By Pat Zacharias / The Detroit News
When they wrote the song “You’ve Got to be a Football Hero,” they were thinking of the kind of college player they had in the 1930s. None of that specialization stuff. The old guys did it all: pass, kick, run, play defense and still get good grades in the classroom.
America’s hero in the fall of 1939, when Hitler’s armies plunged into Poland, was Thomas Dudley Harmon, son of a policeman in Gary, Indiana. On Saturday afternoons he was everyone’s hero. It was a simpler time, long before television. You worshipped him watching the newsreels at the movie house or listening on the radio. A lucky few saw him on the playing field at Ann Arbor.
His most glorious exploits were as a Wolverine running back. He posed a triple threat: he could run, he could kick, he could pass. Consequently he led the nation in scoring in 1939 and 1940.
Born September 28, 1919 in Gary, he and his brothers excelled at high school sports. His older brothers Lou and Harold starred in basketball and track at Purdue. Brother Gene controlled the basketball court at Tulane University.
However, Harmon would have lived a memorable life story had he never even touched a football or won the Heisman Trophy. But football is what people recall most, and with good reason.
Harmon won 14 varsity letters in four sports at Horace Mann High School. He won the state championship in both the 100 yard dash and the 120 yard low hurdles. He came out of high school with offers from 54 colleges. He chose Michigan. He majored in English and Speech, hoping for a career in broadcasting. He juggled academic studies and sports without the aid of scholarships. Later he told Detroit News sports writer Joe Falls, “They didn’t have any scholarships. I paid for everthing myself, books, room, tuition. I worked for every bit of it. I got my books by working in Slater’s book store on campus. You worked there after school and they let you borrow the books. I paid for my tuition from money I earned working in the steel mills in the summer and for my meals, I got up at 5 o’clock in the morning and worked three hours in the Michigan Union, washing dishes before going to my first class at 8 am.”
At Michigan, the six-foot-200 pound back, a gifted runner, averaged 5.4 yards a carry. He also completed more than 100 passes, 16 for touchdowns. He punted, kicked extra points and prided himself on bone-rattling blocks on offense and tackles on defense.
His greatest gridiron feat probably was in his final collegiate appearance, during Michigan’s face-off against Ohio State in 1940. In the game at Columbus, he led Michigan to a 40-0 victory by running for three touchdowns, passing for two more, kicking four extra points and averaging 50 yards with three punts. When he left the field with 15 seconds left in the game, Ohio State fans gave him an unprecedented ovation and swarmed over him, tearing pieces from his jersey as souveniers.
In his college career, ‘Ole 98’as he often called himself, scored 23 points in 24 games, ran for 2,134 yards in 398 attempts, completed 101 of 233 passes for 1,399 yards and amassed 3,533 yards on offense. His 33 touchdowns in three seasons surpassed the 31 that Red Grange scored for Illinois in the mid twenties. Said Fritz Crisler of his star, “He was better than Red Grange, the ‘Galloping Ghost’. Tom could do more things. He ran, passed, punted, blocked, kicked off, and kicked extra points and field goals. He was a superb defense player.” His unusual uniform number 98 became as widely known as Grange’s 77 had been in earlier years
Harmon was voted to all America teams in his junior and senior years. In 1940 he won the Heisman Trophy, Michigan’s only Heisman winner until Desmond Howard recieved the trophy in 1991. He also won the Maxwell and Walter Camp trophies. The Chicago Bears made him the NFL number one draft pick, but he never played for them. After graduation Harmon and several buddies, including teammate and best friend Forrest Evanshevski, accepted a movie offer from Hollywood. The movie “Harmon of Michigan” flopped with the critics but enabled Harmon to purchase a new home for his parents in Ann Arbor. Earlier that season another former football player, Ronald Reagan, had played the role of George Gipp in the film “Knute Rockne-All American.” He had better luck on the big screen than Harmon.
With the outbreak of World War II, Harmon enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He changed his football uniform of maize and blue for the khaki and olive drab of Uncle Sam’s team, calling the signals as a pilot. His plane, officially christened “Little Butch,” displayed a likeness of ‘Peg Leg Pete’ from the Popeye comic strip. The brawny chest of the cartoon character was covered with a Wolverine football jersey with number 98.
Early in 1943, Harmon parachuted when his plane went down in a tropical storm in South America. He lived through one of the great man-against-nature survival stories. In a vast, virtually unexplored rain forest, armed with a machete and a compass, he headed east to the Atlantic coast on what was to be the greatest “run” of his career. Four days and fifty nightmare miles later, he stumbled into a clearning in Dutch Guina. “I had nothing to eat and little to drink even with all that rain,” Harmon said. “I was afraid bad water would sicken me. If my strength went, I would die.” Football legs got him back, he said.
Later that year, Harmon bailed out again. In a battle with Japanese Zeros over Chungking, China, his P-38 fighter took a fatal hit. But Harmon made it back, thanks to the Chinese underground. “If you didn’t have religion before the war, you did then” Harmon wrote in his book “Pilots Also Pray.” For his war efforts “Ole 98” received the Silver Star and Purple Heart.
When he returned to the states, Tom married Hollywood starlet Elyse Knox in the St. Mary’s chapel on the U-M campus, where he had worshiped as a student. She wore a silk bridal gown fashioned from the parachute that saved Lt. Harmon when his plane went down over China. A ruggedly handsome man, Harmon often remarked that he was happy that his children looked like their beautiful mother.
He had a brief pro football career playing for the Los Angeles Rams in 1946-47, but his wartime leg injures robbed him of his former speed and power.
After ending his playing career, Harmon spent the rest of his life as a sports broadaster — first in radio and later in television. His daughter Christie had been married to the late singer Ricky Nelson. Another daughter, Kelly, an actress and model, was married briefly to former Detroit auto executive John DeLorean. Son Mark starred in football both in high school and college and is a working actor in television and film.
On March 16, 1990, Harmon died of an apparent heart attack after playing 18 holes of golf in Los Angeles. He was 70.
Experts still consider Harmon one of the most exciting and all around best college players of all time. Perhaps the best Michigan ever produced.