When he walked past my seat and down the stairs of Section 25 before the start of the 98th Rose Bowl, family and friends surrounding him, I got goose bumps.
Surely, Cliff Harris was the last person I ever thought I would see as a fan at the Rose Bowl. But for as captivating as the first half was, so too was Harris. So I watched with one eye on the game, and one eye on Harris, who was 15 or so rows in front of us and to the left.
At halftime, Harris – with his pants low, a gray vest over his clean white T-shirt and a backward baseball cap covering his dreads – walked by my seat once more, this time, with a tray full of nachos. I couldn’t help but smile and laugh as I remembered Harris’ famous “cheese on top of the nachos” quote while speaking with the Fresno Bee last season.
After Alejandro Maldonado knocked in a 30-yard field goal with 6:54 remaining in the fourth quarter, I realized that if I wanted to see the end of the Rose Bowl, then that would be the best time to use the restroom, so I bounded up the stairs of Section 25 toward the concourse. At the same time, Harris and three others with him were walking up the narrow staircase of Section 25 in front of me, so I slowed my run to a walk in order to avoid an awkward collision.
When we reached the top of the staircase a fan caught sight of Harris from the upper level and yelled out, “Cliff!” Harris looked up briefly, but said nothing before disappearing into the tunnel.
Finally, I made my way around Harris and hurried toward the restroom. But as I approached the line – which was full of more than 50 other guys who, like me, thought that they could hurry to the bathroom and get back in time to watch Oregon’s first Rose Bowl win in 95 years – I turned back to catch what I thought might be my final glimpse of Harris.
As if in a picture perfect metaphor, Harris walked slowly towards the exit as a fiery sunset dipped below the distant profile of the San Gabriel Mountains. But before he and his companions reached the gate, they stopped and snapped pictures in front of the iconic main entrance of the Rose Bowl.
If Harris would have made better choices off the field he would have been right beside his battered, bloodied and bruised teammates while they battled their way to Oregon’s first Rose Bowl win since 1917. Instead he was relegated to the role of tourist, fan and passerby, taking pictures outside of the Rose Bowl like the rest of us. It’s as simple, and as complicated as that. Like the sunlight behind Harris, the heat, light and energy he once emitted for Oregon now receded after a brilliant rise, a brief legacy now captured only in still frames.
When they were done taking pictures, Harris and the three others made their way to the exit and walked off into the sunset. I felt as though I was watching the Cliff Harris chapter at Oregon officially come to a close before my very eyes, and yet, at the same time, I felt like I was also watching the beginning of a new chapter for Harris. I fought back tears, but they still came.
It’s an image that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Cliff Harris didn’t have to come to the Rose Bowl, but he did. His family didn’t have to come to the Rose Bowl either, but they did, too. And to me, that says more than any apology from Harris ever could.
Could I have done that? Could I have shown up to the Rose Bowl with my family and cheered for my former team to win the “Grandaddy of Them All” without me?
I doubt it. Could you?
John Canzano, of The Oregonian, described the scene of Cliff Harris sitting in the stands watching the game with his family as “sad” and “bizarre.” To me it was the exact opposite. It was exciting – and not because Harris was at one time an electric punt returner and shut down defensive back for Oregon. It was exciting because I’m more concerned with Harris’ growth as a young man than as a football player, and his presence was a testament to how far he’s come as a person. I had always respected Cliff as a player, but my chance run-in with Harris gave me a newfound respect and admiration for him as a person.
It would have been easy for Harris to grab a bag of chips, lie on the couch and watch the Rose Bowl from the comfort of his own home. It would have been the easiest thing in the world. And nobody would have blamed him if he had chosen to do so. But he did the opposite – even when it was the hardest thing to do.
So if actions truly do speak louder than words, then the fact that Cliff Harris came to the Rose Bowl and sat in Section 25, supporting his former teammates, speaks volumes of his character. He watched. He stood. He clapped. He cheered. He faced the music.
Isn’t that what life is all about? Facing the music? Learning from our mistakes? Growing?
There were exactly three moments at the Rose Bowl when I got choked up. The first came when Alejandro Maldonado sent a 30-yard attempt – his first attempt since missing a game-tying field goal against USC – through the uprights into a sea of Wisconsin fans. The second came when I stood and watched Cliff Harris take pictures in front of the Rose Bowl and then disappear into the parking lot. And the third came when I watched Chip Kelly and Kiko Alonso’s lengthy embrace while confetti showers fell and players and coaches ran around the field in a state of euphoria, following Oregon’s 45-38 win over Wisconsin.
Some common themes in all three of those events?
Resolve. Redemption. Maturation. Progress. Growth.
You see, this story isn’t just about Cliff Harris. This is about three young men who could have curled into a ball and called it quits when things went south. It is about three young men who could have dug themselves a deeper hole, but instead, climbed out. Nobody forced these young men to get back up after they got knocked down; they made that choice themselves, and that inspires me. Three different problems with a common solution: How you grow – or don’t grow – is your choice.
Most of us watch sport purely for entertainment, but it’s a beautiful thing when it teaches us something about life. I didn’t wake up Tuesday morning and plan to spend the duration of the Rose Bowl contemplating things much deeper than football. That wasn’t on my agenda. It just happened.
From the Rose Bowl, I’ll take with me the lasting image of Alejandro Maldonado thrusting his arms skyward after making that field goal, Kiko Alonso embracing Chip Kelly after the game, and Cliff Harris sitting in Section 25, cheering for his former teammates. It was there, in Section 25 that Harris impressed me more than any one of his dazzling punt returns or interceptions ever could.
By the end of the game as I stared in glassy-eyed disbelief at the scene on the field, I realized that at the root of my being, I’m just a human rooting for other humans. I believe in forgiveness. I believe in second chances, and third chances and fourth chances. I believe in redemption. Funny how a football team and a football game could help me realize that, right?
Cliff made mistakes, but showing up to the Rose Bowl last Monday was not one.