Thumper Struck Like Snake

Wayne Harris exploded in the last six inches before a tackle. Dubbed the "Thumper," Harris is remembered as one of the all-time greats at Arkansas. The linebacker still holds the record for single season tackles at 174. Harris, 77, passed away Thursday.

There have been some great nicknames for great athletes. But never has there been one more fitting than what Wayne Harris brought to college in 1957.

They called Harris simply “Thumper” when he was growing up in El Dorado. Barry Switzer, forced to the offensive line when Harris arrived at Arkansas, called him one of the all-time greats and not just for the Razorbacks.

Harris, 77, passed away Thursday in Calgary, Canada where he was retired from the oil business. He was considered one of the all-time greats in the Canadian Football League with the Stampeders. Harris was a member of the CFL and college football Hall of Fames.

Harris was a three-year starter for the Razorbacks, leading the Hogs to a pair of Southwest Conference titles. His 1960 tackle total of 174 is still the UA record.

“Wayne is one of the rare players from that era who could still play in today's game, because of his great speed,” Switzer said. “I don't know where, but he'd play somewhere.”

Harold Horton arrived in the same Arkansas freshman class with Harris. A long-time coach and administrator at Arkansas, Horton said there have always been two in a class alone with the Razorbacks.

“It's Wayne Harris and Lance Alworth,” Horton said. “And, if you are talking about linebackers, Wayne was the best and I coached a great one in Cliff Powell.”

Harris arrived during a time of two-way players. Switzer, one year ahead, was a center and inside linebacker.

“When Wayne got here, that made Barry an offensive specialist,” Horton said. “Wayne took that linebacker spot and Barry moved to center.”

Switzer was in awe of Harris. He'd known of him since grade school, since Switzer had attended the same school during a couple of years in El Dorado before moving back to Crossett.

“Wayne was a south Arkansas legend,” Switzer said. “Everyone knew him and I knew him from the playgrounds of El Dorado at a young age. He was always a stud.”

And, fast.

"I think Wayne was a 4.5 guy, probably," Switzer said. "That's why he'd play now. The last six inches, he exploded into tackles, could really strike. It was perfect form, middle of the chest and face mask first, right through you. That's why he was THE Thumper.”

Horton recalled a scrimmage early in his college career. And, like Switzer, there was mention of that last six inches before the hit.

“We were practicing in the stadium,” Horton said. “I still remember it. It was in the north end zone. They gave me the ball and Wayne hit me. It sucked the air out of me. I'd never been hit like that. I was just gasping.

“Wayne had great closing speed. It was such an impact. The last six inches were incredible. He dropped you like a dead bird on a duck hunt.”

Jim Mooty, All-America running back at Arkansas, grew up with Harris in El Dorado.

“Wayne and I went to grade school together and played in junior high and high school, then at Arkansas,” Mooty said. “I may be the only one who never got hit by Wayne. Our coaches protected me, thank God. He had the amazing ability to uncoil in the last second.”

George McKinney, a UA safety, laughs about getting knocked silly by Harris while preparing to make an interception.

"It was a deep, over the middle pass," McKinney said. "I thought, ‘Oh, boy. I got me one.' Here it comes, then, boom, Wayne knocked me five yards to catch it."

McKinney said Harris hit like a cottonmouth water moccasin.

"God made Wayne 6-1 and 188 for a reason," McKinney said. "If he was bigger, it would have been illegal. He hurt people when he tackled.

"When we talk about guys from our era who might could play today. Not many names come up. His name always came up."

McKinney recalled when Harris showed up as a freshman.

"Everyone had heard of him,” McKinney said. “We were in the dorm and saw him walking up the steps. We looked out the window and said, ‘That's Wayne Harris? He's not very big!'"

Turns out, big enough, because of his quickness and speed.

"We heard he was a champion wrestler," McKinney said. "We were in the dorm talking with him one night. It was me and Bill Wilson, the federal judge. Bill kept asking him about wrestling. He wanted Wayne to show him his best move or hold."

Harris ignored it for awhile.

"Wayne was quiet, just a good guy," McKinney said. "Never boasted about anything. Finally, after Bill had asked him once too many, Wayne just exploded. He had Bill pinned on the floor in a blink of an eye. It was like a snake striking.

"I called the judge before I told you this story. He said I could tell it, but he'd deny it."

In an interview in 2009 ahead of the 1959 team's 50-year reunion, Harris said it was a treat to stand on the field at Razorback Stadium again “after all those years.” He posed at the 50-yard line in a picture that included Frank Broyles, Mooty and Alworth.

“I think I've only been back (to campus) twice,” he said. “I feel badly about that, but the guys on the '59 team have called a bunch and I needed to be here.

“I've been busy in Calgary and it was tough to get back. I got into the oil business there because you needed to do something in the off season. I had worked in the oil fields in El Dorado growing up so I knew a little about it. So it worked well for me in Calgary.

“It was great for me at Arkansas, but Calgary has been great, too. I have been treated very well there for all these years.”

Mooty understands how that could happen.

“Wayne Harris would be loved any where,” Mooty said. “The word class fits. I was around him a lot and never saw him be anything but a gentlemen. He was quiet and respected. You never heard anyone say a single bad word about Wayne Harris.”

That's coming from the one running back who never was tackled by the Thumper. Perhaps some of those other running backs didn't feel quite the same.

Wayne Harris (left) with Frank Broyles, Lance Alworth and Jim Mooty at the reunion for the 1959 Arkansas team.

Photo by Marc F. Henning, Hawgs Illustrated

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