Biggest Change In Town

Los Angeles guard Dennis Harrah did a life-style flip from Mr. Never Callitanight to Mr. Mom
September 08, 1987

On reflection, it was probably at the indoctrination ceremony of the University of Miami's prestigious Iron Arrow society in 1974 that Dennis (Herc) Harrah formed a philosophy of life, which could be reduced to: Either lighten up or hand me the beer opener. Why Iron Arrow tapped Herc (short for Hercules) is a mystery. After all, it generally draws its members from the school's brightest lights—future lawyers, budding politicians and the like. Herc once put his fist through the door of the campus police department, if that sheds any light on the man. He also used to take the money the university gave him for books, buy the nicest ones he could find—business-law texts were especially choice—keep them a few weeks and then sell them back for beer money. Practical Business 101, as it were.

One thing Herc excelled at was knocking the lunch out of other collegians on Saturday afternoons, which explains why he was about to become a bona fide "Eye-urn Arruh," as he put it. One by one, Herc's fellow inductees came to the podium, where they were asked to answer a number of questions about the school's history, recite the Iron Arrow incantation and then, standing with their backs turned, cast an ancient Indian arrowhead into the Sea of Life, a body of water whose whereabouts remains unknown to non-Iron Arrows.

This ritual was just a formality for most inductees. Herc, however, was not terribly well prepared. He didn't fare so well on the quiz, fanning on every question. ("Hell," he says, "if I'da known there were going to be questions. I'da brought a crib sheet.") He was woefully unpracticed at the incantation. And when it came to casting into the Sea of Life, he used the snapped-off head of a 19-cent arrow from K Mart.

The Iron Arrow president was outraged, as were many others of the tribe, but Herc was unremorseful. In fact, he laughed in their blue faces. "The man told me I was the sorriest excuse for an Eye-urn Arruh anybody'd ever seen," says Herc.

From then on, Herc decided that "if I'm awake 15 hours, I want to laugh for 14 and maybe eat the other." And the best way Herc knew to do that was to continue knocking the lunch out of guys. This fall he celebrates his 13th year of doing exactly that as an offensive guard for the Los Angeles Rams. He has been All-Pro five times and in 1985 was voted to the alltime Rams team. In fact, nobody has done it better while having as much fun as is earthly possible without being shot or killed. Not that Harrah hasn't come close.

There was the time three brothers in a biker bar in Harrah's hometown, Charleston, W.Va., walloped him over the head with pool cues 15 times, which pretty much settled a dispute about who got to play the next selection on the jukebox. There was the time Herc crawled out of a brand-new Blazer after rolling it down an embankment. There was the time he smashed his Dodge Dart into a tree on the Miami campus, after which he snuck out of the car and removed the plates. The car sat next to the tree for most of the semester. And there was the time Claude Humphrey of the Philadelphia Eagles coldcocked him for going after Humphrey's bad knee one time too many.

These incidents aside, though, it has been good, often clean, fun. Like the time in Atlanta when Herc and his roomie, guard Russ Bolinger, had been out having a few refreshments. They barely made it back to the room before the midnight curfew. To make sure the players were tucked in for the night, an assistant coach went around to each room accompanied by a hotel security guard. The hotel was one of those jobs with a 20-story lobby. Well, on this night, the guard, a beefy type, got a little ahead of the coach and barged into Herc's room without knocking. "You go back outside and knock!" said Herc.

Using very few words, the guard indicated that he had no intention of complying. Herc and Bolinger leapt out of their beds, wrestled the guard to the floor, grabbed one ankle each and proceeded to dangle the man 14 stories above the lobby until they decided his apology sounded sincere. Only then did they save the man from the Express Check-Out.

O.K., maybe some people don't think Herc's act is all that funny. The Dallas Cowboys' Randy White, for instance, seemed unamused when Harrah put heat balm in his jock one day before the Pro Bowl. White jogged out to practice and, after about five minutes, came sprinting back in, peeling off clothes. Shortly thereafter Herc found himself up against a wall, two feet off the ground with White's knuckles around his throat. Strange, the myriad other guys whose jocks Herc has treated with heat balm think the prank is funny.

"I am the No. 1 guy in the country for putting heat in people's jocks," says Harrah. No question about that. He has even tried—though in vain—to leave his high-temperature calling card in Rams coach John Robinson's underwear.

Robinson is crazy about Harrah because Harrah embodies what he wants out of his legions. "Denny is a guy who works his butt off and has a whole lot of fun, which is all I ask," says Robinson. Nobody laughed harder than Robinson the day in minicamp in 1983, when he met the Rams players for the first time. He had inherited a team that finished 2-7 in the strike-shortened previous season. Robinson called a meeting of the players and began telling them how good the team would be, how great the personnel was, and what it was going to feel like going to the Super Bowl again. When the coach finished, Herc put his hand up. "Yes?" said Robinson.

"Damn, Coach," Herc said, "you're dumber than you look. What we need is for you to get us some players." Coincidentally or not, Los Angeles soon traded for the draft rights to Eric Dickerson, who used a few of Harrah's holes in 1984 to break O.J. Simpson's single-season rushing record and who, owing to his thriftiness, Harrah has dubbed the Black Jack Benny. Just a joke, just a joke.

Bill Bain, the mountainous former Rams lineman whom Herc calls Iceberg, considers Harrah's humor to be "lowbrow stuff" and "vicious," but Herc isn't bothered. "When you're 320 pounds, fat and ugly, you're not going to find a whole lot funny," says Harrah. Anyhow, Herc doesn't really care whether his humor is well received, as long as he gets a chortle or two. Take the time he almost caused Kent Hill, a Rams lineman, to have a heart attack. Seems that Hill had a serious fear of spiders and snakes, so Herc hid a dead rattler in Hill's laundry bag. "When Kent reached in and grabbed that rattler," recalls Bolinger, "I'll bet he jumped 10 feet. He didn't stop running until he was 200 yards away."

Herc showed no mercy toward Pat Haden, the diminutive former Rams quarterback. Once Haden found himself locked outside the locker room, naked, with autograph seekers in pursuit. Or Herc would hide Haden's helmet two minutes before practice. Haden got so used to Herc cutting his ties in half that he took to wearing lousy ties to practice. Should you become a Ram, be forewarned that Herc will also put shampoo in your helmet (it lathers when you sweat) and pluck your chest hairs.

If such shenanigans seem obnoxious and rude, well, sometimes obnoxious and rude are the only things that keep a pro football team from going crazy. Like the time quarterback Vince Ferragamo ran into the huddle in a tense situation, barked out a sequence of numbers, letters and colors and was somewhat surprised to see nobody budge. After a bit of a silence, Harrah spit out a stream of tobacco juice, looked at Ferragamo and said, "Vinnie, we don't have that one." That not only broke everybody up but also calmed everybody down, and Los Angeles won.

With Rams quarterbacks coming and going faster than Joan Rivers's replacements—Haden, Joe Namath, Ferragamo, Dan Pastorini, Jeff Kemp, Dieter Brock, Steve Dils et al.—they have long since ceased being the team leader. For a while it was Jack Youngblood, and when Youngblood retired in 1985, it became Harrah, who is unafraid to speak out. He has told Robinson the squad is practicing too much, too little, too loosely or too tightly. In 1985, when the Rams were playing rotten but still winning, Harrah said, "We're in first place and we stink."

Herc is equally reticent on the subjects of:

•Mark Gastineau: "I don't like anybody who uses Bikini Bare all over his body."

•Lawrence Taylor: "When I'm playing him I'm like the United Way. My hands are out."

•Brian Bosworth: "The premier mouth of the last 15 years. If he can't play, he'll be a great auctioneer."

•Holding: "The most embarrassing thing in the world is getting beat. I refuse to get beat, no matter what it takes. I once broke my leg by leg-whipping a guy, so I don't do that anymore. But I will grab some cloth. I probably get caught one out of every seven times."

The 34-year-old Harrah is getting ready for the day he relinquishes his role as team leader. That's one reason that he's so close to second-year quarterback Jim Everett, who seems to be heir apparent and whom Harrah calls "a good kid, not a punk, somebody with respect for the veterans." Harrah knew they would get along when Everett, in his first week with the club, asked to come along with Harrah and his buddies for a few beers. "And I'll buy," said the rookie. That iced it.

When Harrah joined the Rams in 1975, he was ready to make up for every drop of fun he had ever missed. "I didn't have any friends as a kid," says Dennis, the son of a Charleston plant worker. "I wasn't very cool. Every time I caught up to hip, hip had left town. All I wanted was to fit in. Maybe I was making up for lost time."

That first year he moved to the beach at Belmont Shore, Long Beach's singles area and "tried his best never to get cheated out of any fun," says Bolinger. He lived with actress (and erstwhile Rams cheerleader) Jenilee Harrison, formerly of Dallas—the show, not the team. He got into fights, one while he was watching the Super Bowl in a bar with Nick Nolte. He and a partner opened Legends, a sports saloon that became one of the most copied and profitable in the country. Harrah is said to almost match his $345,000 base salary with the Rams with what he makes from Legends. This may be partly due to the fact that after every game Harrah runs around putting a LEGENDS cap on any teammate doing a TV interview.

Herc slowed down only to sleep, eat and play football. "My wife sat next to whoever Denny invited to the games," says Bolinger. "She says if there had been 16 games in a year, she'd have sat next to 16 different girls."

Harrah's response: "Why, of course. Girls should be like a good pitching staff. You've got to rotate 'em."

The world was his oyster and the man was swallowing it whole. Or was it the other way around? "I'm a chameleon," he will say of stories about his bachelor life on the beach. "If I'm in bad surroundings, I'll be bad."

Harrah won't say if bad included too much liquor, too many drugs, too many women, or all three. "Put it this way," he says: "In my life, I didn't turn down much." Or put it this way: "You don't know what fire is until you get burned." Or: "I was on a different road, going no-where. I was on the fun road. But fun turns into a problem when you have no control over it."

Harrah will not expound on any of those vices now. "I'll admit to a lot of things, but I won't talk about them," he says. "There are a lot of things in my past I've shredded, and I'm not about to tell Congress.... All I'll say is that through it all my mama and daddy have never stopped loving me."

Everything started changing when he and Harrison broke up in 1985. They had lived together for more than a year and were a famous enough item to make it into PEOPLE as well as The National Enquirer (which, by the way, counts Herc among its devotees—"I love to read about those boys that take rides in UFOs," he says). Eventually they separated and she began dating Reggie Jackson. "Jenilee was great," says Herc. "But we seemed to be at two different ends of the spectrum. She didn't want a house and a dog and a porch. She was into show business 125 percent."

Says Youngblood, "I think stardom got to Jenilee a little bit. Denny was unchanged by it all. He was the same in 1985 that he was in 1975."

Not exactly. Harrah had started to see that a man could get buried under too much fun. One night he realized he had been pushing his luck. He was at Legends when a commotion commenced near the bar. Harrah ran over and found a waitress holding her mouth and the manager talking to an inebriated male patron. "What happened?" Harrah asked his manager, who in stressful situations sometimes stuttered.

"Th-th-this m-m-man," said the manager, "h-h-hit h-h-h-er...."

"That was all I needed to hear," recalls Harrah. He knocked the guy unconscious with a huge right hand. Somebody yelled that he had stopped breathing. They called the paramedics. "I really thought the guy was dead," says Harrah. "I went into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. I was white as a ghost. I thought, Man, you've done it this time. You've killed a man."

Just then his manager walked in. "D-D-Denny," he said. "You d-d-didn't let m-m-me f-finish. I was t-t-trying to t-t-t-t-tell you that the m-m-man h-h-hit h-h-her...b-b-by ac-ac-accident." Everything turned out O.K.

Four days after Harrah and Harrison broke up, Herc began dating Theresa Conley, a Legends bartender. Before long he announced, "I've decided to marry the only woman who can fix me a good drink." They moved to the country and this March had a son, Tanner Calvin. They also have a horse, two Rottweilers and seven puppies.

These days the great Hercules, Mr. Never Callitanight, worries about the merits of Pampers versus Huggies and struggles to stay awake longer than the baby. "I used to go to bed when the streetlights went off," he says. "Now I go to bed when they're coming on." He can't remember being happier.

You hear the drums? Won't be long now before they'll be bronzing Herc's favorite jar of heat balm. Jockstrap wearers in Greater Los Angeles will be relatively safe, and security guards all over the country will stop calling in sick. "I've done just about every damn thing a person could do," Harrah says. "It's somebody else's turn to get in trouble. It's somebody else's turn to watch the sun come up."

What do you know about that? The alltime sorriest excuse for an Iron Arrow just went straight.

PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEHey, Tanner Calvin, you sure that's baby powder Dad's sprinkling on your backside? PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEHarrah, a.k.a. Bucket Head around the Rams, can take a joke, too. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONSays Harrah of his notorious holding tactics: "I will grab some cloth. I probably get caught one out of every seven times." PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEWith Theresa and Tanner now around to keep an eye on him... PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSE...Harrah spends more time running Legends than trying to be one. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEHarrah on personal change: "I'm a chameleon. If I'm in bad surroundings, I'll be bad."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)