Margaret Harris was not famous. Her oldest son is. But the redheaded lady known around our house as Big Margaret (so as not to be confused with her daughter, Little Margaret) should have been famous. Don’t let the term Big Margaret confuse you. She was not a big woman in the physical sense. It was her personality that was big.
She was something special.
I made the drive through the mist Monday with three passengers in their 80s from Parkway Village — my mother and the Morrisons — so we could celebrate the life of Margaret Harris, who died last week at age 83. She would have been 84 next Monday.
You may have heard of her oldest son, Cliff Harris. Cliff, in my biased opinion, was the greatest free safety in the history of the National Football League. Playing in five Super Bowls in 10 seasons as a member of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s, he forever changed the way free safeties play the game. It’s a travesty he was not inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the regular ballot while his mother was still alive to enjoy it. He eventually will go into the Hall of Fame on the old-timers’ ballot. Cliff is already in the Cowboys Ring of Honor. You will see his name when you go to Jerry Jones’ new palace at Arlington.
Knowing what a good athlete Cliff’s father — O.J. “Buddy” Harris — had been at Ouachita in the 1940s, my father was among those who talked Ouachita Coach Buddy Benson into giving Cliff a chance to play college football after Cliff graduated from Des Arc High School in 1966. Four years later, the Cowboys signed Cliff as a free agent.
As the last cut neared in that summer of 1970, I remember what my dad told the family: “Buddy Harris doesn’t think Cliff will survive that last cut. So if we’re going to ever see him in a Cowboys uniform, we better get to this next preseason game.”
We loaded up the family and made the long drive to New Orleans so we could watch the Cowboys play the Saints in old Tulane Stadium. Ten seasons and two Super Bowl rings later, Cliff retired.
Big Margaret’s younger son, Tommy, was more highly recruited coming out of high school than Cliff had been. He signed with the University of Arkansas. And on Jan. 1, 1976, I watched from the stands as Tommy helped break up a shoestring play called by Georgia Coach Vince Dooley just before halftime of the Cotton Bowl. It was the turning point in the game as Frank Broyles won his last Cotton Bowl as the Razorback coach.
My dad always claimed that Little Margaret was a better athlete than either Cliff or Tommy. He loved telling the story of how Cliff made his own high-jump pit in his backyard when the family lived at Hot Springs. Cliff tried all afternoon but couldn’t clear the bar. Little Margaret cleared it on her first try.
My father and O.J. Harris had played football together at Ouachita. Big Margaret, a Glenwood native, was a Henderson student. But she crossed the ravine in Arkadelphia and married a Ouachita football player. My parents and the Harrises became close friends for life.
A great irony occurred when AP&L transferred Buddy Harris from Hot Springs to Des Arc, my mother’s hometown. The Harrises ended up moving into the house next to my grandparents’ home in Des Arc. Arkansas is a small place.
I often would hear the stories of the Labor Day dove hunts that included my dad, Mr. Harris, my older brother, Cliff and Tommy. I was too young to tag along at the time. I wish I could have.
She wasn’t on the dove hunts, but Big Margeret was the glue who held the family together. Mr. Harris would end up losing his vision at a relatively young age due to diabetes, and Big Margaret would care for him for years. She was a saint. In the words of her obituary: “Her devotion to her husband was an inspiration to all those around her.” She had taken those marriage vows seriously — every word.
Margaret had given up a potential signing career to marry O.J. Harris in February 1946. But her voice would continue to bless the churches she would attend through the years. During Monday’s service at the Piney Grove United Methodist Church, there was much talk about her singing abilities.
Her strong voice also was effective in questioning the calls of football officials from the stands. And she wasn’t shy about criticizing a coach — be it Buddy Benson (who attended Monday’s service), Frank Broyles or Tom Landry. Being a redhead myself, I always admired her redheaded feistiness.
And I admired the way she remained so true to her friends through the decades. When my father was in the hospital at Little Rock, she would call our house every day for an update on his condition. She was one of those ladies who make living in Arkansas special.
When the day comes that Cliff Harris is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I plan to be in Canton, Ohio. I have no doubt that Big Margaret will be there in spirit, asking “what the heck took you so long?”