If a man yearns to be insulted, it is difficult to avoid insulting him. Cliff Harris is such a man. He's a free safety for the Dallas Cowboys who plays football best under the influence of holy indignation. As we join Harris, he is working up that indignation.
"The Steelers are upsetting me," he said.
"Things I read in the papers," Harris said.
Masters of literature dropped their pencils. No one reads newspapers more closely than newspapermen, but no one remembered any Steeler denigrating the Cowboys. The papers are full of Thomas Henderson, the Cowboys' volcano mouth, who has said, to sum up his act in one sentence, "Terry Bradshaw is so dumb he couldn't spell cat if you spotted him the 'c' and the 'a.'"
As it turns out, Harris has a good memory. The insults that will transform him from a real person into anger incarnate for Sunday's Super Bowl were delivered three years ago when the Steelers beat the Cowboys, 21-17, in that season's Roman Numeral Classic. It is not easy to not insult Cliff Harris.
So someone asked Harris today if this may be the Super Bowl that produces the first fisticuffs ever to mess up Pete Rozelle's carnival. Some people have suggested that a nice brawl would produce the first excitement in Super Bowl history. But you know how some people are.
Anyway, Harris smiled and said, "Yes, yes, the ingredients are there."
You had to see the smile. It was a smile of joy coming. It was a smile you might see on the face of a pyromaniac carrying a torch. Hard-cases of the gambling persuasion say the Steelers are the favorites Sunday. Investors in sure things might hustle up action on the fisticuffs, taking Cliff Harris against the field.
Across the lunch table, Harris passes for a kindly fellow who is losing his hair quickly and compensating with a neat mustache. The guy owns a shoe store, and -- really -- can a shoe salesman who is 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds be mean and vicious enough to make All-Pro at free safety the last four years?
"The way Cliff Harris hits you... is a nightmare," said a victim named O. J. Simpson.
No more questions, your honor.
In deference to the mighty strength of the teams' defensive lines, conventional wisdom is that Sunday's winner will be the guys who pass the football best. Of late, the Steelers have been beautiful in the air, Terry Bradshaw chucking to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Both those receivers are swifties who test defenders deep, and so, even without fisticuffs, Cliff Harris will have his hands full.
"Controlling their receivers will be the key to the game," Harris said. "Controlling Swann, that's it."
Swann created art three years ago with catches that defied mortal explanation and made the Steelers winners of the Super Bowl two straight years. Harris had a wonderful view of Swann's work, generally arriving shortly after Swann came down from the heavens with his latest creation. Although some people stood in awe of Swann that day, Harris thought him just plain lucky.
"His luck was probably used up that last time," Harris said today. "He won't make all those kinds of catches this time."
On the off-chance that Swann is not lucky but truly a gifted player, as his astonishing work over five years suggests, Harris has an alternative plan to render him worthless.
He'll drop an anvil on his head.
No, no, not really, but when Cliff Harris talks about Lynn Swann, the plain words do not do justice to the threat of corporal punishment promised by another of those pyromaniacal smiles that goes with this judgment:
"Swann is vulnerable to the hit, to intimidation."
That is the petty gossip that passes as substance among safetymen who dream in the night of a Swann fleeing their grasp. "I'd like to have my speed just the way it is," Harris said later, "but just before I hit a receiver I'd like to shift to 6-foot-5 and 230."
Here is a safetyman whistling past the secondary and, to Harris' credit, he fairly admitted it when someone asked if any defender, no matter how mean and vicious, liked contesting with Swann.
"I would settle for us having a great pass rush that didn't give Bradshaw time to find Swann," Harris said. This time the smile was that of a choir boy.
Insults run both ways, and if Harris has to dig three years back for his, the Steelers have only to read the papers of the last two weeks. In victory over the Los Angeles Rams, the Cowboys were insufferable. Even Roger Staubach, Captain Nice, called the Rams a naughty name, and Thomas Henderson mocked them with choke-gasp-choke signs.
Harris has been quoted as saying the Cowboys would "knock out" Bradshaw early. He now denies saying that. "What I said was that the last time we knocked him out a little late three years ago," Harris said. "Then I said we ought to knock him out a little earlier Sunday. It was a joke."
A joke, maybe, but Harris would be mightily pleased if Bradshaw went down early. Football is a war game to Cliff Harris, who says with a mugger's laugh, "I've got as good a cheap shot as anybody." Besides, Harris remembers something that happened in that Super Bowl three years ago.
When the Steelers' Roy Gerela missed a field goal, Harris saw him despairing and taunted him. ("If a guy looks sad and he looks like he can be made to feel worse, you do it. Maybe he'll miss another one.")
As Harris taunted Gerela, the Pittsburgh linebacker, Jack Lambert, angry at the taunt, came up from behind and knocked Harris down.
"I'd do it all again," Harris said. "But this time I'd watch for Lambert."
He smiled again.