Catching up with ... former Baltimore Colts DB Wendell Harris

Former Baltimore Colts special teams star Wendell Harris recalls an intersting excursion to Las Vegas.

His boyish looks, bantam size and benign-sounding name belied his fierce demeanor in football. Who'd have thought a guy named Wendell could deliver bone-rattling hits on the field? Yet that's what Wendell Harris did for five years as a defensive back and special teams star with the Colts.

"I took pride in hitting hard, though I'd probably get 15-yard penalties now," said Harris, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 1962 from LSU. "I'd go out there and try to knock their heads off. When you stepped on that field, your disposition had to change."

Once, in practice, Harris felled Jim Parker, the 275-pound Hall of Fame lineman. But he met his match when he tackled running back Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns.

"I knocked (Brown) down once and the next time, he ran over me – and it hurt," Harris said. "He said, 'White boy, don't ever do that again.' I said, 'Yes, sir.' Brown was the cream of the crop."

Harris, who'll be 76 on Sunday, lives in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La. A hero of LSU's 1962 Orange Bowl victory over Colorado – coach Paul Dietzel said he stuck to receivers "like a leech" – Harris joined the Colts and quickly fit in. The team's Rookie of the Year, he intercepted two passes, recovered a fumble, kicked a field goal and six extra points, and returned punts and kickoffs.

He thrived on the Colts' ballyhooed "suicide squads" whose captain, the rugged if irrepressible Alex Hawkins, took Harris under his wing.

"Alex and I were the smallest guys [on special teams], and we threw our bodies into it," Harris said. "On punts and kickoffs, we saw ourselves as bowling balls and the other team's blockers as the pins. One of us would knock about three of them down, and the other would make the tackle. It worked about half of the time."

In practice, Harris and Hawkins, a running back, would go one-on-one, whaling the tar out of each other until told to stop.

"Coach [Don] Shula would say, 'Quit that extracurricular activity before someone gets hurt,'" Harris said.

Roommates on the road, they sometimes shared late-night shenanigans.

"Alex was a hell-raiser, and I tried to keep up," Harris said. "But often I found myself in places where I'd never been, with no idea how to get home."

In 1964, during a two-game road trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco, Shula gave players several days off. Hawkins corraled a handful of players – Harris included – and lit out for Las Vegas.

After a night of carousing, Harris said, "I returned to the hotel and passed out on the bed, wearing only a T-shirt. When I woke up, the others had left for the airport, taking my clothes with them. Well, I was naked and broke in Las Vegas and didn't know what to do."

Frantic, he called around and found one teammate still in the hotel.

"Pants!" Harris cried into the phone. "I can't leave my room without pants!"

The player – Harris can't recall his name – offered a pair.

"The guy was 6-foot-5 with a waist a lot bigger than mine," said Harris, who's 5-11. "So I rolled up the cuffs, pulled the belt as tight as I could and raced to the airport." He made his flight to San Francisco. The Colts defeated the 49ers, finished 12-2 and reached the NFL championship game before losing 27-0 to Cleveland.

Two years later, they dealt Harris to the New York Giants for defensive lineman Andy Stynchula. Harris retired in 1967 and went into real estate. Seven years ago, at age 68, he changed careers to work as a landscaper for a company owned by Chad Ogea, an LSU alumnus and onetime pitcher for the Cleveland Indians.

"I do all of the planting, from trees to pansies – and 99 percent of them live," Harris said. "I'll do it as long as I'm able; I've never been sick a day in my life."

Married 43 years, he and his wife, Mary, have seven children, nine grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and even two great-great grandchildren. To all, Harris is simply "Pop-Pop."

At times, when the kids are gone and the house is quiet, he'll cherish the souvenirs of his past, especially the Colts team photo from his rookie year, signed by all the players: Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, et al.

"The older you get, the more important this stuff is," Harris said. "I was offered $20,000 for that picture but turned it down. It's irreplaceable."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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