Scene from the third play of Tim Harris's first NFL start, in Cleveland on Oct. 19, 1986: Harris, an outside linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, has just steamrolled over the Browns' Pro Bowl tight end, Ozzie Newsome, and after the play, as he stands over Newsome, Harris screams, "Gonna be a looong day, Ozzie! I can't believe it! Veteran like you getting beat by a rookie! A rookie, Ozzie! Woooohoooo!"
Scene from the fourth quarter of a game against Minnesota, in Green Bay, Dec. 11, 1988: During a television timeout, with the woebegone Packers leading the powerful Vikings on the way to an 18-6 Green Bay victory, Harris shouts across the field at the Vikes, "Woooohoooo! Can't beat us, can you, great Vikings!" Minnesota center Kirk Lowdermilk turns to him and says, "Hey Harris, you're a great player, but you know what? You'll never make the Pro Bowl because you're such an idiot."
Scene from pregame warmups in Milwaukee, Oct. 1, 1989: Harris walks up to Atlanta Falcon center Jamie Dukes, whom he played against in college, and says, "I'm going to be your worst nightmare today." Harris smiles when he says this, but he is serious. By the end of the first half, Harris has three sacks, one coming directly over Dukes. He ends up with four sacks—and is named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week—as the surprising Packers notch their second of three victories in the first five weeks. Woooohoooo!
If something other than the ignorance of his fellow NFL players kept Harris from being voted to the Pro Bowl last season, it must have been his age, which was 24, or his mouth, which is big. It certainly wasn't his performance—last year he ranked fifth in the league in sacks, with 13½—or his body, which is a chiseled 6'5½" and 250 pounds. Harris is taller and heavier than today's typical outside linebacker, and he has better balance than anyone west of the New York Giants' Lawrence Taylor. He looks more like an NBA power forward, but with slightly thinner legs. Those legs enable him, as he says, to run all day.
October 15, 1989
But the first thing you notice about Harris is his mouth. "He must lead the league in talking," says his teammate and close friend, safety Kenny Stills. Harris might even lead the league in talking about talking.
"I do it," he says at his home in Green Bay, which he shares with his wife, Barbara, and 14-month-old daughter, Marissa, "because I've been doing it all my life and because I think it gets people off their game. I can see it in guys. I work on them all game, talking to them, telling them how they can't stop me, how they've never seen anybody like me before—anything, just to be talking—and I can see it working. Guys get distracted. They don't think about their assignments, maybe. They're thinking about how they're going to get me."
"He's a force out there, physically and verbally," says Packer coach Lindy Infante.
"He talks so much," says Lowdermilk "that he's the perfect example of the guy you love to hate."
He would be, if anyone knew who he was. Oh, they know him in the NFC Central. Over the last 21 games, since the start of the 1988 season, Harris has accumulated 21 sacks, surpassing the division's two best-known sackers, defensive ends Richard Dent of the Chicago Bears and Chris Doleman of the Vikings, who have 14 and 13, respectively. In Green Bay's two upsets of Minnesota last year, Harris forced two safeties and, after blocking a punt, recovered the ball and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown. He had two sacks in a December loss to the Detroit Lions. After both of them he pulled out an imaginary six-shooter and pointed it at quarterback Rusty Hilger as if to shoot him. Later, Lion defensive end Eric Williams said that he would take Harris's "knee out to lunch" if he ever faced him in a game. Harris has jawed sporadically with Chicago coach Mike Ditka and entire sections of fans at Soldier Field during Bears-Packers games.
Tampa Bay coach Ray Perkins likens Harris to his two alltime favorite linebackers, Taylor and Cornelius Bennett of the Buffalo Bills. "I don't think he's a good football player," says Perkins of Harris. "I don't think he's very good. I think he's one of the great players in football today."
Perkins brought it up again—the LT words. Stories about bright young catchers inevitably mention Johnny Bench by the eighth or ninth paragraph. Every prolific scorer in junior hockey is somehow connected to Wayne Gretzky by age 17. Among linebackers, Taylor is the standard. Harris does something that Taylor turned into a kind of art in the mid-'80s. It's called pursuit. How many games has Taylor dramatically affected by catching, say, Philadelphia quarterback Randall Cunningham from behind? Harris has that same kind of impact. He also rushes the passer as well as any young player in the game, with the possible exception of Philadelphia defensive end Reggie White.
Harris lines up on either side of the field, and sometimes even over the center. He has exceptional speed for a linebacker, nifty moves around bulky linemen and a never-say-die attitude on every play. "Harris is football smart," says Frank Smouse, the assistant director of player personnel for the Cincinnati Bengals. "He lines up his path of pursuit the instant the play develops, and he just keeps coming."
The Packers like Harris's instincts so much that they frequently allow him to free-lance. Defensive plays are called by defensive coordinator Hank Bullough, and about a third of the time they include the words Tim Defense, which means Harris is free to line up where he likes. He usually positions himself as a stand-up defensive end; his job on these plays is to find the most direct route to the quarterback.
Understand that Harris isn't much of a student of the game, and he has always hated watching football—or any other sport—on TV. Harris and Barbara join several other Packers and their spouses on Monday nights for poker and Monday Night Football. "I'm always saying, 'Turn that thing off,' or 'Change the channel,' " says Harris. "To me, it's boring."
But Harris has loved playing football since he was 10. He can't explain how he knows where to go on the field at a particular moment; he just goes there. "I simply look for the best angle to the ball," he says. "Studying films can help, don't get me wrong. But you just have to know football."
And you have to love it to have the effect on a game that Harris often has. "I remember one play last year," says Bears center Jay Hilgenberg. "Harris lined up over me on a pass play, and we threw to [wide receiver] Dennis Gentry. I'm trying to hold on to Harris as Gentry gets the ball, but he gets away, runs 20 yards downfield and catches Gentry from behind. Then he gets up and starts screaming, 'I'm all over the place! You can't stop me! You can't catch me!' He's just having fun out there. I know a lot of guys on my team will get ticked off at me for saying this, but I have tremendous respect for him. He's a great player. People just don't know it yet."
According to Perkins, "The thing that separates real good players from great ones is their enjoyment of the game. When Taylor [whom Perkins coached while he was with the Giants in the early '80s] came out of a game, the thing you noticed was that he played every play like it was his last. Same thing with Bennett. Same thing with Harris."
"I've just always been taught to play with reckless abandon," says Harris. "One, if you're not going full speed, you can get hurt. Two, you never know when a ball can pop loose and you can be around it. Three, I never want any coach to say to me, "Tim, you slacked off on that play.' You tell me that once and you'll never have to tell me again. I just think there's only one way to play, and you have to play that way all the time."
Harris isn't sure where his energy comes from, but his mother, Marilla, has a theory. "I had to take strong vitamins when I was pregnant with Tim," she says. "I think that might have something to do with it."
Harris says when he was growing up in Birmingham, "I hated being inside, hated doing nothing. I'd come in when it got dark. My neighbors used to say, 'Look at Tim. He never gets tired.' I used to hate it in nursery school when we had to go down for our naps. I hated naps. I would listen to the older kids out playing and listen to the ticks on the clock, waiting for the end of nap time."
Marilla, who divorced Tim's father when Tim was very young and later remarried, says Tim was so hyperactive as a child "that we couldn't make him sit down for dinner. He'd take a bite, run into the other room, then come back for another bite."
She worried about the influences of the inner city, and he worried about the fact that college scouts were not watching him play much at Woodlawn High in Birmingham. So before his senior year, the family sent him to live with his mother's sister's family in Memphis. At Catholic High there Harris attracted the interest of college basketball and football coaches. He spurned football scholarships to UCLA, Ole Miss and Tennessee and a basketball scholarship to Nebraska to stay in Memphis and play at Memphis State, where he made a school record 47 career solo tackles for lost yardage. The Packers chose him in the fourth round of the 1986 draft.
Seven games into Harris's rookie year, Forrest Gregg, who was the Green Bay coach at the time, installed him as the starter at weakside outside linebacker. Harris will be there at least through next season—having signed a two-year, $1,185 million contract in August—and very likely for a decade.
Which means Green Bay should be an uncharacteristically noisy place in the '90s. Harris and his pal Stills can't get used to walking into the Packer locker room before game time because it's so, well, businesslike. "The other players look at us like we're crazy," says Stills. "But you can't play this game like businessmen. You've got to play like crazed dogs. Tim and I come in before the game and everybody's looking real serious, and we'll say something like, 'Woooohoooo! They're firing real bullets today, boys! Let's get 'em!' "
Harris was disgusted by the lethargy he sometimes saw in his teammates last season, and he's not close friends with anyone on the squad but Stills. At one point the pitiful Packers, who would finish '88 with a 4-12 record, were losing to the Lions in the Silverdome at halftime. Says Harris, "Coach Infante came in and told us, 'It's O.K., guys. We're going to get it together in the second half I got up and I started screaming. I yelled, 'It's not O.K.! We've got guys in here feeling sorry for themselves. Let 'em go home and have their wives take care of 'em!' "
Harris apologized to Infante on the plane home, and now he tells the story sheepishly. But Infante says he didn't mind Harris's outburst. "Sometimes you need that," he says.
The Packers had needed a wakeup call like that for years. Not until December of last season, his third as a Packer, did Harris play in a Green Bay win in Green Bay. He's pretty certain that the team's mediocrity in recent years accounts for his lack of renown. As the Packers improve, so will the recognition. "I'm young," says Harris. "It'll come. Even in Green Bay, it'll come."
"The country will know about Tim Harris soon," says Infante. And if it's slow in coming, Harris will just take matters into his own mouth.