BY NEIL HAYES
Al Harris isn’t comfortable talking about defensive end Ray McDonald, the person. Harris, a former Bears defensive end, coached McDonald, who signed with the Bears last week, for two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers but is only comfortable discussing McDonald, the football player.
‘‘I left before Ray had all his alleged problems, so I don’t know him on a personal level outside of the field,’’ Harris said. ‘‘But I can say from a football perspective he’s going to bring some really good stability in the locker room — unless he has changed. If he’s the Ray I remember, he’s going to be a really good influence on those guys. If he does for them what he did for us in San Francisco, the Bears got a very good football player.’’
Harris served as the 49ers’ pass-rushing specialist under former coach Mike Singletary during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. It was during that stint that Harris realized he didn’t want to spend the rest of his professional life watching video in a dark room.
He moved back to north suburban Barrington and tried to put football behind him.
‘‘I’m in my late 50s, and I started thinking about my life and what I wanted to do going forward,’’ Harris said. ‘‘There’s a lot of commitment and moving around, and my son was in high school at the time. I just wanted to watch the last couple of years of his career and get football out of my system. It takes a lot of commitment to be a coach. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I cut the umbilical cord. I didn’t even go to the Bears’ facility for a year.’’
Although many of Harris’ former teammates are suffering from health issues related to their playing careers, Harris doesn’t worry about his son, Jason, a defensive lineman who signed with Illinois State. (His daughter, Emily, plays volleyball at San Diego State.)
‘‘Nowadays, compared to when we played, it’s so much safer,’’ Harris said. ‘‘There aren’t nearly as many practices, and they aren’t as physical. That’s where I got a lot of my dings or mini-concussions. Those get you more than anything. I remember having a lot of those in practice because Buddy Ryan and Mike Ditka had very physical practices in those days.
‘‘They’ve changed the way players hit. They have really taught kids not to lead with their head. I was taught to plant my facemask in somebody’s ear hole. It’s so much safer now than it has ever been. Compared to when I played, it’s night and day. My old helmets look like they’re from the Roaring ’20s compared to my son’s high school helmet. I have no qualms with having him play at all. I just wanted him to do it for him.’’
Even though he no longer sets his schedule around NFL games, Harris saw the Bears enough last season to be disgusted. In the past, even when the Bears were lousy, at least they hit people.
Harris said he thinks new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will create a physical unit that will make Bears fans proud.
McDonald, who was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence in August and investigated for sexual assault in December, is a piece to the puzzle.
‘‘What the Bears are getting [in McDonald] is a guy who is going to collapse the pocket, who is very smart in terms of understanding defensive football, someone who plays extremely hard, is dynamite against the run and is going to be a huge influence in the weight room,’’ Harris said. ‘‘That guy is big-time into the weight room.’’
Harris laughed when reminded of the day he and other Bears defenders waved punter Ray Guy onto the field during a 17-6 victory against the then-Los Angeles Raiders in 1984. The Bears had knocked quarterbacks Marc Wilson and David Humm out of the game. Guy, the emergency third quarterback, nervously was warming up when Harris invited him to the party. (Wilson eventually returned and finished the game.)
Unfortunately for Harris, he is perhaps best known for sitting out the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl season because of a contract dispute.
‘‘That was a lifetime ago,’’ he said. ‘‘If I was still mulling that, I would be in a crazy house. I’ve really let go of that part of my life.
‘‘The thing I look back at is I played 11 years in the National Football League. I was in the playoffs seven times. I had plenty of chances to go to a Super Bowl; that wasn’t my only shot. I played in the greatest league in world and met great people. I’m not sad; I’m very grateful.’’
Contact Neil Hayes firstname.lastname@example.org or at neilhayeswriter.com.