The Super '70s
Cliff Harris — a small-school intimidator who was determined to succeed
By Tom Danyluk
Oct. 15, 2005
Editor's note: The following excerpt is taken from Tom Danyluk's new book, The Super '70s: Memories from Pro Football's Greatest Era.
Cliff Harris, Safety
Dallas Cowboys (1970-79)
Interviewed April 29, 2002
John Holland was enjoying the benefits of a hot hand when Cowboys safety Cliff Harris had seen enough and ran the big spear through him.
Minnesota at Dallas, 1974, and Fran Tarkenton, the Vikings passer, was shooting up Texas Stadium. Each of his completions averaged 17 yards and he was taking things deep again, this time from midfield. Holland, a rookie receiver, was his target on a split-post route as the pass settled in at the goal line.
From there, it was your basic hit-and-run; Harris delivered the hit, then everyone ran to see if the target was still breathing.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be in the game,” laughs Holland today. “Jim Lash got hurt and I looked around and they were pointing at me to go in. My first catch was an 18-yard out. Then Tarkenton said he wanted to put a dagger in ’em and sent me deep. The ball was there, then the next thing I know it was lights out.”
Lights out, that was Cliff Harris all right. A kamikaze defender that always traveled with a knock-out punch. Darrell Royal, the old Texas coach, called him a “rolling ball of butcher knives,” as serious a football compliment as they come, however it is that butcher knives manage to roll.
“Probably the best hit of my career,” Harris says of his Holland blast. “As close to perfect as it gets. He was looking up and thought he had a sure touchdown, then I put my helmet right through him.” (Was it Holland’s worst collision? “It should’ve been, but then a year later Lyle Blackwood threw a cheap shot at me in Baltimore and broke my jaw. At least Harris’ hit was clean.”)
“That was one world I didn’t need to live in, the cheap shots,” says Harris, a four-time All-Pro who guarded Tom Landry’s defensive backfield for ten seasons. “I didn’t need the cheap stuff to be effective. But I didn’t wait for the game to come to me like a lot of safeties do. I launched myself into the game. My style was one of disruption, either by confusing the quarterback’s reads or blowing up a pass play. Cleanly, but as hard as the rules allowed … always looking for the knockout. Sometimes I’d knock myself out.”
His nickname was “Captain Crash” and he teamed with Clemson’s Charlie Waters to make arguably the best pro safety combo of the 1970s. The Dolphins would throw Dick Anderson and Jake Scott into the argument, and Pittsburgh would raise a fist and shout about the Mike Wagner and Glen Edwards/Donnie Shell years. But for my money the duo from Dallas was cream of the cream.
Harris emerged from one of those never-heard-of-‘em places, a school called Ouachita Baptist in Arkadelphia, AR. His college coach Buddy Benson first remembers him as a 17-year old freshman, “a 170-lb fireball who could hit big and run and took well to coaching. By the time he left me, I felt he’d be a pro.”
“We discovered Harris watching film,” says former Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt. “He ran back two punts for touchdowns in a game and that got our attention. He played hard but still, the chances of making the NFL from a school that small are pretty slim.”
Dallas took 17 turns in the 1970 draft and their final pick would be Glenn Patterson, the center on Nebraska’s Sun Bowl team. The last player taken overall, by Kansas City, was Rayford Jenkins of Alcorn State. Harris’ name was never called. And so it was that all fiery defensive backs from the land of Ouachita would have to take their chances as free agents. He signed on with the Cowboys despite the team’s hollow promises to put him in their draft.
NFL veterans pitched a three-week strike that July, so clubs filled their camps with rookies and no-names and all of them got long looks. “The strike is what saved Cliff,” says Benson. “The coaches couldn’t help but notice him. I don’t know how much true attention he’d have gotten had all the Dallas regulars been around.
“The day before their final pre-season game, Brandt told me Cliff wouldn’t see any action but would likely make the final cut and I wasn’t supposed to say anything. After the game, Cliff was so upset. We were at dinner and he said, ‘I’d do anything, even sweep the floors to make it. But they didn’t play me and it’s not gonna happen.’ I told him, ‘Don’t be so sure. Just get some sleep tonight.’ ”
Harris awoke as the Cowboys’ starting free safety. The team had switched future Hall of Famer Mel Renfro to his natural position at cornerback, allowing Harris to become a fixture through five Super Bowls and a decade of Dallas swagger.
He roamed the secondary as the wildcard in the Cowboys defense, a gambler who made his money in bluffs and aces but could come across the table with a fierce wallop. His game was a blend of concussions and confusion, of forcing misreads and miscues.
And those types would typically drive staid, conservative types like Landry batty. Coaches of that ilk take delight in watching their schemes unfold; gamblers generally bring them nothing but stomach knots.
But maybe Landry saw a little bit of himself in Harris. Their styles as players were surprisingly similar. Both were great anticipators that played with fire.
“Everyone thinks of Landry as a coach, this cold, cerebral icon,” says Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman, “But as a player, a Giants defensive halfback, he played a pretty rough game. Lots of emotion and a hard-hitter.”
In rehearsal or live action, Harris drew no distinction in bringing his level of punishment.
“He was as intense in practice as he was during games,” says Waters. “People used to tease him about it. Our own receivers paid serious attention to where Cliff was on the field. They didn’t want to get belted. One time Golden Richards brought him a red fireman’s hat, complete with the light and a siren, to keep track of him. Cliff put it on then took some laps. Landry just stood there watching him.
“My favorite Cliff Harris story was probably another incident from practice, from the early days. Craig Morton was still the quarterback. On one particular play Cliff was keying on Morton, watching his eyes instead of the receiver. So Morton just fired the ball right over the middle. Cliff jumped on the pass then he slammed right into the goal post … staggered the whole thing.
“It was so funny. Craig will deny it, but I know he threw at the post on purpose. He knew Cliff would chase it.”
A decade went by, then nagging injuries, ones that took longer and longer to heal, finally forced Harris to retire after the ’79 season. His body had taken enough abuse. His speed and explosion were fading. And the NFL had liberalized its passing rules. Receivers now had to be shadowed instead of banging them down the field, which put even greater pressure on any tired veteran legs that were roaming the secondary.
“It was time to go,” Harris admits. “I could have stayed another year or two, but I wouldn’t have been the same player. Young guys were coming in. I was on two Super Bowl winners. It was somebody else’s turn to bring the Cowboys a championship.”
But, oh, how those celebrations flowed in Dallas during the 1970s. Big trophies. NFC titles. Accolades and honors.
Good times in Texas, and the champagne corks popped. “Come quickly! I’m tasting stars!” said the friar Dom Perignon after sampling his sparkling discovery.
And after a decade full of dangerous encounters with Cliff Harris and the Dallas secondary, receivers like John Holland would shout, “Come quickly! I’m seeing them!”
Let’s begin with your introduction into professional football. How does one get from a place called Ouachita Baptist College in a place called Arkadelphia, Arkansas to the big-time Dallas Cowboys? Sounds like a long, rough ride on the wagon train.
CH: I had a very successful career in college, so I was pretty confident that I’d be drafted. The Rams and Saints had talked to me, but Dallas showed the most interest. The Cowboys at that time had really attempted to develop the small school market where no other pro teams had any interest. The BLESTO syndicate would send a representative scout to the small schools to check things out, but the Cowboys were the only ones in the ’70s that really pursued them on their own. They were looking for the best athletes in the south, regardless of what school they played for. That idea was really the brainchild of Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ director of player personnel at that time. The Cowboys scouted me and actually flew me to Dallas with around thirty other guys they supposedly were going to draft. [S] Charlie Waters from Clemson was in that group. We stayed in Dallas for a few days and they ran us through a bunch of tests. Finally, the Cowboys told me they were going to draft me in the sixth round.
Well, the first draft day came and went and no phone call. No phone call on the second day, either. Then after the draft ended, around midnight, I got a call from the Cowboys telling me they were going to fly me to Dallas to sign me as a free agent. Initially I said no, but later that week I changed my mind and signed a contract with them. That was the year of the preseason strike . The veterans were out, but the Cowboys were well prepared and had 120 rookies – most of them free agents – on the field at Thousand Oaks trying out for the team. I started out playing right defensive cornerback as a backup, but they moved me over to free safety. Rich Flowers, Charlie Waters and I were all vying for the free safety job. I finally won it.
What set you apart from Flowers and Waters?
CH: Mel Renfro had that job for the Cowboys the year before but he wasn’t really an aggressive player. He didn’t attack the run, and that was a component the Cowboys needed in their defense, so they moved Mel to cornerback. On the other hand, I was a very aggressive player who attacked the run and made plays at the line of scrimmage, but I could also cover downfield for the deep pass. That’s what won the job for me. I don’t think anyone before me had played the position like me other than Larry Wilson of the Cardinals. At that time in the NFL, the typical role of the free safety was to play center field, to stop the deep pass and not let anyone get behind him. A perfect example of someone who played that way was Minnesota’s Paul Krause.
Was there a specific play you made in camp that convinced the coaches that you were the top man at free safety?
CH: I can’t point to one play, but I can point to a single game that did it for me. I really had a great training camp that year. I would hit guys so hard in practice that I’d knock them out, and that gave me an advantage over Rich and Charlie. I would rather knock out a team’s best receiver than get an interception. It was simply the way I played. I wasn’t a headhunter, someone who was trying to hurt another player, but I played a rough, physical game. I could also play corner when needed, which also gave me an edge.
After it was announced that I had made the starting lineup as a rookie, there was still some doubt among the coaches as to whether I could actually perform under game conditions. The first home game we played in 1970 was against the New York Giants, and Tom Landry did not want to lose to the Giants. He wanted to beat them more than any other team in pro football because he had played for them and coached them. He told us that New York was the media capital of the world, and that if we wanted to create some publicity for ourselves, just play good against the Giants, in front of the New York media, and it would happen.
Well, we were losing 10-0 at halftime, which caused Landry to make one of the toughest speeches I ever heard him make in my career. He said we were playing terribly, that we were nothing more than amateurs drawing pay. He wasn’t complimentary at all. Hearing all the emotion in that speech really inspired me, and I went out and intercepted two passes with long returns and recovered two fumbles. It was probably my greatest 30 minutes of football. I was all over the field. I think my play during the second half of that game secured my position as a member of the Cowboys. The coaches saw what I could do when it counted.
Tom Danyluk is a freelance sportswriter based in Chicago. His new book, "The Super '70s," is now on sale. Visit www.thesuper70s.com
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