No doubt you've heard stories of late bloomers who beat the odds to become your basic All-American household names. You know the scenario: Scrawny kid gets cut from the high school varsity, matures as a collegian, pros take a chance on him and Sports Illustrated writes the rest.
This isn't one of those stories.
Sure, Gil Harris daydreams like everybody else, but from where he's standing, it's difficult to get carried away.
Where he's standing is on a bumpy field at Rancho Alamitos High School, which is probably just the sort of place you'd expect to stumble across a semipro football team holding practice. It's not much, but it's the highest level of football Harris expects to reach.
Joggers circle the track, dreaming of winning the Boston Marathon or losing 25 pounds. Kids riding bicycles dart between them. Three men bat a racquetball around with their bare hands. Almost all seem oblivious to the gathering of 45 large men--well, it will be 45 after a few late arrivals hustle over from their day jobs.
"Who are those guys?" asks a man sitting on the grass where the sideline would be if the field were chalked off.
They are the Orange Coast Dolphins, a member of the nine-team Southern California Football League, the man is told. Mostly, they are former high school and college players struggling to keep a dream alive. They do this three times a week, preparing for opening day Aug. 11, when the Dolphins will play the Bellflower Bears.
Harris, 31, has a better lot than most.
He's the star player. And the defensive backs coach. And the head coach. And the team owner. And the marketing and public relations director. And the chief scout. And if they had a team bus, he'd probably drive that, too.
He also has at least one eccentric idea.
"I have no ambition to be a pro football player," he said.
So just what the heck is he doing with the rest of the dreamers? "Having fun" seems to be the answer.
"Every year I keep saying, 'One more year and that's it, I'll quit,' " Harris said.
But he keeps enjoying it, so he keeps playing. Coaching and ownership, now that's something new for him. He's hoping the experience will lead to something bigger and better, but he's not counting on it.
An owner/coach/player from a semipro team stepping out of the bush leagues and into upper management in the NFL? Nah, it's not going to happen. Harris has to be realistic. One of these days, he will have to find a real job.
He was a pre-med major at Whitworth College, a school in Spokane, Wash., that is a member of the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics. Harris worked for five years as a stockbroker. And he has spent the past few months as a bit actor in Hollywood.
So, it's not as if he hasn't tried something else. But he keeps returning to the football field.
He's a talented player, a defensive back who led the Dolphins with 40 solo tackles--including 13 in one game--last season. He's a good coach, a leader by example who guided the Dolphins to a 12-1-1 record. And as an owner? Well, the Dolphins didn't lose that much money. Promoting minor league football in a big league market is a tough sell, but this year, he's hoping to break even.
It figures to be about the loftiest goal possible, right?
"About the biggest pipe dream we have . . . ," Harris started to say. "If the WLAF (World League of American Football, which completed its first season this month) is going to expand, we'd hope they'd look at Orange County."
It's so far-fetched that it sounds as if Harris doesn't believe it himself.
But who knows? Chances that he'd still be playing football at the ripe old age of 31 seemed remote when he turned out for his first varsity practice at Edison High.
"In high school, he was a pretty good player," said former Edison Coach Bill Workman, now at Orange Coast College. "He got on the field and got dirty. He was very thin and underdeveloped, which kept him from being a star."
Harris was a frail-looking, 6-foot-2, 165-pound defensive back as a senior. If you grew up in Harris' Huntington Beach neighborhood in the mid-1970s, you dreamed of playing football at Edison; no matter if your arms and legs resembled pipe cleaners.
So Harris played a passionate, if not powerful, brand of football on the 1977 Charger team.
"A lot of guys are not men when they graduate from high school," Workman said. "By the time they're 19 or 20, they've become men. They shave and everything. As I remember him, Harris was not a shaver."
Harris grew up quickly at Golden West College, where he was a dependable player for Coach Ray Shackleford.
"He was just a good, intelligent guy who was pretty realistic," Shackleford said. "He had both feet on the ground. He knew what level of football he'd be playing.
"Some guys are always dreaming. There's nothing wrong with that. You should always have something higher to aspire to, but I think realism is a big part of life, too."
Don't be misled. Harris had higher aspirations. He wanted to be a doctor first and a football player second, so he joined a number of former Edison and Golden West players at Whitworth (enrollment 1,800).
He was a reliable force in the Pirate defense. But Whitworth proved to be too far off the beaten track for NFL scouts.
After graduating, Harris was adrift. It took two years, but he found a team that wanted him--the Orange County Rhinos semipro team.
But after five seasons, Harris wanted a bigger piece of the action. He wanted his own team, run his way.
"I was the new kid on the block (with the Rhinos)," Harris said. "I was only 28 years old, so I bit my tongue."
Last year he joined with three others to start the Southern California Football League.
"We decided to start a new league with some of our fresh ideas," he said. "It was interesting. The Dolphins were an unknown commodity."
Heading into the second season, most Orange County football fans probably still consider the Dolphins a bunch of unknowns.
It cost about $18,000 to get the team off the ground, Harris said. Sponsorship paid most of the bills for equipment and rental at Glover Stadium--"By far the jewel of the league," Harris said.
Players are not paid by the team but instead pay the team a small fee to play. Moreover, they are often asked to help solicit sponsorship. This is football on a shoestring budget.
"We're not trying to get ahead of ourselves here," Harris said. "We just want a nice place for these guys to play."
Fair enough, but doesn't Harris secretly crave a crack at the big time? Wouldn't he just love a chance to suit up and bonk heads for an NFL club?
"I know better," he said. "I'm a good player for this level. It would be an honor to go against those guys. But I'm not looking for a Roy Hobbs story here. I'm realistic."