Perkins brought it up again—the LT words. Stories about bright young catchers inevitably mention Johnny Bench by the eighth or ninth paragraph. Every prolific scorer in junior hockey is somehow connected to Wayne Gretzky by age 17. Among linebackers, Taylor is the standard. Harris does something that Taylor turned into a kind of art in the mid-'80s. It's called pursuit. How many games has Taylor dramatically affected by catching, say, Philadelphia quarterback Randall Cunningham from behind? Harris has that same kind of impact. He also rushes the passer as well as any young player in the game, with the possible exception of Philadelphia defensive end Reggie White.
Harris lines up on either side of the field, and sometimes even over the center. He has exceptional speed for a linebacker, nifty moves around bulky linemen and a never-say-die attitude on every play. "Harris is football smart," says Frank Smouse, the assistant director of player personnel for the Cincinnati Bengals. "He lines up his path of pursuit the instant the play develops, and he just keeps coming."
The Packers like Harris's instincts so much that they frequently allow him to free-lance. Defensive plays are called by defensive coordinator Hank Bullough, and about a third of the time they include the words Tim Defense, which means Harris is free to line up where he likes. He usually positions himself as a stand-up defensive end; his job on these plays is to find the most direct route to the quarterback.
Understand that Harris isn't much of a student of the game, and he has always hated watching football—or any other sport—on TV. Harris and Barbara join several other Packers and their spouses on Monday nights for poker and
Monday Night Football
. "I'm always saying, 'Turn that thing off,' or 'Change the channel,' " says Harris. "To me, it's boring."
But Harris has loved playing football since he was 10. He can't explain how he knows where to go on the field at a particular moment; he just goes there. "I simply look for the best angle to the ball," he says. "Studying films can help, don't get me wrong. But you just have to know football."
And you have to love it to have the effect on a game that Harris often has. "I remember one play last year," says Bears center Jay Hilgenberg. "Harris lined up over me on a pass play, and we threw to [wide receiver] Dennis Gentry. I'm trying to hold on to Harris as Gentry gets the ball, but he gets away, runs 20 yards downfield and catches Gentry from behind. Then he gets up and starts screaming, 'I'm all over the place! You can't stop me! You can't catch me!' He's just having fun out there. I know a lot of guys on my team will get ticked off at me for saying this, but I have tremendous respect for him. He's a great player. People just don't know it yet."
According to Perkins, "The thing that separates real good players from great ones is their enjoyment of the game. When Taylor [whom Perkins coached while he was with the Giants in the early '80s] came out of a game, the thing you noticed was that he played every play like it was his last. Same thing with Bennett. Same thing with Harris."
"I've just always been taught to play with reckless abandon," says Harris. "One, if you're not going full speed, you can get hurt. Two, you never know when a ball can pop loose and you can be around it. Three, I never want any coach to say to me, "Tim, you slacked off on that play.' You tell me that once and you'll never have to tell me again. I just think there's only one way to play, and you have to play that way all the time."
Harris isn't sure where his energy comes from, but his mother, Marilla, has a theory. "I had to take strong vitamins when I was pregnant with Tim," she says. "I think that might have something to do with it."
Harris says when he was growing up in Birmingham, "I hated being inside, hated doing nothing. I'd come in when it got dark. My neighbors used to say, 'Look at Tim. He never gets tired.' I used to hate it in nursery school when we had to go down for our naps. I hated naps. I would listen to the older kids out playing and listen to the ticks on the clock, waiting for the end of nap time."