Michigan Football: Twelve Wondrous Wolverines — #2 — Tom Harmon — The Ultimate Legend — Old 98
Some legends are assumed to be eternally enduring: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bill Russell, Jesse Owens, and Jim Brown are great examples of the above maxim. In the land of the Wolverines, the ultimate legend is Tom Harmon. His raw statistics have long since been surpassed. But who Tom Harmon was and what he did in his lifetime set him apart.
Tom Harmon in today’s environment would not be considered a pure physical specimen, nor would he wow near as many people today as he did over 70 years ago. But Harmon had grit and gave everything he had for the cause of Michigan football.
Recently, the University of Michigan has engaged in a program named Michigan Football Legends. Numbers have been pulled from the ranks of the retired and jerseys pulled off the shelf for current Wolverines to wear. Desmond Howard, Gerald Ford, the Wistert brothers, Ron Kramer, and Bennie Oosterbaan are now a part of the legends program.
One player, one number, has not been pulled off the shelf: Old 98, Tom Harmon, All- American and Heisman Trophy winner. This in interpreted in this part of the sports universe as the ultimate compliment to Tom Harmon. If the number is pulled, one can assume the candidate must clearly represent the very best of loyalty, performance on the field, scholarship, and character. Harmon possessed all the above traits and after his stint in the service in World War II, several other characteristics of high note were added.
Tom Harmon was the old-fashioned, pre modern era, wonder boy. He was the type of athlete America loved to immolate during the era of mid 20th Century sports history.
Tom Harmon was born in Indiana, moved to Illinois, and moved back to Indiana. Early on it was apparent Tom Harmon was a very high caliber all-around athlete. He lettered in football, basketball, and track. Harmon was All-State twice as an offensive back, what is now considered quarterback.
From the very beginning Harmon held as a career goal a position in sports broadcasting. Therefore, he majored in English. Later on, his wish became a reality after some serious adversity.
One reason Harmon’s statistics do not stand out is that Michigan only played eight games a year in that era. 1938 showed some success as Harmon rushed only 77 times, but averaged over five yards a carry.
Harmon had two outstanding years as a halfback in the single wing attack, 1939 and 1940. Both seasons were productive and in 1939 Tom Harmon was pitted against a senior from Iowa, Nile Kinnick, for the Heisman Trophy. Harmon had a great game as Michigan defeated Iowa, intercepting a Kinnick pass and scoring several times. However, later in the season, Michigan lost back-to-back games to Illinois and Minnesota, both ranked in the top ten. Some maintained the Minnesota loss doomed Harmon’s Heisman chances.
In some regard, maybe all regards, Nile Kinnick winning the Heisman in 1939 and Harmon winning the award in 1940 may have been pure justice. Kinnick was the Jack Armstrong, All-American mirror image of Tom Harmon. Tragically, Kinnick was killed in a World War II training flight as a navy aviator in 1943. The stadium in Iowa City bears his name.
1939 was far from a disappointment regarding individual awards for Tom Harmon. He led the nation in scoring, a feat he would repeat in 1940; was named All-American and All-Conference, and averaged well over 6 yards per carry.
1940 was the magical year for Tom Harmon of Michigan. He carried more of the load for the Wolverines and therefore his rushing yardage slipped somewhat. He did however show the versatility tailbacks in that era were expected to demonstrate. Harmon ran for touchdowns, threw for touchdowns, intercepted passes, punted and placekicked. Many times in his career Harmon played every snap of the game.
The 1940 Michigan team was far from a one-man show. Several All-Americans and future professional players dotted the Michigan roster. Michigan lost a tough 7-6 game to Minnesota, allowing the Gophers to win the national title. Michigan finished third in the final polls.
After the tough loss, Tom Harmon provided one of the penultimate highlights in Michigan football history. On November 23, 1940, in Columbus, Ohio, Harmon had a game for the ages. Ohio State had a run of the mill year, finishing at 4-4. Some try to still denigrate Harmon’s game performance because of the Ohio State record.
In short, Tom Harmon ran for three touchdowns, passed for two other touchdowns, kicked four extra points, averaged fifty yards a punt, and intercepted three passes in a 40-0 Michigan win. A tired, beat up Harmon started walking off the field with his usual torn game jersey and the Ohio State crowd afforded the Michigan legend a standing ovation, said to be the one and only such occurrence in western civilization. This was during a more civil time and before Woody Hayes envenomated and degraded anything associated with Michigan.
Harmon was awarded the Heisman trophy after again leading the nation in scoring and doing everything he could to bring Michigan a national title, falling one point short. The Maxwell Award and other honors were also awarded to Harmon.
Harmon was more than a passing football player to America. Soon after graduation, Harmon went to Hollywood to make a movie Harmon of Michigan. He met his future wife on the set.
Like Kinnick, Harmon went into aviation, but with the Army Air Corps (there was no Air Force during this time). He crashed in 1943 in the South American jungle and bailed-out as the only survivor. After several days he wandered into a setting where he could be rescued. Later in the war, as a fighter pilot, he was shot down in the Pacific theatre but was rescued by anti-Japanese Chinese.
Harmon briefly played professional football after the war, but narratives describe bad legs from the bailouts as a cause of quitting the NFL.
Harmon was free to pursue his dream as a broadcaster. He had a very successful career, and when Tom Harmon made statements on the air, people listened. The author remembers one broadcast where he predicted a 1964 Michigan win in Columbus. His logic was based on the somewhat unknown Michigan quarterback, Bob Timberlake.
The legend of Old 98 will remain, and it is good that some things are still attached to the Jack Armstrong image.
Maybe it is truly fitting that the 98 jersey remains on the shelf until an equally fitting candidate wears it. The ultimate question is who will that be?
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Written by GBMWolverine Staff
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