July 25, 2009

Retro: Wayne “Thumper” Harris

Mark Masters
Special to CFL.ca

It’s the sound that makes stomachs turn and pulses race. The noise that makes some people hate football and others love it even more.

It is also the sound that got Wayne Harris his nickname.

The former Calgary Stampeders linebacker was dubbed “Thumper” by his high school coaches who noticed that whenever the Arkansas native made a hit it resulted in a very distinct sound.

“One of my assistant coaches in high school said that they could hear the thump when I hit someone all the way in the top row of the stadium,” explains Harris. “That sort of stuck with me through my days in college and the Canadian Football League.” 

As the CFL prepares to celebrate the 1960s through its Retro promotion it’s likely many offensive players from that decade will be wincing as they recall playing against Harris.

“I would say to anybody that I think Wayne Harris was my best competitor game in and game out,” said George Reed, a running back who dominated the league during the 1960s as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. “Sometimes he had the edge and sometimes I had the edge, but there were no hard feelings. We had some really raw battles.”

Reed’s analysis is backed up by the record books. Harris is widely believed to be one of the greatest defenders in CFL history. He played his entire career, from 1961 through 1972, in Calgary and was a four-time winner of the Schenley Most Outstanding Lineman Award (1965, 1966, 1970 and 1971). 

Harris was a two-time nominee for the league’s Most Outstanding Player Award and was an eight-time CFL All-Star (1962, 1964-68 and 1970-71).

The league has changed a great deal since Harris played and he said the style of play in his era helped him excel.

“Basically when I came up here 75 per cent of it was a running game, which linebackers like.” 

Harris’s decision to play north of the border was one based on his personality. He didn’t want to be anywhere near the bright lights of Broadway. Harris wanted to play in an environment where he could play in relative obscurity.

He was drafted by the Boston Patriots of the American Football League, but decided to play in Canada.

“Basically the decision was made because I didn’t want to go East, there are too many people down there,” Harris said with a chuckle. “I wanted to stay in the West and I talked to a couple of guys at college who were playing up here and they really loved the CFL and told me it was really a first-class league. I’m sort of a loner and don’t like a lot of people being around.”

But a desire to fly under the radar isn’t the only reason Harris chose to play in the CFL.

“Up here at the time you could also work too on top of playing football. You could only work out with your team once a day after training camp ended. Therefore you could have another job on top of playing football.”

Being able to work during the season was a big plus for Harris who enjoyed being a part of the oil industry. Growing up he worked on oil rigs and that helped him develop as an athlete.

“Working on the rigs really helped me out with my strength. Lifting weights and stuff like that didn’t really exist back then. I thought my strength was as lot better than the average college player or high school player, because of that experience.”

That was very important considering the fact Harris wasn’t the biggest guy on the field.

“I started out at 189 pounds when I weighed in at my first training camp. Then I tried to gain weight, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t my appetite I’ll tell you that, but some guys don’t gain weight until they get into their 30s and that’s basically what happened.”

Despite not being the biggest guy on the field Harris undeniably left his mark on the game. And he paid a price for it.

“I think the pain and the lickings I took on the football field are starting to catch up with me,” he said.

Harris, now 71 years old, continued working in the oil industry following his playing days. Last year he retired from his job at CE Franklin Limited, a supplier of products and services to the energy industry. Harris helped sell the product.

“I enjoy working because it keeps me busy. I’m still threatening to go back,” he said. “I’ve played golf for about 20 years, but my handicap is going real high now, swinging that club isn’t too easy for me.”

But Harris said he treasures his experience in the CFL and still goes to Stampeders games every so often. He said he has no regrets about putting his body through a life of football. 

“That’s the price you pay when you play football, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”