Reggie Harrison found football fame as both a collegiate and a professional NFL running back. But he found his true love for the game as a high school standout at Washington-Lee in Arlington.
Harrison, part of the Super Steelers teams of the 1970's, grew up on North Cameron St. in north Arlington. He loved his times as an athlete at W-L, where he excelled in both football and track and field. He also loved both the community and school system in which he grew up.
"I've seen school systems all over the country [through personal] speaking engagements," said Harrison, a 1969 W-L graduate. "I've never seen a better school system than Arlington County. I'm really proud [to have been] a part of that."
Harrison, who is now known as Kamal Ali Salaam-El after converting to Islam, currently resides with his family in Woodbridge. On his third marriage, the former University of Cincinnati football player is dealing with several health issues, including memory problems, high blood pressure, and diabetes. He has plans to attend a memory recovery program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the next several weeks.
Harrison said he always loved football, but that some of that heart-felt passion for the sport was dampened in both college and the NFL.
"At Cincinnati [in college] football became a business and not a game," he said. "In college and pro [it was that way]. When football becomes a business, it's not such fun."
What Harrison especially loved about his prep school years at W-L were the mentors who taught him about excelling as both an athlete and in the classroom, as well as becoming a solid individual.
SUCH ONE-TIME members of the W-L administrative family as John Youngblood (athletic director and football coach), Del Norwood (baseball), Ellis Wisler (Harrison's high school football coach), and physical education instructors Dick Mitchell (Harrison's junior high football coach) and Roger Coggins (tennis coach) were some of the school's staff members who had a profound effect on Harrison, an African-American who said his mentors taught him that the skin color of an individual should not matter.
"Every black football player from Halls Hill [in north Arlington] wanted to play for John Youngblood," said Harrison, of the renowned coach who had led the Generals to football greatness before stepping down and acting exclusively as the W-L's athletic director by the time Harrison was in high school. "He was a coach of athletes and looked after everybody. I was very proud to be a part [of the lives] of people like John Youngblood, Del Norwood, Dick Mitchell, and Roger Coggins. I was lucky and blessed. These were integrating times and [there were] problems finding folks who gave a darn about [what it was like] being a black athlete. Those coaches cared about athletes, not color."
One of the greatest days an athlete ever had in Arlington came in Harrison's senior year when he scored six touchdowns for the Generals in a 46-6 Thanksgiving Day win over George Washington. That capped a senior season in which Harrison scored 22 touchdowns to lead the region. Later that school year, Harrison broke the Virginia state shot put record — marking the first time a high school athlete had ever broken 60-feet. He was not certain, but believes that track feat took place at William & Mary.
"He was a stud of an athlete," said Doug Adams, the current athletic director of St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School in Alexandria and a 1968 W-L grad. "[His personality] was very quiet. [Breaking the state shot put mark] was incredible. Nobody had [broken 60] before."
Former Yorktown High star quarterback Bill Carter (Yorktown, Class of '69) played against Harrison in both junior high and high school. Harrison attended Stratford Junior High while Carter went to Williamsburg Elementary.
"His combination of speed and strength was pretty amazing," recalled Carter. "He was so strong and also one of the fastest guys. He was just an incredible player. Reggie, in our era, was like a Jim Brown."
IN COLLEGE, Harrison had a good football career. For his career, he rushed for 2,197 yards, eighth best ever at Cincinnati, and 25 TDs (3rd best in school history). In 1972, he led the Bearcats with 11 rushing TDs.
The St. Louis Cardinals chose Harrison in the 9th round of the 1974 NFL draft. But the 5-foot-11, 218-pound running back/special teams player would spend most of his four-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Over the course of his career on coach Chuck Noll's Steelers teams, Harrison was a backup running back to such players as Franco Harris, one of the game's greatest backs; Rocky Bleier; and Frenchy Fuqua. In 1975 he played in 14 games and rushed for 191 yards and three TDs for the season. The following year, Harrison carried the ball 54 times for 235 yards and a TD. In a Steelers 40-14 playoff win that season over the old Baltimore Colts, Harrison ran for a pair of touchdowns.
While Harrison, who wore No. 46 for the black and gold, did not get many ball carries during his career in a Steelers uniform, he excelled as a special teams player and is considered one of the unsung heroes of those great Pittsburgh teams.
The play Harrison will always be remembered for — a special teams play — came in Super Bowl X when the Steelers defeated Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys, 21-17, at the Orange Bowl in Miami on Jan. 18, 1976. With the Steelers trailing 10-7 early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were pinned back in their own territory and ready to punt. Harrison, lined up to rush, broke through the middle of the line and squarely blocked Dallas punter Mitch Hoopes's punt. The ball bounced out of the end zone for a two-point safety and the Steelers were within 10-9. The momentum had swung, and Pittsburgh scored on its next two possessions to take control of the game.
In NFL Films' Super Bowl X highlights, the narrator, in a dramatic voice over, says of the play, "Chuck Noll called for an uncommon all-out rush with 10 men on the line. Reggie Harrison's kama-kazie charge blocked the ball and sent it out of the end zone for a safety. Mitch Hoopes never knew what hit him. As so often happened in pro football, a pivotal play was made by the special teams."
BOB LABRIOLA, in a Jan. 31, 2006 Steelers.com article titled, `All Super Bowls Have Unsung Heroes,' wrote, "With playing time so limited on offense, Harrison set his focus on special teams. And he was pretty good at it. ...Harrison would wait for the biggest game of his career to make the biggest special teams play of his life."
Harrison received lots of credit over the years for that game-changing blocked punt in the Super Bowl, but he said teammate Dave Brown, who was lined up next to Harrison, paved the way for him to get through and make the big play.
"Dave Brown went to the outside shoulder [of the Dallas lineman]," said Harrison. "I had a clear opening to the ball. I give him the credit. After I got by the up back and ran him over, I had a clear shot to the ball. [Hoopes'] foot hit me on the bottom of the chin which split my tongue wide open."
Harrison is proud to have been part of the Steelers dynasty.
"I was one of 47 guys who were great athletes," he said. "We gave our all and had a great coach."
Today, Harrison has numerous step children and is a grandfather. He treasures the times he can watch his grandson play youth football in Arlington.
"I'm so proud of him," he said. "That's when I spend my time watching football."
Reggie Harrison is 24 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.