Skip to main content

Sudden change in a snap

Clark Harris

Clark Harris grew up on the Jersey Shore so he doesn't call it "The Jersey Shore." The natives simply call it "The Beach," but it's not so simple anymore.

"A lot of it is eroded," says Harris, the Bengals long snapper who has avoided disasters, man-made or otherwise, in his 471 Bengals flings. "Those dunes that are six, eight, 12 feet high to protect the houses, they're gone. All that sand is on the main boulevard and now when you look across the street you can see from the bay to the ocean. You could never do that.

"Yeah. From the bay to the ocean."

The SuperStorm called "Sandy" has ironically shifted or obliterated so much sand that the New Jersey governor says The Shore is changed forever. One half of The Jersey Boys are headed here this weekend when the Giants emerge from East Rutherford for Sunday's 1 p.m. game against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium and Harris figures the Super Bowl champs could use the trip.

"I can imagine with all the things they're dealing with right now, they're looking forward to coming out west," he says. "I mean, I haven't been back since the storm hit, but seeing the pictures and videos, the only time I've seen anything like that is on the news in tornados or hurricanes out west or down south."

Harris's home in Manahawkin, a 1950s beach house that used to be his grandmother's, sits two blocks from where he grew up with his parents. About a mile from Manahawkin Bay, five miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and 30 minutes north from the center of Sandy's wrath.

It took 18 inches of water that wiped out all the furniture downstairs, but that's a gift because Harris figured it would be down or he'd have to tear it down.

His boyhood home that is so close had nearly twice as much water and damage, and at this moment his parents are rummaging through wreckage that claimed all their appliances, 75 percent of their furniture, and 10 percent of their clothes. Mother Bonnie, doing the work in a Bengals T-shirt, had been directing cleanup since their living room furniture was found floating in the bathroom.

And yet Jim Hutchinson knows they're the lucky ones.

"I've got a friend on Cedar Bonnet (Island)," Hutchinson says of the enclave just down the road. "His house survived the wind and the rain. But a 28-foot cabin cruiser got loose from its moorings and smashed his house in two. You go every couple of houses and there are boats in the yards. On our street there is debris everywhere. It looks like a war zone with tractors clearing what they can."

Harris couldn't stay long enough to get everything he and wife Jessica wanted out of the first floor out of their house. The bye came at the perfect time two weekends ago, a day before the storm. But the Harrises had their flight back to Dayton, Ohio canceled, and Clark made the quick, no-brainer business decision to drive back so he wouldn't miss practice the next day. He urged Jessica to take their four-month-old daughter and stay with her family and take a post-storm flight back but she didn't want the young family to be separated.

"We didn't have time to get a lot done at the house because we had to get in the car," Harris says. "We did get the TV up to the second floor. We lost pretty much all our furniture. A bed. A couple of dressers. A couple of old TV stands. It's all old stuff, really. We were going to tear it down and rebuild. It was really only built for the summer. So now I guess it's going to be sooner rather than later.

"It hasn't really hit me yet, I guess. We've only seen pictures and videos. A lot of the stuff has been on Facebook. We're going to get back next week. My wife is getting antsy about getting the stuff out of the house. Until then, we have to wait until I can get back."

Lucky. The Harrises know that as they hear all the stories. They just have to listen to Clark's parents. Hutchinson, his stepdad, figures he and Bonnie won't be back in their house until maybe the spring.

"Right now we're staying in a house that a friend of ours put up for sale," Hutchinson says. "An old sea captain's house about five miles from here. We don't have any power or Internet. A tractor and a bunch of cleanup crews just came today and took away the pile of debris in front of our house.

"It was a wall about eight feet long and 30, 40 feet high. You start throwing out things and you just don't realize how much stuff you have."

But there's no doubt they're staying and rebuilding if need be. They may be on the big, cold east coast, but this is one of those small-town, anywhere America stories. Except for going to college in Pennsylvania at Susquehanna University and briefly coaching and teaching near there after he got out, Hutchinson has lived his entire life in Manahawkin.

"When I was away at college in 1962, there was a storm that caused similar damage," Hutchinson says. "But it came back. The people in New Jersey are resilient and tough. The Shore is going to come back now, too."

His son is staying, too. Harris never left and he had plenty of chances coming out of tiny Southern Regional High School, where Hutchinson coached any team that had a ball for 40 years or so and where he finished as athletic director as Harris was finishing a letter jacket career.

"I was recruited. Not heavily, but recruited," Harris says. "Rutgers. Syracuse. I actually went to a camp at Auburn and someone remembered because they called, too. It came down to Syracuse and Rutgers. Syracuse was a five, six, seven-hour drive. Rutgers was only an hour and a half away."

Yes, Harris is a Jersey guy. He was three-time All Big East while staying close to home at Rutgers. Manahawkin is a hard place to leave. It's quietly known as the gateway to resort communities on Long Beach Island, where Route 72 is the only road headed to the lovely named Ship Bottoms across the bay. Maybe there's 5,000 people there during the offseason and maybe as many as 150,000 during the summer.

The Beach.

"Yes," Hutchinson says. "They'll be back."

Harris could have been like one of his former Rutgers teammates, Bengals running back Brian Leonard, and gone high rise in Hoboken, N.J. Or he could still have a place in Houston, his last of three NFL stops before he got to Cincinnati early in the 2009 season. But it was never a thought. Why not the nice little beach house two blocks from his house?

"I love it; it's a great place to be," Harris says. "I love anything on the water. I remember when I was nine or 10 I spent every day of the summer on Long Beach Island. From 9 to 5. It's got everything. The ocean. Woods to camp in. Cities. Philly is an hour west. New York is an hour north."

Harris grew up fishing for stripers in the bay with Hutchinson, a rite of summer they still perform.

"It's not like northern New Jersey," Hutchinson says. "Yeah, you could say it's a lot like New England. There's fishing, boating. The people are friendly."

Close enough to Philly that Hutchinson has had season tickets to the Eagles for about 40 years and he calls them "the Egg-les," as well as anybody in North Philly.

The Giants?

Let's just say Hutchinson has double the reason to root for the Bengals this Sunday. But and he and Giants fans have a lot in common. In the middle of all the destruction last Sunday, Jim and Bonnie found a sports bar while the fans filled Met Life in northern Jersey to watch the Steelers beat the Giants, Sandy be dammed.

"We found a place to watch the Bengals game," he says, "and we were both wearing our Clark Harris jerseys."

Hutchinson has been watching his son since he tried out for a team when he was seven, they put him at guard, he hated it and he quit. He picked it up again when he got to Southern Regional, where Hutchinson had seen every guy come through since 1956.

By then he was the school's athletic director and while the coaches found out Clark could play virtually anything (linebacker, defensive end, wide receiver, tight end), Hutchinson went to the coach and suggested long snapper, too.

"Clark could always throw a ball. He could throw it 70 yards, so I figured that snapping was something he could do. He got recruited as a defensive player by Auburn, so he was a guy that was really talented coming out," Hutchinson says.

Harris is the first guy form The Bay to make the NFL. And the only other athlete to make it from the small town on The Shore was old Doc Cramer. Cramer roamed centerfield in the American League for 20 years with four clubs, most notably the Philadelphia A's and the Red Sox, and had three 200-hit seasons in the '30s.

Hutchinson actually remembers Cramer hanging around some of the games when Hutchinson was playing in a men's senior baseball league.

"I talked to him a few times. Every so often there's a movement to get him into the Hall of Fame, but I guess he was just a singles hitter," Hutchinson says.

His kid has a nice long hitting streak. Harris rescued the Bengals during a snap meltdown in '09 just in time to help them win the AFC North and he hasn't missed since. Harris knows it's bad when the media heads to his locker. There's either been a bad snap or a natural disaster.

So far they've only come around for a hurricane.

"Practice," he says among the reasons for his success. "And I guess I've got a gift."

Harris gets to show it against the hometown Giants this week, a team he never saw growing up. He went to one or two Eagles games a year.

"But Giants-Eagles was always the big ticket," Harris says.

"My buddies and I always went to see them play the Giants," Hutchinson says.

Jim and Bonnie will pull out the Harris jerseys again this Sunday to root against the Giants yet again while the other Harris jersey is safe and sound.

"My wife made sure all the memorabilia made it upstairs," Hutchinson says. "The most valuable thing is probably Clark's framed No. 81 Rutgers jersey."

Hutchinson was glad to get the call the other night. No TV. No Internet. Cleaning. But he had a radio.

"Probably going to listen to the Eggles game," Hutchinson says.

Football is alive on The Beach.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.