Carroll Wayne "Thumper" Harris (1938–2015)
Wayne Harris became a football legend as a star for the University of Arkansas (UA) Razorbacks and later in his twelve years with the Canadian Football League. He would be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in the United States and the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. The Canadian postal service issued a series of commemorative stamps with his image.
Carroll (sometimes spelled Carol) Wayne Harris was born on May 4, 1938, in Hampton (Calhoun County) to Melvin Carroll “Chick” Harris and Mary Agnes Nutt Harris. His father was a Mississippian who came to Calhoun County as a youngster and married a woman in the community of Tinsman (Calhoun County). His father went to school for six years in the acutely depressed farming area and then worked at odd jobs until he finally opened a garage in Hampton. Wayne was the oldest of five children. Their small house had a tin roof and was built on wooden stilts because of the frequent flooding in the swampy community. The family moved across the Ouachita River to the Quinn community east of El Dorado (Union County), and Harris rode a bus to finish school there. He developed a crush on Anne Carol Dearth, who lived down the road and rode the same bus to El Dorado. They were married after high school.
Part of Harris’s legend was that he was considered too small to be an effective college or professional lineman. He weighed 155 pounds when he started for the El Dorado Wildcats in 1952, although by the time his career ended twenty-two years later, he had gained about thirty pounds. In one of Harris’s first scrimmages in high school, the head coach, Garland Gregory, was startled at the speed and ferocity of the youngster and the “thump” that resounded across the field when he hit a running back, and he called the boy “Thumper.” The sobriquet stuck. Harris started every game at linebacker and sometimes as the center on offense in high school and for the rest of his career. He often never left the field except at halftime.
Coaches, opposing players, and the media marveled at his quickness, toughness, and intuitive grasp of the game. Coaches learned quickly to leave him alone, that he needed no coaching. He seemed to know instinctively where the ball was going to go on every play, because he was always at the spot where the play ended, making tackles and interceptions and recovering fumbles. Blockers found it nearly impossible to knock him off his feet.
The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (Washington County) offered him a scholarship, but freshmen were not allowed to play in varsity games. When Harris became eligible as a sophomore, Frank Broyles, the new head coach, looked at the film of a freshman game and realized before the season started that he would always need to have the diminutive Harris in the game. Conference rules limited substitutions on each play, but Broyles devised a scheme for substitutions that guaranteed that Harris was on the field for every defensive play in every game in addition to being the center on offense most of the time. He was named to All-America teams his junior and senior seasons. He was the Southwest Conference player of the year as a senior in 1960 and led the Razorbacks to a championship and Cotton Bowl victory. He was the team captain and made 174 tackles, which sixty years later remained the single-season record. Broyles later said that Harris was arguably the best player ever to suit up for the Razorbacks.
A few tackles became legendary, such as when he tackled All-American and future professional star Don Meredith of the Southern Methodist University Mustangs at the line of scrimmage and assured a victory for the Razorbacks on November 14, 1959. Orville Henry and Jim Bailey, in their book The Razorbacks (1996), wrote that the game became famous for “one of the most thunderous hits of all time.” Meredith was carried from the field on a stretcher. As an ABC television broadcaster of Monday night professional games many years later, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and professional Hall of Fame player recalled the tackle. Meredith joked that he never re-entered the game, not because he was unable but because he did not want to go back in as long as Wayne Harris was on the field.
The Boston Patriots (later the New England Patriots) of the National Football League (NFL) drafted Harris, but he chose to go instead to Calgary, Alberta, and play for the Stampeders of the Canadian Football League (CFL). He said years later that it was a simple choice: he did not want to go to the cosmopolitan East because there were too many people there and it was too busy: “I’m sort of a loner and don’t like a lot of people being around,” Harris explained after he retired in Calgary. Besides, he said, “up here at the time you could also work, too, on top of playing football. You could only work out with your team once a day after training ended. Therefore, you could have another job on top of playing football.” He always liked having a job.
At Calgary, he was an instant star. He was honored as the league’s outstanding lineman a record four times, named to the All-Western Conference team eleven times, and named to the all-Canadian League team eight times. He also starred in three season-ending games for the Grey Cup, the Canadian championship, in 1968, 1970, and 1971. In the 1971 championship game, in which the Stampeders defeated Vancouver—led by quarterback Joe Theismann, a star of both the CFL and NFL—Harris was named the game’s outstanding player. The team retired his jersey number—55, the same as when he was a Razorback—in 1973. He had played in 178 CFL games, returned twenty-eight interceptions for 389 yards, returned twenty-four fumbles for 86 yards, and blocked two kicks. George Reed, the CFL’s all-time leading rusher, said he always told the equipment manager before his team played Calgary to “put two of everything on me—I’m going to war with Thumper Harris today.”
Harris was a quiet, modest gentleman on the football field. He never took a cheap shot at an opposing player, never celebrated after a play, never shouted or trash-talked, and often helped players he had tackled to their feet and then found them after the game to shake their hands. His obituary described him as “a humble, kind, and loving man.”
Harris injured his neck in the last game, and, after examining x-rays, doctors told him that he should never play another game. He had worked in the oil patches for CanTex Drilling and Exploration, LTD, and when he retired from football, he became the company’s vice president and general manager.
After a long bout with dementia, probably caused by football blows, he died on June 4, 2015, in Calgary. He and his wife, Anne, who died four years later, are buried in Eden Brook Memorial Gardens in Calgary.
For additional information:
Henry, Orville, and Jim Bailey. The Razorbacks: A Story of Arkansas Football. Rev. ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996.
Maki, Allan. “Stampeder All-Time Great Wayne ‘Thumper’ Harris Dies at 77.” Globe and Mail, June 7, 2015.
Slade, Daryl. “Stampeder All-Time Great Wayne ‘Thumper’ Harris Dies.” Calgary Herald, June 4, 2015.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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