Cliff Harris Stadium: A family affair

This story originally ran at SportingLifeArkansas.com.

It has been quite a year for Cliff Harris, especially when you consider that he last played football during the 1979 season.

The old Des Arc Eagle, Ouachita Tiger and Dallas Cowboy has been back in the news in a big way, and you can thank Little Rock’s David Bazzel for much of that.

Bazzel — the idea man who came up with the Golden Boot for the Arkansas-LSU football game, the Frank Broyles Award and the Little Rock Touchdown Club — wanted a national football award to be presented at the Touchdown Club’s annual postseason banquet.

Since it was founded in 2004, the Little Rock Touchdown Club has presented player and coach of the year awards in each high school classification. It also has given a most valuable player award for each college program in the state.

David, who is always on the search for something new, was looking for an award that would garner the club some national attention. He spent dozens of hours bouncing from website to website, trying to find a category that didn’t already have an award.

Everything was covered at the NCAA Division I level.

Division II already had the Harlon Hill Trophy over in Florence, Ala., which since 1986 has been presented annually to the top player from that level.

However, there wasn’t a major award for the top small college defensive player in the country. While driving from Siloam Springs to Little Rock on a hot day this summer, I spent more than an hour discussing the idea with David. He wanted to include nominees not only from Division II but also from Division III and the NAIA. He wanted to name the award after Cliff. And he wanted me to help convince Cliff that the Little Rock Touchdown Club does things in a first-class manner.

Cliff’s father and my father played football together at Ouachita in the 1940s, and our parents became close friends. Cliff’s mother was a Henderson Reddie. A mixed marriage, in other words.

Growing up a block from Ouachita’s football stadium, I walked the sidelines as a water boy when Cliff played college football from 1966-69. Cliff’s sister and my sister later attended Ouachita together.

When Cliff played for the Cowboys from 1970-79, we spent many weekends in Dallas watching Cowboys games. Tom Landry would require the players to stay in a hotel the night before a home game. Once the team moved from the Cotton Bowl at the Texas State Fairgrounds to Texas Stadium in Irving, the team hotel was the Holiday Inn Regal Row, which was in a nondescript warehouse district in Irving. We would stay at the team hotel on Saturday nights and ride a bus to the games on Sundays.

George Bernard Shaw wrote that “youth is wasted on the young,” and indeed I didn’t fully appreciate all those Sundays in the 1970s as much then as I do looking back now. It was a rare opportunity for a boy like me from a small town in Arkansas to be around those players and coaches. That was a golden era for the Cowboys as the team went to five Super Bowls in a 10-year period. Not only were the players famous, but Landry was already an icon. Even the general manager (Tex Schramm), the director of player personnel (Gil Brandt), the guy who played the national anthem on the trumpet (Tommy Loy) and the public address announcers (Bill Melton and James Jennings) were celebrities in those days.

Of all the players who have worn the Cowboy uniform through the decades, only 18 have been inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor. Cliff is among those honorees. He has continued to live in the Dallas area but still considers himself an Arkansan and is in the state often.

Once the award was explained to him — and once he was comfortable that there would be a big-time effort to publicize it — Cliff was on board.

The creation of the Cliff Harris Award was announced during a Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting on Monday, Aug. 26. The club has had some famous speakers through the years, but never has there been so much talent on the stage at the same time. They had all come up from Texas to honor Cliff.

There was quarterback Roger Staubach, who played from 1969-79 and was a 1983 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was cornerback Mel Renfro, who played from 1964-77 and was a 1981 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was Charlie Waters, the other safety in the Cowboys secondary during the 1970s.

There was wide receiver Drew Pearson, who played from 1973-83 and was a 2011 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was Gil Brandt.

And there was Gene Stallings, Cliff’s position coach with the Cowboys who went on to win a national college football title as the head coach at the University of Alabama.

It was a special day.

Still, David didn’t have a feel for how popular the award would be since it had never been given before. He was pleasantly surprised several weeks ago when nominations began to roll in from across the country. He was even happier when, after the list of 100 finalists was unveiled, athletic websites at dozens of colleges and universities featured stories about the Cliff Harris Award.

David also was pleased with the trophy — anyone who has ever seen the Golden Boot and the Broyles Award knows that David goes for big and heavy — which was unveiled in Arkadelphia on Nov. 16 at halftime of the Battle of the Ravine. A record crowd packed every nook and cranny of Ouachita’s outdated A.U. Williams Field that day. With the University of Arkansas football team open, the rivalry received unprecedented statewide media attention. The game itself was one for the ages. Henderson completed a second consecutive undefeated regular season with a 60-52 victory in three overtimes.

Ouachita — which finished 7-3 and compiled its sixth consecutive winning season (the most consecutive winning seasons of any college program in the state) — received more positive exposure for its gallant effort against the heavily favored Reddies than it had received in any of its victories earlier in the season.

Cliff and David went home happy that night. But the huge crowd, the lengthy concession lines, the overcrowded press box and more had convinced Ouachita officials that the time had come for something to be done to A.U. Williams Field. Within a couple of weeks, a donor who has so far remained anonymous had made a substantial contribution to the school.

Last Thursday, the Ouachita Board of Trustees voted to launch a 120-day campaign to match that lead gift. The playing field, which is in good condition, will remain the same. There will be new stadium seating, a new press box (I’ve broadcast Ouachita games from the same booth since 1978), new parking lots and other improvements.

There also will be a new name: Cliff Harris Stadium.

To cap it all off, the day after the Ouachita board made its decision, the Des Arc Eagles beat Bearden (which ironically is the hometown of Cliff’s dad) in the Class AA semifinals and earned a spot in this weekend’s state championship game at War Memorial Stadium.

Like I said, it has been quite a year for Cliff Harris.

“Super Bowls and Pro Bowls say a great deal about his contributions to the game, but what many don’t know is the way he did it,” says Ouachita head coach Todd Knight. “Hard work and the values he learned in the Ouachita football program made him unique. Cliff is a great representative of the game of football.”

Cliff was born in Fayetteville, spent his formative years in Hot Springs and graduated from high school at Des Arc after his father was transferred there by Arkansas Power & Light Co. prior to Cliff’s senior year in high school. He played multiple sports growing up but received little interest from college recruiters. Some Harris family friends convinced second-year Ouachita head coach Buddy Benson that Cliff deserved a chance to play college football, and Cliff made a name for himself in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference in the late 1960s.

Cliff was overlooked in the 1970 NFL draft, but Brandt was well aware of the player at the small school in Arkadelphia. Cliff, in fact, won a starting position with the Cowboys as a rookie in 1970. His rookie season was interrupted by a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, but he wasted no time regaining his starting position following his military commitment.

During the next decade, Cliff Harris changed the way the position of free safety was played in the NFL. He rarely left the field, often leading the team not only in interceptions but also in yardage on kickoff and punt returns.

In his 10 years as a Cowboy, Cliff not only played in those five Super Bowls but also was named to the Pro Bowl six times and was named a first-team All-NFL player for four consecutive seasons by both The Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers Association. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, was named to the Dallas Cowboys Silver Season All-Time Team and was selected by Sports Illustrated as the free safety on the magazine’s All-Time Dream Team. He later was awarded the NFL Alumni Legends Award.

Through tenacity, perseverance and old-fashioned hard work, Cliff overcame numerous obstacles in his football career to become one of the best defensive players in the history of the game. Now, he has a major national award and a college football stadium named after him. I just wish his parents, both of whom are deceased, were around to enjoy the moment.

O.J. “Buddy” Harris often was described by my father, who saw a lot of football, as the toughest player he ever knew.

“Buddy” Harris, a pilot during World War II, was shot down and left floating in the ocean at one point. He was tenacious, just like his kids (Cliff’s younger brother Tommy played for the Razorbacks in the 1970s). By the time Cliff began playing for the Cowboys in 1970, “Buddy” Harris was having a difficult time finding him on the field due to complications from diabetes.

“Cliff Harris keeps several images of his father close to his heart,” Kevin Sherrington wrote in The Dallas Morning News. “Linebacker and center at Ouachita Baptist; P-38 Flying Cross; educated, disciplined, upbeat husband and father of three. And then there’s this, too: O.J. Harris, his face inches from a TV screen, making out fleeting shadows. O.J. had first learned he had diabetes through a routine physical. The diagnosis washed out his plans to be a test pilot. But he did as he was told, gave himself insulin shots daily and never complained. And diabetes took his sight at 50. … Cliff didn’t think much about it back then. He was too caught up making and keeping his position with the Cowboys. Cliff says he is who he is because of his father. He figures he still owes him.”

Cliff also is who he is because of his mother. Margaret Harris wasn’t famous like her oldest son, 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 wasn’t a big woman in a physical sense. It was her personality that was big. Margaret Harris died in October 2009 at age 83. My dad always claimed that Little Margaret was a better athlete than either Cliff or Tommy. He enjoyed telling the story of how Cliff made his own high jump pit in the backyard when the family lived in Hot Springs. Cliff tried all afternoon but couldn’t clear the bar. Little Margaret cleared it on her first try. Big Margaret loved it when my dad would tell that story.

Big Margaret, a Glenwood native, would cross the ravine from Henderson and marry a Ouachita football player. When the Harris family moved to Des Arc, my mother’s hometown, they wound up living in the house next to my grandparents. Arkansas is a small place, isn’t it?

After “Buddy” Harris lost his sight, Big Margaret cared for him for years without a complaint. She was always upbeat. In the words of her obituary, “Her devotion to her husband was an inspiration to all those around her.” She had taken her marriage vows seriously — every word of them.

Big Margaret had given up a potential singing career to marry “Buddy” in February 1946, though her voice would continue to bless the churches she attended through the years. During her funeral service at the Piney Grove United Methodist Church near Hot Springs, there was much talk about her singing abilities. Her strong voice also was effective in questioning the calls of football officials from her spot in the stands. She wasn’t shy about questioning a coach, be it Buddy Benson, Frank Broyles or Tom Landry.

Being a redhead myself, I always admired her redheaded feistiness.

I most admired the way she cared for her husband and remained true to her friends. When my father was in the hospital, she would call our house each day for an update on his condition. She was one of those ladies who make living in Arkansas such a pleasure.

When they dedicate Cliff Harris Stadium next fall, I have no doubt that “Buddy” and Big Margaret will be there in spirit.

I also have no doubt that Cliff will be thinking about them that day.

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