The recent NFL Hall of Fame induction was par for the course for Cliff Harris. Even on one of the biggest nights of his life, he had to share the spotlight.
Harris, the Ouachita Baptist University and former Dallas Cowboys star safety, was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame’s 2021 class along with former University of Arkansas and Denver Broncos safety Steve Atwater.
Harris may be the best underdog NFL story this side of Kurt Warner. Even Warner, the prolific quarterback who guided the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl, title played at the NCAA Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) level.
Harris was lucky to play at OBU, then an NAIA program. Harris only received a look from OBU after moving from Hot Springs, where he was a backup quarterback, to Des Arc for his senior season. He had a stellar season for the Eagles, but his father O.J. “Buddy” Harris, a former OBU player, had a former teammate convince legendary Coach Buddy Benson to add the younger Harris.
Harris made the most of the opportunity, becoming a two time all-Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference selection and was part of the 1966 Tigers conference title team.
After Harris went undrafted in 1970, it appeared his football career could be over, but the Dallas Cowboys signed him to a free-agent deal. He beat out fellow rookie and third-round draft choice Charlie Waters for the starting free safety spot. His military service caused him to miss part of the season, but he returned to play in the Cowboys’ Super Bowl VI victory against Miami and never let go of the starting position until he retired in 1979.
He finished as a two-time Super Bowl champion and a six-time pro bowler. He earned a 1970s all-Decade Team spot and a place in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor. His 2020 selection to the NFL Hall of Fame was the missing decoration to a fairy tale career.
“The odds of me playing in the NFL, much less me standing here tonight, were incredibly long,” Harris said during his induction speech. “I may be the only one who knows how truly slim that chance was, but if I could make it, anyone can achieve their goals. The key is to never quit.”
Strangely enough, there are many living in Harris’ home state who had no idea the sort of path Harris had to take or that he is even from Arkansas. Obviously, OBU alums know the story and see his name on the Tigers’ shiny state-of-the-art stadium on Saturday’s in the fall.
However, there are probably many more who know Atwater’s story. The coveted recruit from St. Louis became a superstar in the Southwest Conference in the 1980s for the Hogs. Like Harris, he was a big hitter and won two Super Bowls with Denver. Atwater, a first-round pick, made eight Pro Bowls.
So there the two were on the same stage — same destination, different paths.
The great thing about Harris, while he was disappointed it took so long for him to be enshrined, is that he wouldn’t hold that against Atwater or any other player who may have had an easier time. He is a humble person who is among several of the 1970s Cowboys who are outstanding ambassadors for “America’s Team.”
One Arkansan who really appreciates the Harris story is Little Rock Touchdown Club founder David Bazzel. The club has routinely honored and showcased Harris and presents a national award in Harris’ honor given to the nation’s top small-college football player. Despite his not being a native Arkansan, Bazzel initially brought Harris’ Arkansas connection to my attention.
Bazzel and the LRTC will honor Harris again this fall along with former Cowboys teammate Drew Pearson, who was elected to the HOF 2021 class also last weekend.
It’s no coincidence that Bazzel, a former star linebacker at Arkansas, has also promoted Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman Willie Roaf heavily. The Pine Bluff native starred at Louisiana Tech and became one of the better offensive linemen in NFL history. Like, Harris, Roaf has a lower profile in his home state not having played his collegiate career at Arkansas.
Bazzel formed the Willie Roaf Award honoring the top prep and collegiate offensive linemen from the state each year. It’s a nice cap tip from Bazzel, who appreciates all of the players who have represented the state of Arkansas in the NFL.
Arkansas has seen its fair share of great athletes who have gone on to great heights. Harris is one of the best. He should be an inspiration to all aspiring athletes. Hopefully, his recent Hall of Fame induction will be an eye-opener to more in our state, and he will get the recognition he deserves within his home state.