Wednesday, September 04, 2013

History lesson 98: the greatest Wolverine of them all

Students, it’s time for a history lesson concerning University of Michigan football and the greatest player EVER to wear the uniform and winged helmet.
His name is Thomas Dudley (Tom) Harmon in the 134 years of UM gridiron existence, no one has topped his accomplishments and his stature among the greats in the collegiate game. This Saturday evening, prior to the encounter with Notre Dame, the school will honor Harmon and his retired “98” jersey with the Michigan Football Legend designation; part of the tributes already extended to other UM greats (Ron Kramer, Bennie Oosterbaan, Desmond Howard, the three Wistert brothers and Gerald Ford).
 Aside from wondering which current player will have that number bestowed into his care (and others for the foreseeable future), some in the crowds will ask two questions: Will Mark Harmon (his son and “NCIS” star) be there and will Harmon’s twin grandsons, the 80s rock group Nelson, sing the National Anthem?
Because Tom Harmon played in the pre-World War II-era, only a dwindling minority in the stands will know the extent of his exploits – on the football field, during the war and later in his life. Hence, a history lesson is required … so pay attention (we will DEFINITELY test afterwards).
Harmon was born on Sept. 28, 1919, in Rensselaer, Ind. When he was 5, his family moved to Gary, Ind., where young Tom became a standout athlete for Horace Mann High School – earning 14 varsity letters in three sports (football, basketball, track). Harmon earned All-State honors twice as a quarterback and won state track titles in the 100-yard dash and 200-yard low hurdles.
He was recruited to Michigan by Head Coach Fritz Crisler and played three seasons (1938-40), setting most of the offensive records in school history. Playing out of the single-wing formation, he rushed for 2,134 career yards, completed 100 passes for 1,304 yards and 16 touchdowns.
In all, including his duties as a placekicker, Harmon scored 237 points. He led the entire nation in scoring for the 1939 and 1940 seasons – something yet to be matched or surpassed to this day. His 9.9 points per game average was an NCAA record for a decade. 
For most men, that would suffice, but Harmon was a real ironman on the field, playing in the defensive backfield. In fact, in eight games, Harmon played all 60 minutes of action.
His final game in a Michigan uniform came at Ohio State as he led the Wolverines to a 40-4 rout of the Buckeyes. Harmon rushed for three touchdowns, threw for two additional six-pointers and booted four extra points. He punted three times for a 50-yard average and, to boot, picked off three OSU passes on defense.
To add to the Harmon legend, in a rarely seen display of admiration towards a Michigan athlete in Columbus, the Ohio State fans delivered a standing ovation when the game concluded in appreciation of Harmon’s talent and ability. It hadn’t happened before … or since.
For his accomplishments in the 1940 season, Harmon won the school’s first Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top player, as well as the Maxwell Trophy. As a junior and senior, he was named All-American.
Oh yeah, Harmon also played varsity basketball for two seasons.
After graduation, Harmon was drafted (in 1941) by the Chicago Bears with the first selection in that proceeding, but he chose to go to the rival American Football League to play for the New York Americans.
With the country on the verge of involvement in World War II, Harmon enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a pilot on Nov. 8, 1941. Then in early-1943, he was forced to parachute out of his aircraft when it flew into a tropical storm over South America and into dense, thick jungle.
None of his co-passengers made it out alive and for four days, he was the subject of a huge regional search-and-rescue operation … until he reached a clearing somewhere in Dutch Guiana.
Later in 1943, having transferred to single-seat fighter planes, Harmon was flying an escort mission for a flight of bombers when his P-38 was shot down during an aerial dogfight. Again, he was forced to bail out, this time over Japanese-occupied China. Fortunately, he was rescued by soldiers of the Chinese guerillas, fighting the Japanese occupying their country.
For his actions with the 449th Fighter Squadron, Harmon was awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star.
Harmon saved that silk parachute, and in something of a unique chapter to his wedding to model-actress Elyce Knox in 1944, much of that material was employed in the construction of her wedding dress.
Upon his discharge, the Harmons settled in California and they had three children – Kristin (born in 1945), Kelly (in 1948) and Mark (in 1951).
The eldest Harmon daughter eventually married Ricky Nelson, one of the most famous singers-celebrities in Hollywood. Their offspring were actress Tracy Nelson (“Father Dowling’s Mysteries”) and the twins Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, who became the aforementioned group, Nelson.
And most people know of Mark Harmon’s acting success and his marriage to fellow actor Pam Dawber – an alum of North Farmington (Mich.) High School, where I graduated (she was in the Class of 1969; I was in the Class of 1970).
Mark Harmon also made his mark in college football, quarterbacking UCLA for two seasons and was a standout player except for one September Saturday in 1972 when Michigan entered the Rose Bowl and beat the Bruins 26-9 in a contest not nearly as close as the scoreboard indicated.
While at Michigan, Harmon majored in English and speech, with an eye towards a future as a sports broadcaster. After the war, he tried to play pro football with the Los Angeles Rams (1946-47). But the injuries suffered in the war, notably to his legs, robbed him of his speed, grace and running ability.
But his pre-planning at Michigan left him in good standing to move behind the microphone (one of the first athletes to do so) for radio and television. In fact, he briefly worked as an actor and played one character very familiar to him – in the biopic “Harmon of Michigan.” He also made cameo appearances in other movies, mostly as himself involved in play-by-play scenes.
Harmon was also the celebrity endorser for Kellogg’s Product 19 cereal.
A nationwide audience heard Harmon over the ABC and American Information Networks during his daily 10-minute sports wrapup broadcasts. And in the early 1980s, he served as the pre-season play-by-play man for the NFL Oakland Raiders.
Harmon passed away of a heart attack on March 15, 1990, in Los Angeles, at age 70. Although he was gone, his Michigan spirit would always be present every time a Wolverine team set foot within Michigan Stadium’s confines.
In 1954, he was enshrined in the College Football hall of Fame, and in 2007, Harmon was ranked 16th on ESPN’s list of the Top 25 players of all-time in college football history. And this Saturday, more than 110,000 fans will know more about the man’s exceptional exploits. And your history lesson is now concluded.

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