Marek Warszawski

Fallen football star Cliff Harris deserves our compassion, not our jeers

LEFT: Cliff Harris in better times, during the Edison High product’s standout 2010 season as an All-America cornerback/kick returner for an Oregon team that played for the BCS national championship. RIGHT: Harris’ most recent booking mugshot following last weekend’s arrest in Clovis.
LEFT: Cliff Harris in better times, during the Edison High product’s standout 2010 season as an All-America cornerback/kick returner for an Oregon team that played for the BCS national championship. RIGHT: Harris’ most recent booking mugshot following last weekend’s arrest in Clovis.

I’ll admit it. I’ve laughed at Cliff Harris. I’ve laughed at things he said, and I’ve laughed at how he behaved.

When Harris, back in 2010, described himself as “the cheese on top of the nachos” during his sensational sophomore season for Oregon, I laughed.

It was a good line.

When Harris, before the start of the 2011 season, replied “We smoked it all” to the Oregon state trooper who pulled him over doing 118 mph and asked about the smell of marijuana in the car, I laughed at that, too.

Hey, it was funny. Completely knuckleheaded and misguided, but funny.

I’m not laughing anymore. Nor should anyone with an ounce of compassion.

Harris’ story hasn’t been the slightest bit amusing in a while. Certainly not since April 2015, when Fresno police arrested the former Edison High football star on suspicion of arson in connection with a small fire in a central Fresno street median. He had six lighters in his pockets and no explanations.

It’s just tough when you make a mistake, two or three and your life just starts unraveling.

Stephen Shelley, family friend

The seriousness of Harris’ situation was underscored last week when the Clovis Police Department, after arresting him on suspicion of theft and drug possession, released one of the most chilling mug shots you’ll ever see.

The photo shows Harris, chin down, unshaven and with long, unkempt hair wrapped around his head. But it’s the eyes that disturb most. Pupils rolled against the tops of their sockets, they leave a searing image.

What thoughts pervaded Harris’ mind as he posed for photo, we can only guess.

We can only guess if we’re looking at the face of a person who’s truly mentally disturbed, or someone trying to look like they are.

Lizette Harris, Cliff’s mom, told me her son isn’t ready to talk. (He was released from jail Tuesday for time served.) Nor would she discuss his state of mind.

“You would have to speak to him on that – Cliff doesn’t want me to reveal about how he’s doing,” Harris said. “He will do it himself when he’s ready.”

Cliff doesn’t want me to reveal about how he’s doing. He will do it himself when he’s ready.

Lizette Harris, Cliff’s mother

Several people I’ve spoken to who know Cliff Harris, know his mother, his father and other members of his family, say he comes from good stock. They say he was brought up the right way, that he has a strong support structure.

That’s all welcome news. Let’s just hope Harris uses it.

“Cliff comes from a great family and he’s a great kid,” said family friend Stephen Shelley, a Clovis Unified School District student relations liaison.

“It’s just tough when you make a mistake or two or three and your life just starts unraveling. He’s dealing with something that we might not all understand.”

During last December’s arson sentencing, a court-appointed psychiatrist told a Fresno County judge that Harris had CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated concussions.

During last December’s arson sentencing, a court-appointed psychiatrist told the judge that Harris had CTE.

How the psychiatrist made that diagnosis, or if Harris underwent specialized testing, is unknown. The 25-year-old was ordered to enroll in drug treatment, mental-health counseling and to continue taking psychotropic medication.

Lizette Harris alluded to her son’s mental illness in an anguished Facebook post.

“To see your child go from a happy, outgoing n very confident person into a hurting and painful person is a very hurt full thing to see,” she wrote. “He always wished he could give me the world and wanted to give back to his community for he knew where he came from.”

Six years ago, Cliff Harris was at his peak. He was an All-Pac-12 cornerback and All-American kick returner, a major reason Oregon reached the BCS national championship game against Auburn.

NFL success, with the accompanying financial rewards, seemed certain to follow.

He was on his way and we don’t know how hard it hit him when he fell off that track.

Stephen Shelley

The last six years have been a never-ending series of arrests and public missteps. But so far, Harris hasn’t hurt anyone else. All the damage he’s doing has been to himself. Which is why I’m sympathetic toward the fallen football star and hope he finally gets, or finally accepts, the help he needs.

“He has a great heart,” Shelley said. “He’s never been mean to anybody. But he’s making mistakes right now as an adult and is reeling from those mistakes.”

Shelley has lived through a similar situation. His younger brother Jason Shelley was a freshman All-America receiver at Washington in 1992 before a series of three arrests over eight months derailed his college career.

Jason Shelley turned his life around enough to resume playing football in the XFL and Arena League well into his 30s.

“It took a while to patch his life back together and now he’s doing great,” Stephen Shelley said of his brother. “We know one day Cliff is going to turn his life around, too. Just hope it happens sooner rather than later.”

Building up our heroes when they succeed and tearing them down when they fail is one of the biggest tropes in sports.

Building up our heroes when they succeed and tearing them down when they fail, especially when that failure is self-inflicted, is one of the biggest tropes in sports. Which is why dozens of web sites, from TMZ to the Daily Mail, published stories featuring the infamous mugshot. And why comment sections, including The Bee’s, are filled with jokes and with hateful jeering.

Harris’ story stopped being funny a long time ago – at least to anyone with a shred of empathy.

The only thing we like better than a downfall story is a comeback tale, and it is my sincere hope Harris will soon begin authoring his. Not necessarily in football, but in life.

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