Clifford Allen (Cliff) Harris (1948–)
Nicknamed “Captain Crash,” Clifford Allen Harris played as a free safety for the Dallas Cowboys. He has been inducted into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Hall of Fame (1978), the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame (1985), the Ouachita Athletics Hall of Fame (2003), and the Pro Football Hall of Fame (2020). He is also a member of the National Football League 1970s All-Decade Team and the Cowboys Silver Season All-Time Team.
Cliff Harris, one of three children (and the older of the two sons) of O. J. “Buddy” Harris and Margaret Harris, was born on November 12, 1948, in Fayetteville (Washington County). He began playing football in the ninth grade at Southwest Junior High School in Hot Springs (Garland County) in 1962 and continued playing as a sophomore at Hot Springs High School in 1963. Under Ben Burton, who became the coach of the Trojans in 1964, he developed into a confident and skilled quarterback. Arkansas Football Magazine identified Harris as one of the state’s potential high school stars for the 1965 season. Before the start of his senior year, however, his father received a promotion to district manager in Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L), which required the family to move to Des Arc (Prairie County), a small town northeast of Little Rock (Pulaski County). Harris garnered the starting quarterback position at Des Arc High School and led the Eagles to an undefeated record of 11–0.
After graduating from high school in 1966, Harris accepted a scholarship to play football at what is now Ouachita Baptist University (OBU) in Arkadelphia (Clark County). His father had played linebacker and center at the school before becoming a fighter pilot in the Pacific theater during World War II. Few colleges showed interest in Harris after high school, but friends of the Harris family urged Buddy Benson, the second-year head football coach at OBU, to consider offering him a scholarship. Switching from offense to defense, Harris developed into an accomplished defensive back, excelling at both the cornerback and safety positions. He also developed into a skilled kick-off and punt return specialist. During his freshman year in 1966, OBU won the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference (AIC) championship. Twice named to the All-AIC team, Harris also competed in track and field. He graduated with a degree in math in 1970.
After graduating from OBU, Harris joined the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. Under defensive secondary coach Gene Stallings, he developed into an All-Pro free safety. In his first game as a rookie in 1970, Harris won the starting position over third-round draft pick Charlie Waters. From 1970 to 1979, he intercepted twenty-nine passes for 281 yards. He had an average return of more than nine yards per interception, his longest return (sixty yards) was against the New York Giants in his rookie year. Harris led the Cowboys with three interceptions in 1974 and five in 1977. On November 2, 1975, he intercepted Billy Kilmer of the Washington Redskins twice, returning the second twenty-seven yards for the first and only touchdown of his professional career.
In addition to playing free safety, Harris specialized as a kick-off and punt returner. From 1970 to 1974, he returned sixty-three kick-offs for 1,622 yards, averaging more than twenty-five yards per return. Harris returned one for seventy-seven yards against Philadelphia in 1971, marking the longest return of his professional career. As a punt returner, he ran back sixty-six for 418 yards, averaging over six yards per carry. His longest return as a Cowboy, for thirty-five yards, came against the New York Jets in 1971. Harris led Dallas with seventeen punt returns for 129 yards in 1971, nineteen for 78 yards in 1972, and twenty-six for 193 yards in 1974.
Harris played for the Dallas Cowboys at a time when they became known as “America’s Team.” Led by head coach Tom Landry, Dallas won five National Football Conference (NFC) titles, in 1971, 1972, 1976, 1978, and 1979. Representing the NFC in the Super Bowl those years, the Cowboys won twice: in 1972, they defeated the Miami Dolphins 24–3 and in 1978, they defeated the Denver Broncos 27–10. Harris’s best Super Bowl performance came in the Cowboys’ 16–13 loss to the Baltimore Colts in 1971, in which he recovered a fumble by Ron Gardin after a Dallas punt and returned the kick-off following Baltimore’s fourth quarter, game-tying touchdown, eighteen yards. Six Pro Bowl appearances from 1974 to 1979, in which he made First Team All-Pro from 1976 to 1978, highlighted his post-season play.
Although he played during an era in which statistics on tackles and sacks were not kept, Harris gained a reputation as one of the hardest-hitting and most relentless tacklers in the sport. His aggressive play earned him his nickname of “Captain Crash,” as well as the respect of teammates and opponents alike.
Harris retired from professional football following the 1979 season and went into the oil and gas business. He was added to the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor in 2004. In 2013, the first Cliff Harris Award for Small College Defensive Player of the Year was given. Harris lent his name to a new football stadium at his alma mater OBU in 2014. In 2021, he was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame.
Harris has been married three and has four children, including two stepchildren with his wife, Karen.
Harris and teammate Charlie Waters coauthored a book about their time with the Cowboys titled Tales From the Dallas Cowboys (2003). Harris published his book Captain Crash and the Dallas Cowboys: From Sideline to Goal Line in 2006.
For additional information:
“Cliff Harris.” Pro-Football Reference.com. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/H/HarrCl00.htm (accessed December 5, 2014).
Cliff Harris Award. http://www.cliffharrisaward.com/ (accessed December 5, 2014).
Harris, Cliff. Captain Crash and the Dallas Cowboys: From Sideline to Goal Line with Cliff Harris. Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing, LLC, 2006.
Harris, Cliff, and Charlie Waters. Tales from the Dallas Cowboys. Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing, LLC, 2003.
Nelson, Rex. “What a Year for Arkansas’ Cliff Harris.” Sporting Life Arkansas, December 19, 2013. http://www.sportinglifearkansas.com/rex-nelson-what-a-year-for-arkansas-cliff-harris/ (accessed December 5, 2014).
Porter, David L., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Sport: Football. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Adam R. Hornbuckle
Spring Hill, Tennessee
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