An Interview with the Chargers Dick Harris
Dick Harris was a defensive back for the Chargers from 1960-1964. Known as “Chuckles,” because of his knack for being a team clown, Harris hauled in 28 interceptions in his five seasons in the Chargers backfield. This interview took place in July, 2003.
AFL – Tell me about how you came to the Chargers.
DH – What happened was that I sort of jumped around a lot from college to college. I was actually supposed to go to SC and play tailback in the single wing after Jon Arnett. I screwed around and ended up going to a bunch of different places. When they formed the league, coach Phil Cantwell, who was at the time when I was growing up, had watched me play in high school. He was the Mary Star coach. He remembers me playing against the pros when I was in high school in a touch league. I believe I made most valuable at the time. But then I went on and screwed around and wasn’t very successful in college. He just recommended me and that’s how it got started. The three teams that contacted me were Green Bay, Baltimore Colts and the L.A. Chargers at the time.
AFL – What made you select the L.A. Chargers?
DH – Well, I’m from the area. So that was the reason. Just to be close to home. I’m a San Pedro kid and it was just the thing to do. I was just excited as Hell. That was a dream come true, just to get a chance to try out.
AFL – Were you concerned that the AFL might not succeed?
DH – No. When you’re in your 20s, you don’t have any concerns about anything.
AFL – Tell me about the first training camp in 1960.
DH – The training camp in 1960 was just brutal because they brought us in in flights. Of course, being a free agent, I came in with the first group. I think we came in around late June. We went two-a-days for a couple of weeks and out of maybe 60 guys they kept maybe five or six. The next group came in and they were the guys that were probably going to make it. In other words, that first group was just sort of a dream camp, a wish camp. And then they brought that group in and they weeded out. They kept probably two of us after that, from that first group. Then they brought in all the guys that had previous pro experience or were college All-Americans and all that. From there I was very fortunate that I hung in there and ended up starting at corner for the Chargers. Corners were hard to find then so it worked out pretty well for me.
AFL – The Chargers coaching staff had three future Hall of Fame coaches in Sid Gillman, Al Davis and Chuck Noll. Did it appear to be a knowledgeable or overly impressive staff at the time?
DH – I always respected Coach Gillman because I remember when Rich Roberts was the sports editor of the San Pedro newspaper and he took us to a Rams game. I rode down with him when I was just out of high school, maybe playing for Harbor Junior College. We went down there and watched the Rams practice at Redlands. As a kid growing up you know who Sid Gillman is and you know Ollie Matson was in that camp and all those guys. You are really impressed as a kid. I had a million idols in those days. It is a little harder to have them now because there is too much money. It is show business. When I was playing I knew all the guys had jobs in the off-season, except maybe a very few who made enough money to make it through the off-season. There wasn’t the camps like they have now. You just had another job and when you reported to camp, you reported to camp. It was a different era. Everybody just loved the game. I think now the money is so big that you would probably get a lot of people that really don’t love the game, but they are there because the money is so unbelievable that they’ll play anyway. Even though I don’t think they love it.
AFL – Tell me about Sid Gillman.
DH – Sid was a good guy. He was really a nice man. He had a wonderful family, Esther and his children. They were always very pleasant to be around. Sid and I, we all had out battles. I remember I made all-pro and I came in and he offered me a $200 raise. That’s how it was in those days. If you were a free agent and you were lucky enough to make it, you weren’t going to make any money. So that’s it. That was just the way it was in those days. You’re not going to get a lot of money. There wasn’t the opportunities that there are now that if you make it you get a big raise. Even later on, I remember the Chargers had some great defensive linemen, Big Hands Johnson and a kid from SMU. There were four of them and they were unbelievable. I remember I was looking at them as an ex-player. They had terrible defensive backs, but the defensive backs actually did pretty good because of the defensive line. But that owner, Klein, he tried to low-ball those guys when they were all doing great, so he got rid of them. In those days they were probably asking for $50,000 or something. And all of a sudden, the Chargers became very exposed. When they got into that pass rush, you know as a defensive back when you don’t have some studs up front pushing the clock on the quarterback’s head, you’re in trouble. These guys are good athletes, they’re going to get open if you give them all kinds of time.
AFL –Talk about the first fearsome foursome and how they helped you guys set the 1961 record with 49 interceptions.
DH – It is ironic that you remember them as the fearsome foursome. Because they were the original fearsome foursome. Sports Illustrated came down to do a story on that team because we were undefeated and we got beat, so they decided not to do the story and all of a sudden the Ram line got tagged with the fearsome foursome. But we still hold the record even though we didn’t play as many games as they do now. We still hold the NFL record for interceptions in a season. Those guys… It is really great when you have a pass rush. Believe me. Even if they don’t sack the quarterback, if they get near him, you can play a little more aggressively. You can take more chances, you can go for the interceptions a lot more because that guy is not going to get the ball right where he wants it. It makes it a helluva lot better. I’ll tell you what. You take an average cornerback with a great defensive line and you have got a really good cornerback. And as far as the coaches, Chuck Noll, Davis and Gillman, they were all really good coaches. Chuck didn’t communicate much as the others. He was more quiet and didn’t say much. But there was also Jack Faulkner who lives in this area now that was also with the Rams and the head coach with Denver. He was my first defensive backfield coach. Then he left and went to Denver and then Chuck took over as the defensive backfield coach. Jack was sort of like my… He was really a good guy. He sort of made it easier for me to play because I sort of had that devil-may-care attitude. In those days a lot of coaches didn’t like that kind of attitude. It was a lot stricter then about how you behaved and everything. They didn’t put up with too much.
AFL – Who did you think were your most impressive teammates?
DH – Well, Charlie McNeil, who played at Centennial High School, was my buddy and partner. He was a free safety and I was the corner. We worked pretty well together. He always impressed me as being… Well, he was one of my really good friends. We had Paul Maguire, who was our outside linebacker, who now is trying to make it as a broadcaster. I don’t know if he is going to make it or not. Bob Zeman, he was a strong safety. Then of course we had Ernie Ladd and Earl Faison. Those were the two guys that were really the pass rushers. We had Chuck Allen at middle linebacker, who when Noll went to Pittsburgh, he took Chuck with him and put in the defensive system that he developed with the Chargers. We had Kemp. Jack, he was the quarterback for us. Sid gave him up because he injured his finger. You could only put a player in those days on waivers once. You put him on the second time and you couldn’t pull him off. So Buffalo claimed him for $100. Then Tobin Rote came in. He was the old pro. Of course, Lance Alworth. Paul Lowe, Keith Lincoln. We had some really good players, Don Norton, an All-American from Iowa. That was a great group of guys. Charlie Flowers. I guess he and Billy Cannon battled it out that one year for the Heisman Trophy. Flowers came here and Billy Cannon went to Houston. It was good times then, fun.
AFL – What is your favorite road trip memory?
DH – I can’t tell you a favorite road trip. That wouldn’t be fair. They were all fun. We stayed in some weird places. We stayed at Bear Mountain and we stayed at West Point. In those days when we went back East, we went back for three games in a row. We played Boston, we played Buffalo and we played the Jets. So we just stayed there. Obviously when you’re there that long, the road trips can be very interesting. I know why people go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon, too. Because there is nothing to do there, believe me. You talk about boring, God. There wasn’t much to tell you about Niagara Falls, I can tell you that right now. But we had fun on a lot of the trips. We went down to Greenwich Village in New York and we went to different places and had fun.
AFL – Describe your best game.
DH – I don’t remember having a best game. I intercepted three passes a couple times in games. In those days it was all man. We didn’t play any, very little zone. We were just basically manned up against the other guy. That was the way that we played in the old days. Especially in the AFL. You had to get fired up for these guys or else you are going to be in trouble because you’re in man coverage all the time. I had a pretty good game against Buffalo when Kemp was their quarterback. I got three against him. He still doesn’t remember. That would be one of my better games. I had some good games and I had some bad games. But I don’t remember the bad ones.
AFL – Tell me about Rough Acres Ranch.
DH – That was unreal. They took us up there and some doctor bought this property. He had some little tiny cabins on it, if you want to call them cabins. I guess he was going to make it into a dude ranch or something. It was about 4-or 5,000 feet high and the average temperature during that time was at least 100 degrees. They watered the ground so we would get something like grass on the field. It was nowhere. They had a gas station that was also considered the post office. They sold beer there, too. I remember that. We’d sneak down and drink beer at the gas station after the second practice. That’s all I remember about it. But that was the time that we really came together as a team. We were there for about six weeks. There was nothing to do. I remember they got a bus and took us down to El Centro to watch the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston fight. That was a great ride. We got in the bus, got out of the bus, got back in the bus. I think we were in that place to watch the fight for about 30 seconds and then back home. I’ll tell you what, that definitely was a place… I don’t know if guys nowadays would put up with it. They’d probably sue the team for something, but it brought us together and that’s the year we won everything. That was a good year. And Sid was innovative. I think we were one of the first teams where they ever brought in the weightlifting and everything during camp. The only problem was a lot of us never lifted, so we were doing all this heavy lifting between practices and if you’re not used to it you can beat up too because you’re tearing your muscles down when you lift. Obviously they have improved the system now. I know there are a lot more drugs and everything involved. These guys are huge now.
AFL – Isn’t that how Don Norton screwed up his back that year?
DH – Oh God, did he. You could hear that. It sounded like a gun went off. It was unbelievable. We started out our first day was 300-pound full squats. Some guys had never done them in their lives. We’d do at least 10 at a time. We all were doing it. Don got under it, he went down a certain way and then he was really screwed up. He never really got better. He never played as well as he had prior to that injury. That really screwed him up. There was a kid named Wayne Frazier who was a center. This is one of the stories that I don’t know if you want to know about. We all went down to that gas station for beer one night. Me and Wayne Frazier and everybody. We came back and everything was on level. I remember a couple of guys had one beer too many and fell over the embankment. They couldn’t figure out why they weren’t getting better. That was one of them.
AFL – Tell me about the 1963 championship game. The defense was probably just as dominant as the offense that day.
DH – Yeah, we were. That was probably Sid’s finest moment as far as designing an offense. But we stuffed them on defense. There was one screw up on a pass. They threw it deep and got down and scored, but they never should have scored on us that day. We should have just killed them. I’ll tell you what. Their quarterback, Parilli, didn’t have a chance. I remember he started to throw a curl and I had a bead on it all the way. If the sucker had thrown it I was gone. But he felt the pressure. I don’t know how he saw me, because I was coming from an angle, but he pulled it in and brought his arm back down. I didn’t think he saw me. But that was the kind of pressure that we had that day. The offense just blew them away. They had to throw after the first quarter. They were down by like 21 points, so it was a cakewalk. That was really Sid at his best. Remember I said we played all man in the old AFL? They did that and they liked to blitz a lot. Sid just broke them down to where to when they were blitzing those backers, there was nobody left. So we either trapped the backers on runs or threw little passes to where they had left and just killed them. That was when Lincoln had his unbelievable game.
AFL – Why did the Chargers not win more championships in the AFL and why did they stop going after 1965?
DH – I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. They always wanted to make things better. So if we had something going, they’d always try to replace guys. Like that year we set the interception record. I think within a year or two of that, I was the only remaining defensive back in the secondary. They kept replacing and replacing everybody. Just constantly tooling around with it. I think in those days, if you had guys that were playing well together and everything, you should just stick with them and you might be better off. That’s what I thought happened. That really hurt us a lot. And plus, we had Tobin, but then John replaced him and did a great job. That’s what I thought happened. You broke up a pretty good team by replacing too many guys at once. But I might be wrong too, because I was a player, but I missed some of the guys. Charlie got hurt and Charlie McNeil only had two good years and then he was out. That hurt because he really was an outstanding defensive back. We talked a lot. So I always knew where he was going to be on every play and what I could take away and where he would help me. Things like that. You work together like that. That’s a big difference. But sometimes when you’re there too long, the players get kind of complacent, I think. That’s another thing that can happen. When I first started playing I loved it so much. But that last year, it was pretty tough. I was hurt a lot, injured a lot. All of a sudden you’re questioning why am I doing this and things like that. I think that affects players too. You get beat up and you’re playing with a bunch of injuries and things like that. I think that last year I played with a broken wrist and a dislocated shoulder and torn stomach muscles. Then you’re playing and you can’t play well obviously. Football is a crazy game and if you don’t have an unbelievable desire, that’s what happens.
AFL – What did you dislike about being a professional football player?
DH – Nothing. I loved it. I loved playing. I loved playing. I always go back and say if I could have it before the injuries started piling up, it was the greatest feeling. There was nothing better. It was a game with a bunch of guys that you liked. I can’t think of anything better. Really. I have no complaints. I have a complaint that they didn’t pay as much, but as far as something in my life, it was probably the biggest thing that ever happened other than of course marriage and children. I think most of the guys would agree that they really had a good time.
AFL – Any other thoughts that strike you about the Chargers? Things that you really remember but don’t often get to speak about?
DH – I just want them to be successful.