Jim Hutchinson has been a Philadelphia Eagles season-ticket holder for more than 40 years. He has booed and cheered his favorite team from the stands of Franklin Field, Veterans Stadium and now Lincoln Financial Field.
But tonight, for the first time since buying his tickets in 1971, the 69-year-old Barnegat native will leave his green Eagles jersey at home. Instead, Hutchinson and his wife, Bonnie, will be wearing black-and-orange No. 46 Cincinnati Bengals shirts.
They will be supporting Bengals long-snapper Clark Harris, one of only two locals playing in the NFL, who also happens to be Jim’s stepson and Bonnie’s son.
“I think I’ll be OK as long as I’m not blatant or obnoxious about it,” said Hutchinson, who sits in the more-civilized upper level of the Linc. “I have to wear it. Family comes first.”
Harris, a Southern Regional High School and Rutgers University graduate, is in his fourth season with the Bengals, but this is the first time he’ll be playing in Philadelphia as a professional.
The Bengals play in Philadelphia at 8:20 p.m. today. Longport’s Jack Crawford, a backup defensive end for the Oakland Raiders, is the only other local playing in the NFL Long-snapping is an often-overlooked job, but an important one. The 28-year-old Harris is making $1.26 million this season as the person who hikes the ball for the Bengals on extra points, field goals and punts.
He is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the season and is expected to return to the Bengals for a fifth season. If not, he should have little trouble hooking on with another team.
Usually when a team finds a good, reliable long snapper, they don’t like to let him leave. For example, Eagles long-snapper Jon Dorenbos is in his seventh season with the team.
“For some reason,” Harris said, “I’ve always been pretty good at throwing a football between my legs.”
Didn’t always like football
Harris learned the skill from Hutchinson, who was a center and long snapper at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., after graduating from Southern in 1961.
Although Harris played center and linebacker at Southern, he had one of the strongest arms on the team.
“Having a strong arm really helps,” Hutchinson said. “And Clark can throw a football 60 or 70 yards.”
Harris didn’t take to it right away, however. In fact, he didn’t really like football all that much until he got to high school.
Prior to joining the Rams, his experience with organized football consisted of one season with Stafford Township’s pee-wee program. He played when he was 7 years old and hated it.
“Clark was always a big football fan,” Bonnie said with a laugh. “He loved the Miami Dolphins and always talked about playing for the University of Miami. One day I said to him, ‘Clark if you want to go to Miami and make the NFL, don’t you think you should play football first?’ “
Clark first caught the eye of Southern coach Chuck Donohue before he ever got to high school.
One day when Harris was in eighth grade, Donohue had come by the house in the Beach Haven West section of Stafford Township. He was going fishing with Hutchinson and their friend Dana Bible, who was the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive coordinator in 1998 and is now the interim head coach at North Carolina State University.
When they got back from the trip, they spotted some boys fighting on a corner.
“Clark will never admit it, but he was involved in the fight,” Hutchinson said with a laugh. “Chuck and Dana went over to break it up. Chuck got a look at Clark — he was 6-foot-2 in eighth grade — and said, ‘I can see where he might be a pretty good football player.’ “
Harris turned out to be good enough to earn a scholarship to Rutgers. He was a standout tight end for the Scarlet Knights, catching 143 passes for 2,015 yards and 11 touchdowns from 2003-06 and was drafted by Green Bay in the seventh round in 2007.
Long snapping was just a side job at that point. It became his specialty once the Packers released him and he began seeking tryouts with other teams.
The next two years featured almost weekly auditions. He finished the 2007 season on Detroit’s practice squad, then had two stints with Houston in 2008. He made his NFL debut for the Texans on Dec. 7, 2008 and earned a game ball after snapping for the winning field goal against his old team, the Packers. The Texans released him in October 2009.
“Clark must have had tryouts with 10 or 12 teams,” Bonnie said. “He worked out for Cleveland, Denver, Jacksonville and some others. It seemed like we were taking him to the airport every Monday and picking him up every Tuesday. He was actually sitting in Jacksonville’s airport when Detroit called to say they were going to sign him.”
“Clark worked very hard to get where he is now,” Hutchinson added. “There was a lot of disappointment, but his strength and passion for the game helped him make it.”
Harris finally found an NFL home with the Bengals after the Texans released him in 2009.
“At first it was kind of hard to stop playing tight end,” Harris said in a phone interview from Cincinnati. “But my first NFL experience was as a long snapper and so I kind of got tagged as one. But I don’t mind it now. Now I’m an NFL long snapper and I love it.”
Still returns home
Harris hasn’t forgotten his roots. A year and a half ago, he bought his grandmother’s house, which is less than two blocks away from his boyhood home.
He was in the process of renovating the home when Hurricane Sandy hit at the end of October, causing extensive damage to his home and the Hutchinson’s.
“We had about 3 feet of water in our house and we lost everything on the first floor,” Bonnie said. “Our refrigerator, stove, heating system, washer and dryer, furniture are all gone. But we were able to save our clothes and family valuables.”
The electricity in their home just came back on last Friday, but they will not be able to move back in until at least the spring. Right now, they are staying in an old sea captain’s cottage in Jim’s hometown of Barnegat that’s owned by one of his friends.
Harris’ home got more than two feet of water, which ruined the refrigerator he had purchased just days before the storm.
“Clark bought the refrigerator on a Saturday and it was gone by Monday,” Bonnie said. “We knew a hurricane was coming, but we thought Clark’s house would be OK. His grandmother (Virginia Maiorano) had bought it 47 years ago and they never even had a drop of water on that property.”
Harris was able to get back to Manahawkin for a couple of days after the Bengals played the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on Nov. 11. He spent about 25 total hours cleaning out debris. Because the Bengals have the weekend off after tonight’s game, he’s hoping to go home instead of flying back to Cincinnati and do more cleaning and clearing.
Eventually, it will serve as the permanent home for Clark, his wife, April, and their 5-month-old son, Trent.
“We were eventually going to rip it down and build a new house anyway, but I was hoping to save a little more money first,” Harris said. “Sandy ripped it down for me.
“We were pretty upset at first, but I realized there’s nothing I could do about it. There’s no sense worrying about things you can’t control. I’ll worry about that stuff later. Right now, I’m focused on football.”
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