LITTLE ROCK — Late arriving because of plane trouble, the Dallas Cowboys’ contingent was led by Gene Stallings and the sellout crowd did not sit down until Little Rock Touchdown Club president David Bazzel had introduced Gil Brandt, Charlie Waters, Mel Renfro, Drew Pearson, Roger Staubach, and the man of the hour, Cliff Harris.
For Cowboys’ fans, it was a lovefest. At the head table, shoulder to shoulder, were Staubach, Pearson, Renfo, Waters, Brandt, and Stallings — four guys who wore the team’s star with distinction, the executive in the middle of the glory years of Dallas football, and an assistant with the Cowboys for 14 years.
Celebration of the new Cliff Harris Award for the best small college defensive player in the country was a perfect vehicle for his friends to crisply deliver funny lines — many of them involving on-field collisions with Harris — and pitch Harris for the NFL Hall of Fame.
"I feel like I just listened to my own eulogy," said Harris, a high school player from Des Arc who wangled a scholarship to Ouachita Baptist University, was undrafted when the NFL selected almost 500 players in 1970, made first team All-Pro three times, and played in five Super Bowls. He called it an "incredible journey."
The sort of plays that earned him the monicker, "Captain Crash," permeated the program. The theme began with the telling of a story from Ben Burton, who coached Harris at Hot Springs and who drove the 50 miles Monday to share the moment. During a practice, a fullback refused to go down when a tackle hanging on for dear life said, "Lie down you fool, Cliff will be here any second and knock the stuffing out of both of us."
A highlight film from Harris’ induction into the Cowboys Ring of Honor in 2004 was crammed with No. 43 making interceptions and driving through ball carriers with a technique tacklers employed when I paid close attention to the NFL.
Brandt said Harris was discovered because the Cowboys hired a Lubbock newspaper man to write to people at every college in the country to obtain recommendations about various players. Harris had a half-dozen or so positive reviews, mostly because of his prowess on kickoff returns, Brandt said.
The Cowboys thought so much of Harris, Brandt said, "We sent an aluminum salesman down to sign him."
A free agent, Harris supposedly signed for $500. "You left $50 on the table when you signed your first contract," Brandt said.
Waters said he suffered collateral damage from being in the area where Harris clobbered an opponent. He also recalled an incident shortly after the Cowboys acquired Herb Adderley from Green Bay and Harris drilled Adderley in the back.
"I got the same fricking jersey on as you do," Adderley told Harris. "Quit hitting me."
Undrafted out of Tulsa, Pearson said one reason he signed with the Cowboys was because he was aware of what Harris had accomplished on a similar career path.
Preparing for the Redskins on a Thursday, Pearson received a pass across the middle and a blow in the back from Harris. It looked so bad that coach Tom Landry personally investigated. "Once he found out I was OK, he moved the drill up 10 yards," so practice could continue, Pearson said.
Prior to sharing that, Pearson looked at Harris and said, "Stay right there, now."
He spoke for all involved — including Harris and Bazzel — when he said he hoped the award would inspire others.
Staubach said Harris competed harder than anybody he ever met and that their pre-practice jog often turned into a full-out race. He also said Harris’ aggressive style changed the way safeties played in the NFL, one more reason he should be in the Hall of Fame.
The speakers, plus others, will be on the committee that selects the award winner. Appropriately, the sculpture will feature No. 43 nailing an opponent with the football.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.