He saw him­self as a bowl­ing ball — and op­po­nents the pins

Baltimore Sun - - RAVENS WEEKEND - By Mike Klinga­man mike.klinga­man@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/MikeKlinga­man

His boy­ish looks, bantam size and be­nign­sound­ing name be­lied his fierce de­meanor in foot­ball. Who’d have thought a guy named Wen­dell could de­liver bone-rat­tling hits on the field? Yet that’s what Wen­dell Har­ris did for five years as a de­fen­sive back and spe­cial teams star with the Colts.

“I took pride in hit­ting hard, though I’d prob­a­bly get 15-yard penal­ties now,” said Har­ris, the team’s No. 1 draft pick out of LSU in 1962. “I’d go out there and try to knock their heads off. When you stepped on that field, your dis­po­si­tion had to change.”

Once, in prac­tice, Har­ris felled Jim Parker, the 275-pound Hall of Fame line­man. But he met his match when he tack­led run­ning back Jim Brown of the Cleve­land Browns.

“I knocked [Brown] down once, and the next time he ran over me — and it hurt,” Har­ris said. “He said, ‘White boy, don’t ever do that again.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ”

Har­ris, who’ll turn 76 on Sun­day, lives in his home­town of Ba­ton Rouge, La. A hero of LSU’s 1962 Or­ange Bowl victory over Colorado, Har­ris joined the Colts and quickly fit in. The team’s Rookie of the Year, he in­ter­cepted two passes, re­cov­ered two fum­bles, kicked a field goal and six ex­tra points, and re­turned punts and kick­offs.

He thrived on the Colts’ bal­ly­hooed “sui­cide squads,” whose cap­tain, the rugged if ir­re­press­ible Alex Hawkins, took Har­ris un­der his wing.

“Alex and I were the small­est guys [on spe­cial teams], and we threw our bod­ies into it,” Har­ris said. “On punts and kick­offs, we saw our­selves as bowl­ing balls and the other team’s block­ers as the pins. One of us would knock about three of them down, and the other would make the tackle. It worked about half of the time.”

In prac­tice, Har­ris and Hawkins, a run­ning back, would go one-on-one, whaling the tar out of each other un­til told to stop.

“Coach [Don] Shula would say, ‘Quit that ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity be­fore some­one gets hurt,’ ” Har­ris said.

Room­mates on the road, they some­times shared late-night shenani­gans.

“Alex was a hell-raiser, and I tried to keep up,” Har­ris said. “But of­ten I found my­self in places where I’d never been, with no idea how to get home.”

In 1964, dur­ing a two-game road trip to Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco, Shula gave play­ers sev­eral days off. Hawkins cor­ralled a hand­ful of play­ers — Har­ris in­cluded — and lit out for Las Ve­gas.

Af­ter a night of carous­ing, Har­ris said, “I re­turned to the ho­tel and passed out on the bed, wear­ing only a T-shirt. WhenI­woke up, the oth­ers had left for the air­port, tak­ing my clothes with them. Well, I was naked and broke in Las Ve­gas and didn’t know what to do.” Fran­tic, he called around and found one team­mate still in the ho­tel.

“Pants!” Har­ris cried into the phone. “I can’t leave my room with­out pants!”

The player — Har­ris can’t re­call his name — of­fered a pair.

“The guy was 6-foot-5 with a waist a lot big­ger than mine,” said Har­ris, who’s 5-11. “So I rolled up the cuffs, pulled the belt as tight as I could and raced to the air­port.” He made his flight to San Fran­cisco. The Colts de­feated the 49ers, fin­ished12-2 and reached the NFL cham­pi­onship game be­fore los­ing, 27-0, to Cleve­land.

Two years later, they dealt Har­ris to the New York Gi­ants for de­fen­sive line­man Andy Stynchula. Har­ris re­tired in 1967 and went into real es­tate. Seven years ago, at age 68, he changed ca­reers to work as a land­scaper for a com­pany owned by Chad Ogea, an LSU alum­nus and onetime pitcher for the Cleve­land In­di­ans.

“I do all of the plant­ing, from trees to pan­sies — and 99 per­cent of them live,” Har­ris said. “I’ll do it as long as I’m able; I’ve never been sick a day in my life.”

Mar­ried 43 years, he and his wife, Mary, have seven chil­dren, nine grand­chil­dren, 12 great-grand­chil­dren and two great-great­grand­chil­dren.

At times, he’ll cher­ish the sou­venirs of his past, es­pe­cially the Colts team photo from his rookie year, signed by all the play­ers: Johnny Uni­tas, Ray­mond Berry, Lenny Moore, et al.

“The older you get, the more im­por­tant this stuff is,” Har­ris said. “I was of­fered $20,000 for that pic­ture but turned it down. It’s ir­re­place­able.”

BAL­TI­MORE SUN 1964

Wen­dell Har­ris, right, and Alex Hawkins bar­rel down­field. Of their strat­egy, Har­ris said, “One of us would knock about three [op­po­nents] down, and the other would make the tackle.”

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