They crossed paths last winter at a presidential campaign stop in Chicago. One was a former Illinois state senator. The other would become one.

Barack Obama shook Napoleon Harris' hand and told him, "Hey, I'm watching you."

"For the president to take a notice of what you're doing back in the home state," Harris said, "that's humbling."

And an indication that the former NFL linebacker was a rising political star.

Harris was elected state senator for Illinois' 15th district in November. Then shortly afterwards, he had the chance to set his sights on Washington when Jesse Jackson Jr., the son of the famous civil rights leader, resigned his seat in the 2nd Congressional District. (Jackson pleaded guilty Wednesday to spending $750,000 of campaign funds for personal luxuries such as fur capes, celebrity memorabilia and a Rolex.)

"You don't think of a football player going into that field," said Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, a former teammate. "But Napoleon's always been a smart guy."

The seven-year NFL veteran, though, bowed out of next week's Democratic primary on Jan. 30. Harris, who strongly endorsed former Cook County chief administrative officer Robin Kelly upon his exit, said he left to unite the community and the Democratic Party.

On the same day Harris dropped out, Illinois' executive ethics commission released a report about one of his campaign managers. It stated that Curtis Thompson worked for Harris while receiving benefits -- and perhaps money -- from his state job despite having taken a leave of absence to help his ill father.

Harris said he has known Thompson for just a couple of years and was neither aware of the alleged indiscretions nor were they a factor in his departure from the race.

"That had nothing to do with it," Harris said. "His issues are not my issues."

After initially filing for a medical leave, Thompson said he sent a letter of resignation to the state. He insisted the state's report was wrong and not the reason for Harris' exit.

"My leaving the state of Illinois has nothing to do with Napoleon," Thompson said. "So to put the two together is really unfair to him."

The timing of the events, though, is curious.

Is Harris a professional athlete who pulled himself up from humble beginnings to become a Northwestern University graduate, a starting NFL linebacker and an up-and-coming political figure? Or is he another Chicago-area politician who has dipped his toe into the cesspool of corruption for which the Windy City is known?

After all, the race to fill Jackson's vacated seat has included a convicted child sex offender and a gun-control proponent arrested on gun charges.

"This is Chicago politics," said Phillip Beverly, a Chicago State political science professor. "The characters and caricatures involved here -- yeah -- this is a Chicago race."

***

Harris could have pursued a high-level job in football.

His network includes head coaches Mike Tomlin of the Steelers and Pat Fitzgerald of Northwestern, both of whom he texts regularly. Rather than take a job in coaching, administration or even sports media, he chose to run for office.

"Football's my passion," Harris said. "Serving the people is my calling."

He believes some of the skills he developed on the football field -- discipline, hard work, perseverance and teamwork -- will help in the political arena.

"You transfer those things that you've learned through professional sports," Harris said. "It has a lot to do with politics."

Harris was Oakland's 2002 first-round draft pick. He started in Super Bowl XXXVII and 73 regular-season games for the Raiders, Vikings and Chiefs while surpassing 80 tackles in a season three times. He was part of the 2005 trade that sent Randy Moss to Oakland.

Johnson remembers "Napo" leading debates and discussing issues in the Chiefs locker room regardless of the topic.

"He always had a say in something," Johnson said. "He knew more than football ... He always had that aura about him."

Harris began thinking beyond football during his playing career. He opened a business in 2008 -- the first of his Beggars Pizza restaurants south of Chicago. As owner, Harris did everything from hire employees to wait tables, sweep floors, wash dishes and bake pizzas.

It was in that restaurant setting where community pastors and civic leaders encouraged him to run for office. At Beggars he also heard the customers' issues -- worries about affording medicine for their children,

electric bills or mortgages, which resonated with Harris and reminded him of his own struggles while growing up in Dixmoor, Ill.

During high school at Thornton Township, he had just a few pairs of pants and five shirts. Other students made fun of him, even though he was the school's star athlete.

"I had to wear the same clothes each and every day," Harris said. "I remember kids teasing me ... It burned me on the inside."

Harris' family lacked much beyond the basic necessities because his father died of a heart attack when Napoleon was 15. To take care of him and his two siblings, Napoleon's mother, Brenda Harris, worked two jobs, as a certified nursing assistant and as a hair stylist. Often he would only see Brenda in the morning when she kissed him as he left for school.

"To see my mother work as hard as she did," he said, "that's what motivated me and drove me."

That drive helped earn Harris an athletic scholarship to Northwestern where he played football and basketball.

While there, Harris would see Obama, then a state senator, hanging out on a couch in the coach's office where Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, worked as a Wildcats assistant basketball coach.

***

If "The Good Wife" had scripted the developments of the 2nd Congressional District election, it likely would have seemed too farfetched.

The wackiness starts with Jackson Jr., who served as congressman for the 2nd district for 17 years, resigning Nov. 21, citing health issues.

While Jackson spent the summer and fall at Mayo Clinic for treatment of a bipolar disorder, he was also being investigated. He was accused of using campaign contributions for personal use and raising money for imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in exchange for an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat that opened up when Obama became president in 2008.

Jackson allegedly used the campaign money to purchase items, including $43,000 on a gold Rolex watch, $10,105 on Bruce Lee memorabilia and $1,500 on a black fox fur coat, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Once Jackson resigned, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn had to convene a special election within 115 days to find a Congressional replacement.

It became a free-for all with about two dozen candidates vying for the spot, including Mel Reynolds, the 2nd district's congressman before Jackson. Reynolds resigned in 1995 when convicted on charges of child pornography, sexual relations with a 16-year-old campaign aide and later bank and campaign fraud.

"Mel's sort of the guy who brings," Beverly said, "that embarrassing quality (to the race)."

Reynolds served prison time before President Bill Clinton pardoned him two hours before leaving office. Rumors have swirled that Clinton did so because Reynolds was close to ­-- wait for it -- Jesse Jackson Sr., who had supported Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. (After leaving prison Reynolds worked as a consultant for Jackson's Rainbow PUSH coalition.)

State senator Donne Trotter was once viewed as a possible front-runner for the Congressional seat. Then Trotter, a gun control advocate, dropped out after being hit with felony gun charges stemming from an arrest at O'Hare International Airport in which he allegedly tried to board a flight with a .25-caliber Beretta in his garment bag.

But Harris, carrying the name recognition from his NFL career, might have been the most interesting figure.

And he, too, announced his departure from the race.

On that same day, the Governor's Office of Executive Inspector General (OEIG) released its report. It divulged that Thompson, a senior public service administrator for the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, took an inappropriate leave of absence. OEIG recommended against Thompson from ever being reinstated as a state employee.

Thompson's father, who lived in Alabama, passed away in March from cancer after receiving hospice care. But the inspector general determined that was not the true reason Thompson pursued the Family and Medical Leave Act and that Thompson earned more than $9,000 while working on the political campaign instead.

"OEIG is not suggesting that Mr. Thompson's father did not need medical care," the report said. "Rather the OEIG concludes that Mr. Thompson used his father's illness as pretext for taking time off to conduct political work."

***

With so many candidates, the Democratic primary winner on Feb. 26 may not even receive 20 percent of the vote. That Democrat will face off against a Republican on April 9 in the special election, a race considered a formality in this Democrat-heavy district.

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Harris had been seen as an intriguing dark horse candidate behind favorites Debbie Halvorson, a former U.S. representative who lost the last primary to Jackson, and Kelly. The latter has the backing of Harris and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose anti-gun PAC has spent at least $1.4 million in support.

"We need to fight for more educational opportunity, better jobs and to get guns out of the hands of criminals and gangs that are preying on our neighborhoods," Harris said in a statement. "Robin Kelly is the right candidate to pick up that cause to fight for the people of Chicago and the Southland."

Beverly said the former NFL player, who turns 34 the day before the Democratic primary, remains a politician with great potential -- regardless of whether Harris knew of Thompson's reported violation. And barring another alleged transgression down the line, the OEIG report will not inhibit that future.

For his part, although congressional aspirations have been put on hold, Harris remains upbeat.

"It's a great job as well to be elected as state senator," he said. "And I'm looking forward to doing my part in the senate."

-- Follow Jeff Fedotin on Twitter @JFedotin.

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