Cliff Harris Is at a Crossroad on the Field and in Life

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Until June 16th of this year, Duck fans counted on Cliff Harris to be one of the strengths of Oregon’s drive for another successful season. Even then, everybody hoped Cliffy would go back to being Cliffy, the dynamic, wonderfully gifted athlete with the flair for the memorable quote or the highlight film moment.

As a sophomore he set a school record with four punt returns for touchdown. He led the team and the conference in interceptions and pass breakups, returning a pick of Tennessee’s Matt Simms for a back-breaking 76-yard touchdown. When the Oregon offense couldn’t get anything going against the Cal strategy of crash the zone read, fake injuries and hold receivers, Kash elevated the entire team with a 64-yard punt return for a score. He picked Andrew Luck twice. He blanketed the Trojans and baited Matt Barkley into an interception.

In the National Championship Game Harris was brilliant. Subdued in the buildup and pregame hype, he made an immediate impact in the game dashing 22 yards with a first-quarter interception, making a brilliant break on the football for another one in the second quarter, on a controversial play waved off by the officials and a ruling confirmed in the replay booth.  It was Harris who recovered Cam Newton’s crucial fumble in the fourth. When the second pick was voided, he came within a forearm and a couple blades of grass from being the player of the game.

Everyone expected more great things from him this year.

A Duck fan favorite since his recruitment, Harris’ legend was cemented with his first team meeting, when he stood up and introduced himself in the way everyone now knows. “My name is Cliff Harris,” he said, “And I’m here to lock shit down.” He intercepted a pass against Washington as a freshman. People wondered why he wasn’t playing more. Nick Alliotti wouldn’t say much, except that Cliff had to work on the C word. Conformity.

Cliff couldn’t get out of his own way. Whether screaming down the freeway at four in the morning at 118 miles per hour, famously telling the cop, “We smoked it all” when asked about the odor of marijuana in the car with the star quarterback asleep in the back seat, whether drawing a pregame taunting penalty or backpedaling into the end zone for a safety, whether showing up late for a meeting or slacking in a drill; Cliff always seemed to be a step out of step with the C word.

After the speeding incident, Chip Kelly suspended him indefinitely, which turned out to be the LSU game. Missing a chance to shine in the brightest lights was a huge punishment for Cliff, an marvelously instinctive athlete whose juices flowed in big games. He seemed to accept it and kept quiet. The Ducks missed him terribly on the field. The younger quarterbacks got beaten on a fade route at the goal line for a crucial touchdown, and another time, drew a crippling pass interference penalty on the same play. Harris skied like Dominique Wilkins on the fade. One of his pick of Luck last  year came on a fade in the end zone, making the Heisman Trophy candidate look foolish for throwing the ball. Kenjon Barner famously mishandled a punt inside the five, fumbling for a touchdown, a blunder Cliff would echo just last Saturday, backpedaling for a punt over his shoulder inside the five, turning a probable touchback into a safety. “Cliff lives on the edge,” Nick Aliotti told the press. We love him for it, he went on to say, but sometimes he falls off.

Then on Monday night Rob Moseley of the Register-Guard reported that Harris had been stopped by police again, this time in Eugene, for driving with a suspended license, driving while uninsured and failing to wear a seat belt. The athletic department announced Chip Kelly was suspending him immediately, “a complete prohibition from all football activities until the matter is resolved.” For now, Cliff can’t practice. He can’t even be on the sidelines.

Even after all his misadventures and the lost time for suspensions and falling out of grace, Cliff Harris is tied for the team lead in pass breakups. But he’s lost his way as a football player, and reached the lowest point of his young life.

After the first suspension, Chip Kelly told the media, “Cliff’s future clearly is in Cliff’s hands,” Kelly said. “Earning an opportunity to represent the University of Oregon and this football program certainly rests far beyond a player’s ability on the field of play. Our behavior out of the spotlight often is more important and will be held to a higher standard. Until Cliff is able to conform to the same standards all of us must comply with, his status will remain unchanged.”

Cliff’s’ misfortunes and missteps have cost him millions of dollars. He was a preseason All-American and projected to go in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. Far fewer teams would take a chance on him now. He has a challenge ahead of him even keeping his scholarship and working his way back into the Oregon lineup.

Young men don’t think about the future.  Youth can’t think beyond the girl, or the next bag of Taco Bell.

When I was 27 (27!)  I was out late playing cards in a tavern, and got arrested on the way home for a suspended license, driving without insurance and a failure to make a complete stop. I spent a night in the Yamhill County jail. Young men are foolish, and I was more foolish than most, and for far longer. But I didn’t have the talent to play Division one football, and the ability to make enough money to change my family’s life forever. What I wasted was precious enough. My wife and young daughter left a few weeks later. It was a wakeup call for everybody.

For the Ducks on the field, some promising young players now have the season in their hands. Receiver is a significant strength for WSU this weekend. They have capable Jeff Karstetter and the flashy, dangerous Marquess Wilson, six touchdowns and 763 yards already this season, 1006 last year. In the weeks ahead they’ll be challenged to lock down Jermaine Kearse, Chris Owusu, and Robert Woods.

Avery Patterson, Terrance Mitchell, Troy Hill and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu have made solid progress in their first seven games. The Oregon secondary has kept plays in front of them, limiting big gains. They held opponents to a 54% completion rate, with six interceptions against 8 tds, allowing just 5.8 yards per pass attempt. They’ve tackled well in the open field. They’ve contested every ball.

Secondary coach John Neal is a tremendous teacher and motivator, one of the best defensive backfield coaches in the country. ”Always be competing,” he tells his troops. Neal’s sent an impressive list of Ducks to the NFL, including Jairus Byrd, Pat Chung, TJ Ward and Walter Thurmond III. He’ll get the most out of Anthony Gildon and the youngster, bring their talent along as quickly as possible.

But in the next few weeks there will be plays that Harris would have made, where his superb instincts and closing ability could have made a difference in the game. The Ducks will miss him on the field, and will have to play harder without him.

For Harris, his life and football career could go in several directions. Right now he is one more mistake from becoming a cautinary tale. Here’s hoping he accepts counsel from his family, Coaches Neal, Alliotti and Kelly, or perhaps a strong mentor like Tony Dungy. His one chance to make major money is to demonstrate discipline, conformity and consistency in 2012. His could be a fantastic story of redemption, and redemption stories are the greatest in sports.

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