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Cliff Harris and LR’s growing TD Club

It’s hard to believe it has been nine years since I sat down for lunch with David Bazzel at Ciao in downtown Little Rock and saw a dream begin to come to life. Over pasta and salad that June day, the idea of a football club for Little Rock was first discussed.

That wasn’t the stated purpose of the luncheon. I was working for Gov. Mike Huckabee at the time, and David had some ideas he wanted to run past me in his role as chairman of a physical fitness commission.

The date was Tuesday, June 8, 2004 (yes, I keep my old calendars).

I happened to mention the fact that Little Rock was one of the largest cities in the football-crazed South without a football club. In cities such as Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta and Houston, such clubs had established their reputations years ago as the place for football fans to gather on a weekly basis during the season.

“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” David replied. “Do you want to see if we can establish such a group?”

As he typically does with ideas he likes, David took it and ran with it.

On Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2004, 17 people who were interested in being involved in such a club met for lunch at what was then the Little Rock Hilton on University Avenue. The Little Rock Touchdown Club was born.

Less than three weeks later, the club held its first formal meeting at the Hilton and then met every Monday for lunch until December. Much to our amazement, the club was an instant hit. We had figured it would take a few seasons to catch on. By the end of the 2004 football season, almost 200 people were showing up on a weekly basis, and the media coverage was outstanding.

We outgrew the Hilton after one year, moving the next season to the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock.

On Wednesday of next week, the 10th season of programs will begin. More than 500 people will head to the downtown Marriott to hear from Bret Bielema, the new head football coach at the University of Arkansas.

Speakers later in the year will include Tom Osborne, Houston Nutt, Gene Chizik, Mitch Mustain, Bryan Harsin, Roland Sales, Ike Forte and Steve Atwater.

In January, Lou Holtz will keynote the organization’s annual awards banquet.

Through the years, David has never stopped thinking, planning and scheming — always trying to make the club bigger and better. It’s safe to say that the Little Rock Touchdown Club now has a national reputation among those in the football world. Quotes from its speakers often make The Associated Press national sports wire and are published across the country.

Earlier this summer, David began thinking about ways to make the club’s postseason awards banquet even better. His initial idea was to present an award each year to the top scholar-athlete from one of the state’s NCAA Division II programs and name it for Cliff Harris, the former Ouachita Baptist University and Dallas Cowboys star.

Leave it to David to turn that limited idea into a national award within a matter of days.

In January, the Cliff Harris Award will be presented by the club to the top small college defensive player in the country. All schools from NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III and the NAIA will be eligible to nominate players.

It has been a special pleasure to work with David on the establishment of this new national award due to a family connection. Cliff’s father and my father played football together at Ouachita in the 1940s, and our families have been close ever since.

Cliff’s sister and my sister attended Ouachita together. Cliff’s brother and my brother were friends as boys.

When Cliff’s father was transferred by his employer — the Arkansas Power & Light Co. — from Hot Springs to Des Arc prior to Cliff’s senior year in high school, the Harris family purchased a home next door to my grandparents.

My father was among those who talked Ouachita’s football coach, Buddy Benson, into giving Cliff a chance to play college football.

In other words, the family ties run deep. Really deep.

Our fathers are no longer living, but their legacies loom large in our lives.

To understand what has driven Cliff Harris all of these years, you must know a little bit about his late father, O.J. “Buddy” Harris, a Bearden native.

My dad called “Buddy” Harris the toughest football player he had ever known. Mr. Harris was a pilot during World War II. He was shot down and left floating in the ocean at one point.

Let’s allow Kevin Sherrington, the fine sports columnist for the Dallas Morning News, to pick up the story. Here’s some of what Kevin wrote in June of last year in a column about Cliff’s dad: “Cliff Harris keeps several images of his father close to his heart: 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.”

By the time Cliff began playing for the Cowboys in 1970, “Buddy” Harris was having a hard time finding him on the field. Mr. Harris would turn down the sound on the television and listen to the radio instead.

“Cliff didn’t think much about it back then,” Sherrington wrote. “He was too caught up making and keeping his position with the Cowboys.”

Cliff says, “My dad never flew again after the war. I played in five Super Bowls, and he never got to live his dream.”

After his father died in 2001, Cliff gave a moving talk at the funeral service.

“Cliff says he is who he is because of his father,” Kevin Sherrington wrote. “He figures he still owes him.”

Cliff told the columnist, “I feel kinda guilty because I was so focused on myself all those years. I feel like I didn’t do him justice.”

When the Cliff Harris Award is presented in January, you can bet that the award’s namesake will be thinking about his father.

Cliff was born in Fayetteville, spent most of his formative years in Hot Springs and graduated from high school at Des Arc. He played multiple sports growing up but drew little interest from college recruiters. Ouachita’s Coach Benson, who was later inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, gave Cliff the chance to prove himself at the college level.

Cliff indeed made a name for himself in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference from 1966-69. I was only 7 years old his freshman year and 10 years old by the time Cliff’s college career ended, but I was on the Ouachita sideline as a water boy during the games he played.

Cliff was overlooked in the 1970 NFL draft. However, Gil Brandt, who headed a famous scouting operation for the Cowboys, was well aware of this hard-hitting player from the small school in Arkadelphia. Cliff signed as a free agent with the Cowboys.

A decade and five Super Bowls later, he retired.

Cliff earned 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 Cliff wasted no time regaining his starting position following his military commitment.

During the decade of the ’70s, Cliff 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 addition to playing in those five Super Bowls (the Cowboys won two of them; I still hate the Steelers for winning two others against Dallas during the decade), Cliff 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.

Cliff 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 was even given the NFL Alumni Legends Award. For years, the Cliff Harris Celebrity Golf Tournament has been among the leading charity events in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Cliff was inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor in 2004. I was at Texas Stadium that day for the induction ceremony, which occurred during the halftime of a game against the New York Giants. During the 1970s, my family had had the good fortune of making many such trips to Texas Stadium to watch Cliff play.

I can tell you that I plan to be in Canton, Ohio, when the time comes for Cliff to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a finalist in 2004 but didn’t make it. There’s a seniors’ committee that each year can add two Hall of Fame finalists from among the list of players who have been retired 25 or more seasons. Cliff’s last season was 1979, so his time could still come to be a senior finalist one of these years.

In the meantime, thanks to David Bazzel — the man who created the Broyles Award — for bringing yet another national college football award to Little Rock. Having grown up with small college football, I’m pleased that this award will go each year to a player from a small college.

“As a small college player myself at Ouachita, I always understood that recognition and respect for oustanding play was more difficult to attain,” Cliff says. “Because of this, I relied on perseverance and mental toughness.”

O.J. “Buddy” Harris — college football star, war hero and an inspiration for all who knew him — wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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