone on this night. Three others are here with him—two men and a skinny 16-year-old. They want cash, so they are going to rob a pizza delivery guy.

As Hines sits on the porch, the others take cover in the hedges and the darkness around the side of the house. And they wait.

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The call comes in close to 10 p.m. on Tuesday, September 6.

When it is time to deliver the pizza, the owner of that Beggars, Napoleon Harris III, says he will do the job.

It has been a busy day, and it is closing time, so Harris tells his staff to take off. He's got this one.

Once the pizza is cooked, he locks up and puts the pie in the passenger seat of his Mercedes coupe and makes his way from the restaurant's East 147th Street location along the potholed roads of Harvey, a rundown suburb on the outer fringes of Chicago's storied South Side.

He does this sort of thing pretty often, and he doesn't have to. In his white sneakers and blue jeans and white Beggars T-shirt in the restaurant, he doesn't exactly look like a 37-year-old millionaire and retired NFL linebacker who is married with three kids. His tight haircut and goatee seem free of gray, and he can pass for 10 years younger, still a muscular and imposing 6'3", 260 pounds. His shoulders bulge even under the baggy shirt, and he looks like he could still play, if he wanted.

He works in the restaurant four, five days a week when he can, and he handles everything from the cash register to deliveries to cooking. He is passionate about making the pizza right. He gets in there, gets the crew fired up. "This is how you do it," he'll say to them. "Let me show you."

Among the many ways people in Harvey describe Harris are "hometown hero" and "strong male role model." He is known as such because this is a place people grow up and leave, and Harris could leave as easily as anybody ever has, but he has chosen to stay, to live among the many small townships comprising this suburban bubble of Chicago, all just a few blocks from each other.

Harris went to Thornton Township High School, about 10 minutes from the Beggars restaurant. He was a three-sport star there, though football was his specialty. He had scholarship offers from all over the country but chose Northwestern for its academics. After an excellent career there, Harris was selected No. 23 in the first round of the 2002 NFL draft by Oakland and went on to play seven seasons split between the Raiders, Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs.

He doesn't have to be here. Not living here, as he does. Not working in a pizza joint. And certainly not making late-night deliveries, driving down dark and potholed streets, wearing out his Mercedes and spending time away from his family. He could be, as his friend and town spokesman Sean Howard puts it, "North, in a condo overlooking Navy Pier, on Lake Shore Drive."

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Image title

Illinois State Senator Napoleon Harris speaks to supporters during a Democrats Day rally at the Illinois State Fair on August 20, 2015, in Springfield, Illinois. (AP Images)

The 15800 Paulina St. address is less than 10 minutes from Beggars. The little blue house is right on the corner. There is a Tahoe parked in front, and Hines sits on the porch. The 16-year-old and the two men are hidden but ready. One of the men, 20-year-old Malik Mayer, is a massive 6'5", 275 pounds.

No lights are on. It is dark.

It's almost always dark out here at night. Half of the dozen houses on this block are vacant, there are few streetlights and overgrown trees block the stars. An almost invisible street in an almost invisible town.

The most recent census put the Harvey population at about 25,000, of which 76 percent is African-American, 19 percent Hispanic or Latino and 3.6 percent white. It is a poor area, the median income per capita below $13,500, the median household income just over $25,000.

Harvey is one of many areas in southern Chicagoland—many places the country over, for that matter—that feel, to put it in a word, forgotten. "Just forgotten," says Thornton Township principal Tony Ratliff.  

Napoleon, however, did not want to forget.

"When people see him, they don't call him 'Senator.' They call him 'Napo.'"


Even as he held down his multimillion-dollar contracts in the NFL, when he had time off, Harris came right back home to Harvey. He worked out at Thornton. He talked with the kids. He bought his pizza places—the Harvey one and another about 15 miles west, in Orland Park—and helped run them while he was still playing. He gave free slices to homeless people. He told local newspapers things like, "This south suburban area is a hidden gem that a guy like myself—with help from others—can turn around."

After retiring from football in 2009, Harris got into politics four years ago, becoming a state senator and working to help the people of Harvey. He even hosts a summer-long job training program right in Beggars itself.

"Reviving the community," Ratliff says.

This is how you do it. Let me show you.

Napoleon's relationship with the community isn't even first-name basis—it's nickname-basis. "When people see him," Howard says, "they don't call him 'Senator.' They call him 'Napo.'"

Given who he is—"the most popular face in town!"—Howard knows that Harris could make an appealing target for, say, a thief with a gun. Harris never worried about it. "Most guys with his celebrity and his political status will probably have a driver or a bodyguard, someone with them," Howard says. "He refuses. He's like, 'This is my hometown—why should I be afraid?'"

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As Harris approaches the little blue house with the pizza, Hines comes at him from the porch, the three others emerge from the bushes and the shadows and they all converge upon him.

Harris resists.

Someone has a pipe, or maybe it is a bat, and they put it to use. Someone puts Harris in a chokehold, and the others continue to strike him, all of them squeezing and beating the life out of him.

But he will not allow it.

Not after all he's given this town, and with all he has planned for it, for this South Side gem he believes in. Not with his wife and three young children waiting for him to come home. No damn way is Napo about to die here in some vacant home's dark yard, at the hands of these four cowards, no less.

He fights them. One-on-four.

This is how you do it. Let me show you.

He connects on many punches.

And they run. They pile into the Tahoe, and they roar out of there, down Paulina Street to West 159th Street.

But Napo is not done with them yet.

He runs to his car, and he chases them.

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From there, the official story from the police department is that Harris follows the men—"at a reasonable distance"—while calling the police and reporting his alleged attackers' whereabouts. The men abandon their vehicle in a lumber yard in South Holland, a small township about 10 minutes from Paulina Street.

Or so the story goes.

Harris dutifully waits for the police to arrive, according to the police, and he provides clear and helpful statements and descriptions of the criminals.

But an alternate version of this crime story, according to multiple witnesses who requested anonymity but say they saw surveillance footage, is a bit more...dramatic. 

For starters, the lumber yard is no lumber yard at all; it's a freight company at the corner of West 162nd and Van Drunen. And the bad guys do not leave their car there; rather, they park across the street, and then they try to outrun Napo on foot, because he is in hot pursuit—solo.

They run across the street, according to the witnesses, and try to jump the gate into the trucking company lot; Harris appears to strike one of them with his car before they all disappear into the night.

Whatever actually happens, Harris spends the next hour or so talking with police as a small army of local and state forces canvasses the area and fruitlessly searches the dozens of big rigs parked in the yard. Harris' jeans and T-shirt are torn and streaked with blood, and his knees and body are bruised from the beating. His knuckles are also split open and swollen from fighting back, and he is very much alive, his heart still pumping and adrenaline still flowing hours later.

Talking with Howard, the town spokesman, Harris says, "In that moment, you just think about your family. Your kids. You're just trying to get home."

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The police do not find Harris' alleged attackers. However, a search of the abandoned Tahoe turns up promising leads, such as a cellphone, among other, more chilling discoveries. Those lead to the creation of a federal task force to track the men—and lay bare the fact that Napo didn't just fight punks who wanted some extra cash. In the back of the truck, police find a tarp, duct tape, bloody clothes and more blood.

The Tahoe is stolen, registered to a Lester Jones, 44, of Union City, Georgia.

And Lester Jones was reported missing just a few days prior.

The blood in the Tahoe matches his DNA.

Image title

Napoleon Harris (right) chases Detroit Lions running back Kevin Jones during a game at Ford Field on December 10, 2006, in Detroit. (Getty Images)

On September 2, four days before the pizza delivery, Hines, Mayer and the minor had allegedly used Grindr, the gay dating app, to lure Jones to an abandoned house in Union City. When Jones arrived, police say, they jumped him, duct-taped him, robbed him and, eventually, killed him. The medical examiner said he had been stabbed in the throat and died choking on his own blood.

They allegedly stuffed his body beneath the house, then took off, ending up with a friend in Chicago, where they thought they could hide.

And then, in the mistake that would bring their end, they allegedly tried to rob Napo.

Within a week and a half of the Napo encounter, Mayer and the minor are captured and incarcerated. Mayer tells police that it was Hines who did the stabbing.

Within two weeks, Hines is captured, too.

Hines and Mayer have been charged with murder, kidnapping and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, among other crimes. Neither one of their attorneys responded to multiple requests for comment. All of the accused now wait to go to trial. 

✦ ✦ ✦

As for Harris, he returns to Beggars for work just a couple of days after that night, his cuts still healing and his bruises still colorful.

This is how you do it. Let me show you.

"Our country needs leaders like him," says Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald, Harris' friend.

The country, yes, but small places like Harvey might need such leaders even more. They need to know someone still thinks they are worth leading, that they are worth remembering.

And so the people of Harvey flood into Beggars, to see if he is OK, and to catch a glimpse of their own real-life superhero. Harlem has Luke Cage, Gotham has Batman and Harvey has Napo. And they want to thank him for doing what he's done and for not forgetting them.

Regarding that dark night on Paulina Street, he knows he has to tell his staff and everyone else about it, but Harris also says what a hero says, which is little. Nothing more or less, really, than what anyone who knows him would expect him to say: "I'm OK, my family’s OK and I'm glad it wasn't anybody else.

"I'm glad it was me."

Brandon Sneed is a contributing writer for B/R Mag, and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (Dey Street, March 2017). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform, and more, and has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.

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