Tom Harmon transcends the overused term “football hero.” He was a hero in most every sense of the word. Seventy years after he last performed as a single-wing tailback for the University of Michigan, “Old 98” is still remembered as perhaps the most talented player in Wolverines history, a true triple threat on offense and a standout on defense. He was also the punter and the place-kicker. He probably would have taped ankles and passed out the orange slices at halftime had he been asked.
“Tom Harmon does more things than Red Grange,” Hall of Fame coach Amos Alonzo Stagg once observed. “He’s my halfback.”
Harmon grew up in Gary, Ind., and enrolled at Michigan after winning 14 letters in football, basketball and track at Horace Mann High School. At 6 feet and 195 pounds, he had good size for a 1930s running back, and he complemented his power with blazing speed and nifty open-field moves.
Harmon began establishing his triple-threat bona fides as a Wolverines sophomore, running for 398 yards on 77 carries (a 5.2-yard average) and completing 21 of 45 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns. As a junior he ran for 884 yards and 13 touchdowns and passed for 538 yards and six scores, leading the nation with 102 points and making first-team All-America.
Having already graced the cover of Time Magazine, “Harmon of Michigan” was clearly a marked man in his senior year. All he did was exceed expectations, running for 852 yards and 14 touchdowns and repeating as the national scoring leader with 117 points. He won the Heisman Trophy and the Maxwell and Walter Camp awards as the country’s outstanding player, as well as the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as Big Ten MVP.
The season opener, a 41-0 victory over Cal, was a sneak preview: Harmon brought the opening kickoff back 94 yards for a touchdown. He went 86 yards for a touchdown on his first carry, and later scored on runs of 70 and 65 yards. Future President John F. Kennedy happened to be a spectator at Cal’s Memorial Stadium that day, and he would later recall Harmon’s performance as one of his favorite sports experiences.
One inebriated Cal fan had a different impression. Frustrated by the Bears’ inability to tackle Harmon, one Harold Brennan burst from the stands and tried to do the job himself on Harmon’s final touchdown. He wound up face down in turf in the Cal end zone … and in police custody.
The Wolverines’ season finale at Ohio State was a microcosm of Harmon’s career … and of how he was received. He ran for two touchdowns, passed for two and returned one of his three interceptions for a fifth score. He kicked four PATs and averaged 50 yards on three punts. As he trotted off the field with 38 seconds remaining in Michigan’s 40-0 victory, Ohio State fans gave him a lengthy standing ovation. Somewhere in Ohio, 27-year-old Wayne Woodrow Hayes was said to be outraged.
The Chicago Bears took Harmon with their first-round pick in the 1941 college draft, but he bypassed the NFL for military service. Enlisting in the Army Air Corps, Harmon became a fighter pilot and made a life-altering transition from football hero to war hero.
In 1943, he survived four days in the South American jungle after ejecting from his plane in a tropical storm. Later that year, after blasting two enemy planes out of the sky in a dogfight over Japanese-occupied China, a badly injured Harmon bailed out of his severely damaged plane and spent 34 days working his way back to Allied lines. He was awarded the Silver Star and a Purple Heart, and his bravery was acknowledged throughout the nation.
After the war, Harmon accepted an offer to play pro football with the Los Angeles Rams. He retained some of his memorable open-field moves, reeling off one 84-yard TD run, scoring on 88-yard punt return and averaging 19.2 yards on 15 pass receptions. But his war injuries continued to affect his legs and limited him to two NFL seasons.
Harmon already had a second career as a broadcaster under way, and he would take to the broadcast booth as effortlessly as he did the football field. As one of the first athletes to make the transition, he distinguished himself as an insightful, knowledgeable and fair commentator over many years on radio and television.
After marrying actress Elyse Knox, Harmon became the patriarch of a noted entertainment family. Son Mark, after a standout career as a UCLA quarterback, is a leading-man television actor, married to actress Pam Dawber. Daughter Kristin married actor/singer Ricky Nelson, of “Ozzie and Harriet” fame; their twin sons Gunnar and Matthew formed the singing group Nelson, and daughter Tracy is an accomplished actress.
Tom Harmon was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954 and became a charter member of Michigan’s Hall of Honor in 1978. He was 70 when he died of a heart attack in 1990.
“He takes an era with him … he radiated dignity and reserve,” the Los Angeles Times noted in its obituary.
Said the New York Times: “He was a man for his times—all of them.”