Johnson: Herm (Ham Hands) Harrison leaves a legacy of friendship, community and unforgettable talent
Stampeders great, star of the 1971 Grey Cup, passes suddenly at age 71
Through the mists of time, growing up listening to Calgary Stampeder long-ago away broadcasts on radio, Tom Forzani is positive that play-by-play man Eric Bishop was the man responsible for hanging the moniker on Herm Harrison. The reason was obvious.
“Hands,” says Basil Bark, “as big as two baked hams.”
“Oh, he had big mitts,” chimes in longtime friend John Helton, the greatest defenceman lineman in franchise history. “BIG mitts. His fingers, I know, were at least a half-inch longer than mine. Ham Hands. What a nickname. I don’t know who could come up with anything better.”
With the big, tough catching-and-blocking receivers coming slowly back into vogue, particularly down south in the NFL, the newfangled models of today could do worse for than sit themselves in front of an old projector and study grainy footage of the mid ’60s to early ’70s, of a certain No. 76 clad in red and white, a galloping white horse frozen, mid-gallop, on his helmet.
“It’s hard to compare the old tight end position with anything that’s happening now,” continues Bark. “But Herm, he was just the best I ever played with. Catching the ball. Being in position. A quiet leader in the locker-room. Just an incredible athlete. Incredible guy. Everybody loved Herm. Great smile. Great laugh.
“It’s just one of those sad moments.”
Herm (Ham Hands) Harrison passed away suddenly Saturday at the age of 71. And, for a moment, anyway, as the news sunk in, the Stampeders world seemed to lessen, to shrink.
“I’ve never had a worse shock in my life,” admitted Helton, from Pennsylvania on Sunday. “It was a very hard day. We’ll see what happens the rest of the week, but this was a very special man for me. He was like the Lone Ranger. When you needed him, he was there. Otherwise, he didn’t impose himself on anyone.
“If it wasn’t for Herm, I’d have never come to Canada. Herm went to Arizona State, and was playing up here. I was at Arizona State. He spoke highly of Calgary, of Canada, and what great people there were there. I was drafted by Buffalo, and I knew some people there, but I’m thinking ‘If Herm’s telling me that . . .’
“He’s the reason I wound up a Stampeder.”
If it’s any consolation, Herm Harrison’s legacy is assured. You can see it anytime, with a glance up there at the Wall of Fame at McMahon Stadium. Or whenever you happen to be out East, down Hamilton way, and pop in to tour the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame. He’s ever-present in the strength of the Stampeders’ alumni association of today. In the people he touched, the charities he helped, during his decades in this city. And, most of all, in the memories he left behind.
“I’ll always remember that catch in the (’71) Grey Cup game,” says Bark, the offensive centre here for eight seasons. “But then everybody remembers that. It stands out for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. Every time you see an article about Herm, you see that picture. The other memory that sticks in my mind isn’t quite so famous: I remember Herm chasing a B.C. defensive back — can’t recall the guy’s name — for 40 yards after an interception, ran him down and then caught him right under the chin with his elbow.
“Knocked the guy cold.”
Herm Harrison arrived here in 1964 out of Arizona State, played on through 1972, hauling in 443 receptions for 6,703 yards and 43 touchdowns. becoming a six-time West all-star and three-time CFL all-star in the process, and then decided to stay on. Made Calgary his home.
From his home in Oklahoma, Jerry Keeling, Harrison’s pitch-and-catch partner in that 1971 drought-busting 14-11 Grey Cup triumph over the Toronto Argos at Vancouver’s rain-sodden Empire Stadium, paid homage to his old friend and collaborator.
“Herm,” said the 74-year-old Keeling, an 11-season Stamp, “was probably as good a receiver as a tight end that I ever played with. Great blocker, could get open. And he sure lived up to his nickname, Ham Hands. He could just reach out and suck the ball in.
“And he was really devoted to the football team there. Even after he retired, he stayed close to the Stampeders.”
“I didn’t know anything was wrong. This is a real shock.”
There’s a lovely picture on Page 131 of author Daryl Slade’s essential guide for Stampeder devotees, The Years of the Horse, of Harrison and Keeling together with the jug-eared silver chalice in Vancouver, mission accomplished. The two men hooked up on Calgary’s only passing major of the afternoon, a 14-yarder in the first quarter.
“You know,” says Keeling, 32 years later, “to win that Grey Cup, for the guys that had been around a while, like Herm and I, who’d lost in ’68 and then again in ’70, well, that was a pretty sweet feeling. And it was only fitting that I threw the touchdown pass to Herm.”
For rookie offensive guard John Forzani Sr., who’d go on to open a chain of fairly successful sporting goods stores in retirement, the example set by the old campaigner was the best tutorial a kid could receive.
“I only played with Herm for two years,” Forzani recalled on Sunday, “but he certainly made an impression. He was always well dressed, always, always well groomed, always spoke in almost a half-whisper. Very, very ‘I know what I’m doing here. We can win this’ kinda attitude. A calming influence. He certainly wasn’t one of those stand-up-on-the-bench-and-yell kind of leaders.
“I guess all teams have both kinds — the quiet guys and the vocal guys. Who’s the most effective? There’s absolutely no question the quiet leader who leads by example, in all aspects of life, is one to be heeded.”
For even younger, aspiring pass catchers of that era in this town such as Tom Forzani, those who dreamed of one day being a Stampeder and hearing the roar of the crowd at McMahon, the on-field Ham Hands, the big fella who could reach out and snare a pass with the authority of a Venus Flytrap landing its prey on one snap and then level a marauding linebacker on the next, exerted a huge influence.
“If you lived in Calgary and were a Stampeder fan, you grew up watching Herm Harrison, emulating him. I know I did. And why not? He caught everything in sight. Bottom-line, you threw it to Herm and he had a chance at it. A great football player. Better yet, a great human being. Just a real nice guy. He always had time for other people. He was always impressive around younger, impressionable kids because he knew he’d make an impact on them, being a Stampeder.
“He understood that. He took that responsibility seriously. And he always acted accordingly. To positive effect. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody bad-mouth Herm. And how many people can you honestly say that about?”
The news of Harrison’s passing caught everyone off guard.
“I heard about it (Saturday),” said placekicker and DB Larry Robinson. “What a shock. About a year ago, I know he did have some blood-pressure problems. But he thought he had that corrected.
“There’ll be a lot of people thinking about Herm today.
“I remember he came here as a linebacker and then they switched him over to tight end. And they found out he was pretty good at catching the ball.”
As good as anyone at his position of his era. Either side of the border.
“I think the only thing that kept Herm in Canada,” reckons Helton, “was that his knees started to act up on him. He would’ve had to do a lot more blocking in the States and that would’ve maybe shortened his career. He could’ve played in the States quite easily. I remember when he was at Arizona State — nobody would believe this — but when he was getting ready for football, he and Gene Foster, who played for the Chargers, would run through the desert in their full army-reserve fatigues, combat boots and all. Honest to God.
“As a tight end, as a receiver, he was ahead of his time.
“He had the size. He was strong. He had sneaky speed to get open.”
And those hands. Those two big-as-baked-ham hands.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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