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HE'LL LEAVE 'EM LAUGHING : Dennis Harrah, Always Adept at Joking and Blocking, Is Going Out in Style

December 25, 1987|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

A football life has come full circle for Dennis Wayne Harrah, who will give up his position at right guard for the Rams at season's end.

Nearing the end of his 13th season, Harrah saw a perfect ending on Wednesday and grabbed it, announcing his retirement just hours after being named to his sixth Pro Bowl.

No one had to tell Harrah it was time to go. When he heard the Pro Bowl news, a surprise considering he has played sparingly this season, Harrah thought first of Tom Mack.

It was 10 years ago that Mack, the former All-Pro guard and Harrah's mentor, played his last game as a Ram.

It was in the 1978 Pro Bowl game at the Coliseum. It was Harrah's first Pro Bowl, Mack's 11th.

"They told the fans that it was Tom Mack's last ballgame and he was over on the sideline," Harrah said, recounting the story earlier this season. "I waved him back on the field. We were going in to score. He got a standing ovation, and I shook his hand. All the other players shook his hand. It felt good to be able to give back, because he nurtured me through a very trying time. . . .You can't understand it unless you were there. It was very, very emotional for Tom. You could not go out any better, playing your last game in the Pro Bowl, in your home stadium, and getting a standing ovation."

On Feb. 7, in Hawaii, Harrah will make his final Ram appearance in the Pro Bowl, and it will be difficult not to think of Tom Mack.

"I thought of the exact same thing," Harrah said Wednesday. "I'm going out of the game and I'm going out in Hawaii, and I'm thankful for that."

No one is pretending that the Rams will be the same without Harrah, who has successfully walked the line of leadership and levity for more than a decade.

"He's one of the funniest men I've ever been around in my life," said tackle Jackie Slater, a Harrah teammate for 12 years. "There's never a dull moment when you're around him. It means an awful lot. When things get tight and tough, and people have a tendency to clam up and get a tight jaw, you've got a guy like that who sees the bright end of things and keeps everyone loose. It's immeasurable the contribution he's made with his personality alone."

Center Doug Smith has played beside Harrah for 10 years and said you'd just as soon take a shot at Don Rickles than at Harrah.

"In West Virginia, where Dennis is from, everyone sits out on the porch and sees who can crack on the other person the most," Smith said. "He's got 30-something years of experience. It's kind of like going to the Laff-Stop or one of those places and taking on the comedian. You never heckle a comedian, they're professionals, you know, they'll rip you apart. Dennis is the same way. I give the rookies a hard time, the equipment men, the trainers, those kinds of guys."

But not Dennis Harrah.

And perhaps only at a Harrah retirement announcement can the laughs outnumber the tears. Harrah, deep down, knows he shouldn't have made the Pro Bowl this season. He's missed seven complete games because of the strike and injuries and has split time with Duval Love in three other games.

"It's hard to screw up on the sidelines," Harrah said, defending his nomination.

So how did Harrah get in?

"I called every player in the NFL and offered them two free dinners at Legends."

Pro Bowl selections are made by NFL players, which is at least a tribute to Harrah's popularity and longevity.

"There's definitely a little bit of popularity that goes into the voting deal," Harrah said. "But I'd rather have people think about me what they have than what they think about, say, Mark Gastineau. Any man that shaves his chest . . . . I just feel fortunate that they don't think I'm a puke like Mark Gastineau."

And so it goes with Harrah, who plans to move his wife, Teresa, and young son, Tanner Calvin, back home to West Virginia after the season. Harrah has sold his house in Orange County and his interest in Legends, a popular sports bar in Long Beach.

"We're moving right outside of Charleston," he said. "My wife's from Fountain Valley, so she's very excited about West Virginia. . . . Well, she's getting more excited all the time. I want to work with kids somewhere, maybe run a sports wilderness camp for under-privileged kids.

"I'm not real sure what I'm going to do. I just bought a new motor home, and I'm going to travel all over the United States until my wife gets sick of me. I figure that ought to be 10 miles outside of Fresno, at which time I'll be calling John Robinson back and asking him if he wants a crippled guard."

Harrah says his decision to retire was not a difficult one. He'll be 35 in March, though his back probably feels twice as old. "My back's telling me I've had enough and that's fine," Harrah said. "I can accept that. The decision is made."

Ram Coach John Robinson said every NFL team should have a Harrah, a player who takes pride in his work but doesn't mind poking fun at the same time. Harrah, he said, can command a laugh and respect in the same sentence.

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