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Ex-Bear Tommie Harris is building the future in his late wife’s honor

Former Bear Tommie Harris with late wife Ashley sTysdaughter Tinsley. | Special Sun-Times

Former Bear Tommie Harris with late wife Ashley, son Tyson and daughter Tinsley. | Special to the Sun-Times

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Updated: June 14, 2012 8:20AM

Tommie Harris doesn’t want your pity.

A three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the Bears, Harris still lives in a Chicago suburb, even after the team released him in February 2011, and he bristles at the awkward exchanges with strangers who recognize him and insist on offering condolences after the death of his wife, Ashley, three months ago.

‘‘If you feel sorry for my loss, just hold up two fingers,’’ Harris tells the Sun-Times. ‘‘Just don’t say nothing. You know what I mean?

‘‘There’s nothing you should say. There’s nothing to talk about.’’

Then, his voice trails off before he concludes, ‘‘Until you’ve experienced it . . .”

Together for nearly four years, Tommie and Ashley were married on New Year’s Day, just two months after she’d given birth to their second child, Tinsley. During a trip to Oklahoma in February, she was rushed to the hospital with a stroke or brain aneurysm and died the next day.

Ashley Harris was 29.

Tommie Harris still doesn’t know the cause of death, and he’s still reluctant to speak about his wife.

Emotions may run high because it’s Mother’s Day, but Harris recognizes that his popularity and prosperity don’t make him exempt from tragedy.

‘‘I don’t want to be viewed as a celebrity who lost his wife. I want to have respect for people who lose loved ones every day,’’ he says. ‘‘It makes you realize that you’re no different. Everybody is dealing with their own problems. I don’t want to make a sad story, or ‘Woe is me.’ I don’t want that.”

He leans on his faith and family to help him as he patiently considers his next career move (an NFL free agent, he still wants to play) and raises his two children.

‘‘It’s difficult,” he says, ‘‘but my faith carries me through everything. I feel if I couldn’t handle the situation, then God wouldn’t let go through it.’’

To those close to him, he often utters three words.

‘‘Make it count,’’ he explains. ‘‘Every breath we have, make it count, on a daily basis.’’

So as a tribute to Ashley, Harris wants to build a school in Torit, Sudan, for girls who have been abused or enslaved by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Harris started making annual trips to Africa six years ago, visiting small villages and major cities, meeting minor and major leaders, hugging children and digging wells.

‘‘I love people who appreciate things. It’s very rare here,’’ he says, referring to the United States. ‘‘People here complain about their lifestyle and living situation. But there are so many things they could do to get out of those situations.

‘‘When you go over there,” he says, ‘‘they’re just thankful for a hug, or for you to talk to them. They could care less who I am.’’

Ashley joined him on two trips through the non-profit Pros For Africa, and she fell just as hard. In March, during Harris’ trip to Tanzania, a Massai village named its first source of water ‘‘Ashley’s Well.’’

He wants to name the school ‘‘The Ashley Harris Sunshine School.’’

Remembering Ashley

Tommie Harris declines to speak much about his wife, but Danielle Forte, the wife of Bears Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte and a close friend of the Harris family, has more to share.

Last season, when Tommie played for the San Diego Chargers, the Fortes would head over to help the then-pregnant Ashley with whatever needed to get done. Sometimes the Fortes would take their dogs and spend the night.

‘‘Ashley was the sweetest, most bubbly person I’ve ever met,’’ Danielle says. ‘‘There was rarely anything she would ever say that was negative. She loved kids, she loved fun and she loved God.

‘‘If I ever needed anything, I didn’t have to think about anything. I would call her, and it would be OK. If Matt wasn’t available, then I’d call her.’’

The Fortes are among those who already have committed money toward the Sudan school project, something Danielle calls ‘‘therapeutic.’’

‘‘It’s a piece of Ashley that will be able to carry on,’’ she says. ‘‘It will instill and show the love she had for life, and to take advantage of every opportunity you have and not to take it for granted.’’

Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, who runs orphanages and schools and will run the new school, recalls how Ashley always wanted to hug and hold babies on visits.

‘‘She was a very kind person,’’ Nyirumbe says. ‘‘She valued life, and she wanted to see these women reach a point where they could live in dignity.’’

Moving on

As for Tommie, Nyirumbe is overwhelmed by his continual support, not only financially but with personal visits.

‘‘I can’t believe the heart Tommie Harris has for the children of Africa,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s like he wants to give the whole of himself to the people.’’

Added Pros For Africa co-founder Bill Horn, ‘‘The biggest thing he does is put the smiles on these girls’ faces, because they haven’t had much to smile about in their lifetime.’’

New York Jets receiver Santonio Holmes joined Harris on his latest trip, and he’s learned a lot from him.

‘‘He’s never been a person who gets down on anything,’’ Holmes says. ‘‘He’s always positive.’’

Asked his impression of how Harris is handling the loss of his wife, Holmes says, ‘‘I can’t even begin to think where I would be in that situation. But he believes everything happens for a reason.”

Horn has made three trips to Africa with Harris. Their goal isn’t just one school.

“We want to see her legacy throughout the continent,’’ Horn says. ‘‘Our goal is to get the first school built, then to have many other Ashley Harris Sunshine Schools that her children will be able to visit and see the impact their mother had.’’

Danielle Forte is humbled by Harris’ strength. At Ashley’s funeral, Danielle cried and cried, and Harris comforted her.

‘‘I was a mess,’’ she recalls. ‘‘I didn’t know how he was being so strong. I don’t know how Tommie has done it.’’

He doesn’t have a secret, he says.

What may have been optional in the past isn’t anymore.

His children need him.

He’s learned something, too.

‘‘You can do more,’’ he says, speaking of fathers. ‘‘Take advantage of it now. Give your kids more time, your wife more time. Do more.

‘‘Try to get better.’’

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