James “Shack” Harris has had his share of accomplishments far from home.
After all, he’s the first African-American quarterback to start an NFL playoff game, and the first to be named Pro Bowl MVP. As a front-office member, he helped craft a Super Bowl-winning roster for the Baltimore Ravens.
But anyone who has spent time around Harris knows the current Detroit Lions personnel executive’s heart always will remain in northeastern Louisiana. He often regales friend and stranger alike with the tales of exploits at Grambling and his nearby high school.
In keeping with that, Harris’ newest honor no doubt ranks at the very top of his lengthy list of accomplishments: Grambling Legends Sports Hall of Famer.
Harris is part of the third class of inductees into the new hall, a group that includes NBA champion Larry Wright, former Super Bowl winner Everson Walls and College Football Hall of Fame coach Douglas Porter, among others.
Ceremonies will be held July 16, at the Fredrick C. Hobdy Assembly Center on the Grambling campus. Tickets are $50. They may be purchased through the PayPal link on the group’s website, at gramblinglegends.net, or by contacting Albert Dennis III at 261-0898 or email at email@example.com.
“There aren’t many things you can do in this world for free,” said Harris, the Monroe native who played for the tiny Carroll High School in the early 1960s. “But dreaming is free: So I decided to dream big.”
Harris said a key moment from that period changed his life. He was watching the Martin Luther King Jr. speech in August 1963 on television, looking for two local friends who had gone to Washington, D.C., to participate in the march, when he heard these immortal words: “I have a dream, that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
He decided to do what was then unthinkable for a black athlete: “I decided that day that I would play quarterback,” Harris said. “I realized what I was risking. But I decided that day.”
Most African-Americans were converted to defensive back or receiver. None had ever been drafted or started at quarterback in the NFL. But with encouragement from family, Carroll coach Dorth Blade and Grambling coach Eddie Robinson, he realized his own dreams: Harris did both.
He started by leading Carroll to 39 consecutive wins in high school. “That was the greatest team I ever played on,” Harris said. “If we were still playing, we’d still be undefeated.”
He didn’t come from money. “Growing up,” Harris said, “all I knew was hard-working parents in a hard-working city. We never traveled, never had a vacation. But I never thought I was poor. We had just enough.”
Harris said his excursions into the harsh realities of work for blacks in the 1960s strengthened his resolve: He had taken on temporary work in a nearby cottonfield, looking to earn some extra money. On the way out, he overheard his mother say: “I sure hope James can go to college.”
Harris says that back then, “I didn’t know what college meant.” But when he got to the fields, and took to working the cotton (“in rows that were from now on”), Harris was struck by a grim reality: “You could be doing this for the next 30 years. I went home and asked my mom to tell about this word ‘college’ again.”
Harris called the decision to play football for Robinson at Grambling “probably the greatest decision I ever made. Coach Robinson told me, in four years I would play quarterback in the NFL — and I believed him. And I believed in Martin Luther King’s words.”
Harris and the Tigers eventually won or shared the SWAC title in each of his four years in school, compiling a sterling 31-9-1 record. He set what was then a state collegiate record with 4,705 career passing yards at Grambling. Those exploits would earn Harris induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, as well as the SWAC and the Grambling Athletic halls.
The high school offensive player of the year award, given annually by his hometown newspaper, also is named for Harris.
Yet in the late 1960s, all of that meant little to pro football scouts. Robinson kept the young quarterback steadfast, even as he fell to the eighth round in the NFL draft for not agreeing to switch positions.
“I told coach it didn’t make any sense to go to the NFL and not play,” Harris said. “He told me something — and I think about it often, when I face troubled times. He said if I didn’t go to the NFL, it would be a long time before someone else could get there again.”
He accepted that challenge, learned to thrive on the expectations: “Never,” he said Robinson told him, “blame your failures on being black. We’ve got to face those challenges and prepare to be better.”
Harris finally was picked up by the Buffalo Bills in the 1969 NFL draft. He would go on to a groundbreaking career with the Bills, Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers, earning MVP honors at the Pro Bowl in 1975. Harris then left the playing field for a stint as an NFL scout, one that led eventually to a lengthy career in NFL front offices — with the Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars and now the Lions. He is ranked as the 36th most influential African-American in sports by The Sporting News.
GRAMBLING LEGENDS 2011 INDUCTION CEREMONIES
» When: 6 p.m. July 16
» Where: Fredrick C. Hobdy Assembly Center on the Grambling campus.
» Tickets: $50. They may be purchased through the PayPal link on the group’s website, at gramblinglegends.net, or by contacting Albert Dennis III at 261-0898 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
» More info: GramblingLegends.net.
» Quote: “I told coach (Eddie Robinson) it didn’t make any sense to go to the NFL and not play. He told me something — and I think about it often, when I face troubled times. He said if I didn’t go to the NFL, it would be a long time before someone else could get there again.” — James ‘Shack’ Harris, 2011 Grambling Legends inductee