Legendary Cowboys Linebacker Cliff Harris Inducted to Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame Gold Jacket Ceremony 2021 | Aaron Doster/NFL/2021

The 2020 Pro Football Hall of Fame finally got their moment Sunday in Canton, Ohio, when legendary linebacker Cliff Harris accepted his gold jacket from fellow Cowboy Charlie Waters.

Harris became one of only 27 inductees to have begun their professional career as an undrafted free agent, and he is the 18th member of the Cowboys organization to receive the honor.

Harris joined the Cowboys in 1970 out of Ouachita Baptist College in Arkansas. In high school, Harris played quarterback, but moved to the defensive side of the game when he accepted a scholarship to play at Ouachita Baptist, his father’s alma mater. He was a two-time All-Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference member but drew little attention from scouts at the Division-II school.

In his first start, Cowboys legend Bob Lilly told him that “We are going to the Super Bowl, Rookie and I don’t want you to do anything to mess it up,” Harris said, inserting a pause to indicate that Lilly used a word other than “mess.”

Harris said he simply responded, “Yes, Mr. Lilly,” and went on to start five games before his military service commitment, recording two interceptions and three fumble recoveries.

When he returned for the 1971 season, Coach Tom Landry reinstated Harris as the starting free-safety. By 1973, Waters and Harris were both starting and became one of the most fearsome defenses to play against. The Cowboys defense came to be known as the “Doomsday Defense.”

Harris went on to play in five Super Bowls, helping the Cowboys to two victories, and was selected to the Pro Bowl six times. He is one of the last All-Decade players to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. He joins Drew Pearson, another member of the All-Decade team, to be enshrined this year.

Harris was known for his brutal playing style, earning himself the nickname “Captain Crash.” He played with reckless abandon, sacrificing his body to intimidate offenses. He completed his ten year career amassing 29 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries. On special teams play, Harris totaled 1,622 yards on kick returns.

His retirement came as an unexpected and unwanted surprise to the Cowboys in 1979. Years later, Harris admitted that he knew at the beginning of the season that it was his last and that the toll of his physical playing style would prevent him from continuing his career.

Like Pearson, Harris has waited a very long time to be included in Canton. His eligibility began five years after he left football in 1994 after serving two years as the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos. He was first nominated in 2001.

In going from a back-up Junior Varsity quarterback to a Hall of Fame free safety whose mark on the game has shaped the way the position is played ever since, Harris says that despite the long odds, he never gave up.

He related a story during his acceptance speech of a recent hike in the mountains near his home. A sudden storm forced him to quickly hike out before getting soaked. Harris said that rather than focusing on how long the road was, he focused on each step, each rock, and even though he tripped a few times, he kept going.

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