There was a time and place when footsteps frightened children in the dead of the night. This was a time and place before Cliff Harris ravaged secondaries. A time and place when footsteps and football never strolled in the same sentence.
Football is football. No one is certain who invented it. Someone came up with the forward pass, someone else came up with mouthpieces and someone decided to use every ounce of his being to inflict pain on any wide receiver attempting to intrude upon his Sunday afternoon. He hit and they remembered.
They called him "Captain Crash." More accurately, though, he intimidated. At first, safeties were meant to intercept passes and corral quick wideouts. Sounds sensible in theory.
Harris scared the innocence out of innocent young men looking to catch a pass. No one has been less defined by his height (6-foot-1) and weight (188 pounds). Footsteps weren't heard the same way after this undrafted nobody patrolled the land in the summer of 1970.
Reckless abandon. No more, no less. Harris wasn't going to outrace you; he wasn't going to outlift you and he wasn't going outmuscle you. He was just going to out-gut you. You're quick, you're strong, you're the first-round bonus baby, fantastic. All my best. I'm Cliff Harris and I'm fearless. I'm the backup high school quarterback from the can't-be-real Ouachita Baptist University.
Indeed, he wasn't drafted, despite 17 rounds and 442 players selected, only two of which are awaiting him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
No challenges besides that, outside of the two dozen or so safeties with significantly better credentials at training camp. Oh, and the National Guard. Nothing like having to learn the most difficult defense in the league while spending your weeks in Fort Pike, Louisiana.
"It was freezing cold there in the winter, too," Harris says. "We were training to go to Vietnam. "I was fortunate enough to not to go to the war, but it was a tough thing. Somehow, through [Personnel Director] Gil Brandt's persuasiveness, I was able to fly in and play games on the weekends and spend my weeks with the army. It was a tough deal, a tough thing for a first-year guy out of Ouachita Baptist."
In retrospect, the entire story is absurd. The Cowboys drafted 19 players that season and brought another 120 undrafted free agents to training camp. Yes, 120, including 23 defensive backs. Only one cracked the defensive starting lineup. The kid who was offered exactly one scholarship, and even then only as a favor to his father, who also played at the Arkadelphia-based campus in Arkansas.
"I remember very distinctly in the Cotton Bowl, early in the season, in the huddle, and I'm the only rookie on the field," Harris says. "Bob Lilly looked across the huddle at me and says, 'We're going to the Super Bowl this year rookie and I don't want you to do anything to mess it up.'
"The team was full of great leaders like Cornell Green, Lee Roy Jordan, Lilly, Chuck Howley. I mean, think about it. I was just a rookie swept into that. They would say, 'Look for this. You don't have to take all these exact clues Coach [Tom] Landry is filling your brain with. You can do it a simpler way.'"
Lilly was proven correct, the Cowboys finished 10-4 in 1970 and advanced to the franchise's first Super Bowl, losing an ugly affair to Baltimore, 16-13. They would win a championship the following season, the Doomsday Defense absolutely dominating in a 24-3 defeat of Miami in Super Bowl VI.
The Cowboys missed the playoffs just once over Harris' decade of dominance at safety and finished with a winning record all 10 seasons. They also won seven NFC East titles and reached seven NFC Championship Games. This is also when Dallas was dubbed America's Team, with Harris being a ginormous reason why his team was seemingly always on television.
When Brandt called Harris about signing as an undrafted free agent, Harris was actually upset with the team for saying it was going to draft him. This sort of deal happened all the time, however. Nobody was more locked into the league than Brandt, who was pretty sure no other team was going to use a draft pick on Harris. Heck, he wasn't sure how many other teams even knew his name, although from the beginning Brandt was convinced Harris would have a been at least a second-round pick if he had attended a Big 8 school.
After missing three games during his rookie season with National Guard duty, Harris never missed another one, regular-season or playoffs. A six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, he was named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1970s. In fact, before last year, teammate Drew Pearson and Harris were the only members of that all-decade squad not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While few players in league history have ever been less about statistics, Harris had those too, totaling 29 career interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries. He was also among the league's premier kick returners earlier in his career. His 28.4 yards per return ranked third in the NFL in 1971.
As much as any player in franchise history, Harris was about intimidation. Former Washington coach George Allen brilliantly once described him as a rolling ball of butcher knives.
"Cliff could dictate what an offense would do," his teammate and Hall of Fame presenter Charlie Waters says. "Much like Bob Hayes was responsible for the zone defense and changing the game, Cliff was responsible for changing the safety position with his physical style. Trust me, before the ball was snapped, every offensive player on the field knew where Cliff was. Oh, Cliff is over there? Okay, I'm going this way instead."
Harris shocked the majority of his teammates and the coaching staff when he announced his retirement following the 1979 campaign, his 10th in the league. Landry even tried to talk him out of it, asking for one more season. However, Harris was headed for a new career in the energy and oil field.
"I knew it was my last year before the season started, but kept it to myself," Harris says. "There were a lot of different factors in that decision. First and foremost, my style of play. The equation that worked for me was to attack the run, cover deep and play on the edge every snap. If I was a little hurt, I couldn't do that. My neck was worse than anyone realized, and it would've continued to become worse if I didn't retire. That would've taken away my ability to hit like I needed to.
"I had to live up to my reputation, and I didn't want to become one of those players who were more reputation than action. Coach Landry, my teammates, and the fans deserved better than that."
The reputation of Captain Crash could never be tarnished. The Ring of Honor member is now taking his long overdue place among the game's most revered figures in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And no doubt, there may just be a few of those wideouts among the busts in the hallowed gallery keeping their eyes on their old foe, making sure they always know here he is.
Cliff Harris will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the 2020 Centennial Class on Saturday, Aug. 7. He will be joined by former head coach Jimmy Johnson while wide receiver Drew Pearson will be inducted on Sunday, Aug. 8, as part of the 2021 Hall of Fame class. To find out more information, visit profootballhof.com.