Jimmy Harris finally lost one.
The quarterback who never lost a game, the oil man who rarely lost a deal, the charming Texan who seldom lost a conversation, lost the one we all will lose.
Lung cancer got him, Monday night, at the age of 76, a number that will startle those who knew him unless they saw him in his final days. Harris always looked 20 years younger than he really was; always looked like he belonged to Barry Switzer's era, not to Bud Wilkinson's.
I first met Harris on the streets of St. Louis, at Wilkinson's funeral in 1994. Harris was with his old Sooner pal Jerry Tubbs. No offense, Jerry, but Harris looked like your son.
But the fountain of youth is not what makes Harris a seminal figure in Oklahoma history.
Harris hasn't played Oklahoma football in 55 years and didn't even make all-Big Seven when he did. But few Sooners leave a legacy to match Harris'.
In a Norman Rockwell era, on a Norman Rockwell football team, the kid from Terrell, Texas, had style.
“He had a flair about him that was just national champion confidence,” said Gerald McPhail, Harris' teammate on the 1954 and 1955 Sooners. “A ‘here I am, come on guys, let's go get it now.' He made everybody feel confident. He had that air about him that was really special.”
Harris started 25 OU games at quarterback. He won them all. Basically ruined the position for everyone who ever followed. Steve Davis went 32-1-1 as a starter; got booed in the game he lost. Jack Mildren was the best quarterback OU ever had, but the Sooners didn't win championships and Mildren never was fully appreciated. Jason White won a Heisman Trophy; some wanted him benched that season in the second half of the Sugar Bowl.
In large part because Harris won them all. Led a team that made losing a foreign concept. The Sooners won 47 straight games, from early 1953 to late 1957, and Harris quarterbacked more than half those wins, while leading two national-title teams.
Harris was ahead of his time. Brash. Self-assured. Nothing like his coach, the stately Bud, who nevertheless formed a father/son-like bond with the boy who was 10 when his father died.
Before Switzer and Boz and Jamelle Holieway, there was Jimmy Harris.
"Jimmy led by doing,” said Bob Burris, an all-Big Seven halfback at OU in 1955. “He was cocky, but he could do it.”
Said another teammate, Byron Searcy, “Very self-confident. The kind of person you need when the chips were down.”
For instance, that 1956 Colorado game I wrote about a few weeks ago, when OU trailed 19-6 at halftime, took the second-half kickoff and faced 4th-and-2 from the Sooner 28-yard line. Harris, who called the plays, ignored protocol and called a running play. Wilkinson let the gamble stand, and Clendon Thomas battered for a first down. The Sooners rallied to a 27-19 victory.
But the chips rarely were down in Harris' era. His 25 wins were not marked by a bunch of close calls. In fact, Harris' greatest play as a Sooner came on a punt return.
In the second game of 1954, against TCU, the game in which Gene Calame suffered a broken collarbone and launched Harris into the starting QB role, Harris returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown after OU trailed 2-0 at halftime. The Sooners won 21-16.
That's the forgotten part of Harris' career. He was all ballplayer. His statistics were not gaudy; Harris rushed for at least 100 yards only thrice in his career and never passed for 100 yards in a game. Of course, his halfbacks were Thomas and Tommy McDonald, who combined to play 23 NFL seasons, so there weren't a lot of extra yardage to be had.
Then Harris played four seasons in the NFL himself, as a cornerback, with 11 interceptions.
Let's see. A quarterback who never lost. An NFL cornerback. A punt returner with a better career average (14.6) than Ryan Broyles. Folks, that's a football player.
“He was probably a better defensive player than offensive, but he did a heck of a job at quarterback,” Burris said. “Very elusive. You never could get a good lick on him.”
Thomas as a young Sooner scrimmaged against Harris and called it “like tackling a wet rope. He wasn't there. And when you did get ahold of him, you didn't hurt him. Didn't punish him at all. He just had a gift. He was born that way. And he sure took advantage of it.”
And finally, one more way that Jimmy Harris matters, even in 21st century Oklahoma football. Before 1956, Harris' senior year, the Sooners had produced just two All-Americans from Texas. Jim Weatherall in 1950-51 and J.D. Roberts in 1953.
But Harris helped convince Wilkinson that the Sooners could make a regular foray south of the Red River and return with bounty.
From the early '50s on, the Sooners have been raiding Texas for ballplayers. That started wholesale with Wilkinson going after the likes of Harris and Tubbs and Ed Gray in 1953.
Harris told me back in 2009 that Wilkinson “was everything to me. I would do anything to keep his record and everything he's done out front.”
I'd say mission accomplished for the quarterback who never lost a game.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at