Guiding Light

By Jeff Robert
Updated: June 8, 2005


Bill Harris, an All-State running back at Hackensack in the late 1950s, shares his wisdom as an assistant athletic director for external affairs at the University of Colorado.

Bill Harris, an All-State running back at Hackensack in the late 1950s, shares his wisdom as an assistant athletic director for external affairs at the University of Colorado.

COLORADO,—Harris knows the value of education.

“That’s why I try to talk to young people,” Harris said. “As soon as I got my degree, things started to move. A lot of athletes who even finish college and get their degree always ask, ‘What do I want to do?’

Bill Harris kept a watchful eye on the border, his weapon in hand.

How he ended up in Korea patrolling the DMZ when he had been drafted for Vietnam, he didn’t know. But the amplified blaring of North Korean propaganda underscored how far he was from home, how far he was from where he should have been.

His life had changed so immensely, so quickly, he barely recognized it.

The Hackensack football star lasted just two days with the Giants before they cut him. Then came the draft notice. Then came the knee injury in Korea.

“The day I got hurt I woke up in the bed and said to myself, ‘It’s all over.

Now what am I going to do?’Ÿ” Harris said.

Football was over. There was nothing to lean on. No degree, no prospects.


Spotlight

Name: Bill Harris

Age: 63

Position: Recently promoted to assistant athletic director for external affairs at the University of Colorado. Was the vice president of operations for Bergen Regional Medical Center before retiring.

Background: A selection on The Record’s All-Century Team as a running back at Hackensack from 1957-59. Went on to play at Colorado. Earned his master’s degree from Montclair State in sociology and business in 1972.

Quote: “As soon as I got my degree, things started to move.”

It was his wife, Susan, and the late Hackensack football coach Tommy Della Torre who showed him the way, encouraging him to go back to school and enter the business world.

Now he shows athletes the way for a living.

Harris, 63, was promoted in April to assistant athletic director for external affairs at the University of Colorado. He not only reaches out to the alumni who have earned letters at the university, but also current student-athletes, offering career development and a lifetime of wisdom.

Harris knows the value of education.

“That’s why I try to talk to young people,” Harris said. “As soon as I got my degree, things started to move. A lot of athletes who even finish college and get their degree always ask, ‘What do I want to do?’

“It’s OK to ask what do I want to do.”

As long as you find your answer. It took Harris a little longer than he expected. Confusion and anxiety weren’t supposed to happen to him.

He was one of the best running backs Bergen County ever produced. The two-time All-State running back and defensive back scored 290 career points, including then-records of 162 points and 27 touchdowns as a junior in 1958. He’s on The Record’s All-Century team and was the highest vote-getter among players on the All-Decade team of the 1950s.

“Today the guys still ask a lot about Bill,” said Darryl Harris, Bill’s brother and the boys basketball coach at Hackensack. “Not just my classmates, but people throughout this whole community.”

After Hackensack came Colorado, where Harris went on to play in the 1962 Orange Bowl after the Buffaloes won the Big Eight title. Two seasons later, he was drafted by the Giants.

But he was soon cut by the Giants, then the Jets. He then moved on to the Canadian Football League until the Army called in 1965.

The large majority of his buddies ended up in Vietnam. Harris was sent to patrol the 38th Parallel.

“When I went to Korea, there was an Army newspaper that came out,” Harris said. “We would read about the guys we were with who were killed. It was just devastating. We could never understand how 10 of us were separated from 100.”

Then Harris hurt his right knee in Korea playing football before his two years in the Army were over.

“After football I tell you I did not know what I was going to do,” Harris said. “Tommy Della Torre pulled me aside. I was 20-something, but he would just lay it on the line. ‘Hey Bill, you have a family now. You have to move on.’”

And he did. He earned his bachelor’s, and then his master’s at Montclair State and became a hospital administrator. He rose to vice president of operations at Bergen Regional Medical Center. Then he moved to Colorado and retired – or so he thought. Colorado University came knocking in 2000. Again, duty called.

It hasn’t been easy lately.

In the past four years, rape allegations against players; the use of sex, drugs and alcohol as recruiting tools; and the resignation of a university president and athletic director have cast a pall over the athletic department and the entire university. Alumni complained the only calls they received were requests for donations.

But when you’ve stood on the strip of land dividing the Korean peninsula, an enemy army staring back at you, bad press is only an obstacle. Same for when your buddies were sent off to die in the jungles of Vietnam or when white teammates had to fight so you and the other handful of African-American football players could stay at the same hotel and lounge on the same beach before the Orange Bowl.

“It has been one rough year,” Harris said. “We’re starting now to get back on our feet and be out in the community and throughout the state to tell people that our program is a good one and don’t abandon us.”

And Harris’ reward?

“Being able to be with these student-athletes as they work to accomplish their goals,” Harris said. “And even though they’re on a football or baseball scholarship, reminding them that education is No. 1.

“I missed it at an earlier age. It didn’t hit until later in life. Thankfully it wasn’t too late.”