A Story From AFL’s First Days Passes Away

More than likely you’d have to be a superfan of the Oklahoma Sooners to have any idea about Jimmy Harris

In a long ago era he was one of the winningest quarterbacks to play college football. His record as the starting QB at Oklahoma under head coach Bud Wilkinson was 25-0, with a pair of national championships (1955-56) and it was a huge part of the still unmatched 47-game Sooners winning streak.

Harris passed away last Tuesday in Louisiana at the age of 76 from lung cancer. He was buried over the weekend in Shreveport and was eulogized as one of the biggest and most important names in college football history.

But Harris also played a part in pro football history, specifically with the American Football League and the Dallas Texans. It’s a story worth telling, because it helps illustrate the nature of those early AFL days when Lamar Hunt was not only fighting to build a league and his own team, but had to withstand attacks from an NFL determined to crush him and his idea. If you thought lawyers were too involved with professional sports these days – especially in light of the recent lawyer loaded labor negotiations between the NFL owners and players – it’s not the first time. Part of the millions of dollars that Hunt lost in the early days of the AFL was to pay the lawyers for anti-trust suits, disputes with stadium governing bodies and a dozen or so court cases involving player contracts.

That’s where Harris comes into the picture.

Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson and his QB Jimmy Harris in 1956

Here’s the set up to the story: Harris was drafted as a defensive back by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1957, the same year that a young quarterback out of Purdue was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers – Len Dawson. After one season with the Eagles where he had three interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown, Harris played the 1958 season with the Los Angeles Rams. He appeared in 12 games and had four interceptions for the Rams, whose GM at the time was a fellow named Pete Rozelle.

In 1959, Harris returned to Norman to work as an assistant coach with the Sooners and finish his college degree in geology. During spring practice in 1960, he played in the alumni game and played very well. He got the itch to play again and in early summer he signed with the Texans as a likely defensive back, but head coach Hank Stram wanted to look at him at the quarterback position as well.

It wasn’t long after his signing with then Texans GM Don Rossi that the NFL started complaining. The league and the Rams said that the contract Harris signed to play the 1958 season contained an option clause, tying him to Los Angeles for another year of play.

To make matters even more interesting, on July 22 the Rams traded Harris’ contract to the first-year Dallas Cowboys for a 1961 fifth-round draft choice. It was in July, while Harris was with the Texans at their first training camp in Roswell, New Mexico, that the Cowboys led by GM Tex Schramm asked for a restraining order that would keep Harris from playing for the Texans. On July 29 in a Dallas courtroom, a judge heard the case. There was testimony from only two people: Harris and Schramm.

Harris insisted that he did not intend to play for the Cowboys or any other NFL team. He said that he planned to be employed full-time by a Dallas oil drilling firm, where he worked part-time over the summer. Schramm testified to the NFL contract option clause and its effect on player movement.

The court made an immediate ruling, granting a temporary injunction requested by the Cowboys that would keep Harris from playing football anywhere but with them. The decision effectively upheld the reserve clause, although a full trial on the situation was scheduled for early October.

In handing down his ruling, District Court Judge W. L. Thornton said: “I would like to help this young man. But I don’t see how I can. I don’t know why a man would sign such a contract in the first place. I sympathize with anyone under these conditions. But I don’t think this court can do his thinking for him. There is no evidence that he was compelled to sign the contract.”

Harris’ attorney immediately filed a motion to stay the restraining order, contending that the 60 days on the sidelines would kill Harris’ chances of making the Texans and deprive him of the $13,000 he was to receive for playing this season. Rossi, the Texans GM, was naturally very unhappy with the ruling. “What it boils down to is this: they didn’t want Harris, they didn’t want to pay him what he was worth and they showed no interest in him until we dug him up and signed him,” Rossi told reporters. “Then they came along with this restraining order. I’m still waiting for an answer to how they signed ball players last year when they didn’t even have a legal franchise.”

On August 11, the Fifth Court of Civil Appeals refused to set aside the lower court restraining order.

In mid-September, Harris’ case found its way into another Dallas courtroom, in the 95th District Court. The arguments in front of a jury came down to two matters – the reserve clause in NFL contracts and whether or not Harris had “unique” talents as a defensive back.

It was Schramm’s argument that Harris was a unique talent. “In today’s pro football next to the quarterback, probably the most important position is defensive halfback,” Schramm testified. “It’s nearly impossible to procure defensive halfbacks of the ability of Harris. I’ve tried for three or four months. They’re such a premium nobody will trade them. I don’t know where I could get one.”

The Cowboys based their legal claim to Harris on a 1945 case which concerned a music teacher who signed to teach in Mission then jumped contract and wanted to teach in Cisco. The Texas Supreme Court held that since she was possessed of special abilities and had signed a contract at Mission not to teach elsewhere, she could be halted from going to Cisco.

Ironically, the Texans argued that he was not “unique” and in testimony, Rossi named over 30 defensive backs who the Texans considered better or equal players.

The reserve clause came down to wording involving a player that voluntarily retires. The contract stated that his option year was suspended until he returned to pro football. But Harris insisted that he did not voluntarily retire. He testified that he sat out the season because the Rams offered him $8,500 and he wanted $10,000. Harris testified the Rams had written and phoned in an effort to get him to play in 1959 and said the Rams also tried to arrange geology courses for him at UCLA and USC. He left the NFL and returned to Oklahoma where he finished his geology degree and worked as an assistant coach.

The next day after the hearing, the jury decided Harris did not possess “unique” knowledge and ability. Judge Paul Peurifoy said he would make a final judgment in the case a few days later. Harris immediately grabbed a plane and flew to Oakland, where the Texans were going to play the Raiders that night. It would be a week later before he actually got into a game, playing for a few moments in a 17-0 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.

Peurifoy ruled that Harris could continue to play for the Texans, but that led the Cowboys to file an appeal. On October 25, the Texas Fifth Court of Civil Appeals denied Harris’ appeal for dismissal of the original temporary restraining order.

Eventually, Harris finished out the season with the Texans as legal maneuvering continued between the Texans and the Cowboys. Before the 1961 season, lawyers from both teams worked out an agreement and Harris went and played that season with the Cowboys.

Harris retired from pro football after that ’61 season with the Cowboys and went into the oil and gas business, setting up shop in Louisiana where he was quite successful and raised his family.

By the end of his time with the Texans and Cowboys, the legal situation was dropped and the NFL’s reserve clause continued into the next two decades before it was finally wiped away in the Reggie White case in the early 1990s.

It was just one of over a half-dozen legal cases that came up during the first seasons of the AFL as the new league battled with the NFL for players.

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