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Conquering Hero
Elizabeth McGarr
August 20, 2008
Humble and hardworking, Old 98 Tom Harmon was Michigan's first transcendent football star
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August 20, 2008

Conquering Hero

Humble and hardworking, Old 98 Tom Harmon was Michigan's first transcendent football star

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THE HARMON FAMILY STORED ITS 16-millimeter projector in the basement of its Brentwood, Calif., home, and there was one reel in particular that Mark, the youngest of three children, enjoyed watching. On that film were the 33 touchdowns that halfback Tom Harmon, the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner—and Mark's father—scored for the Michigan Wolverines from 1938 through '40, then an NCAA record. Some were, in Mark's words, "miraculous, reverse-field, tear-your-jersey-off, lose-50-yards-and-then-run-for-a-touchdown" highlights. "I was probably 16 before I realized my dad ever got tackled," says Mark, now 56 and better known for playing quarterback at UCLA and his roles on TV dramas St. Elsewhere, Chicago Hope and Navy NCIS. "It's remarkable."

But the run that captivated Mark the most was short—a toss inside the 10-yard line when the halfback swept left, cut back, momentarily stopped in midair with his legs pinned under his body by a would-be tackler, regained his balance and scored. "People would say, 'You should have seen your dad play,' " says Mark, who still has the film. "I saw my dad play."

The University of Michigan gave the reel to Tom Harmon upon his graduation, but he never brought the film up from the basement. A young Mark would show it to his friends, but his father wasn't the type of man to brag about his accomplishments. The elder Harmon, who died in 1990 from heart failure, wouldn't shy away from discussing his success at Michigan when asked, but he would never initiate the exchange. "It was a kid at the park who told me my dad won the Heisman," says Mark.

That was just Tom Harmon, a man who was driven more by effort than results, even when the results were nothing short of spectacular.

He grew up around the steel mills in Gary, Ind., with four brothers, two sisters and a fondness for bubble gum, which got him into trouble with the football coach when he was a freshman at Horace Mann High but also earned him the now famous nickname Old 98. The story has been disputed over the years, but the version the Harmon family tells confirms that the coach, annoyed by Harmon's constant bubble blowing, sent him to the locker room to turn in his uniform. As additional punishment, Harmon had to return kickoffs against the varsity but proceeded to impress the coach so much by running them back for touchdowns that he was told he could retrieve his uniform. When he returned to the field, the coach exclaimed, "You've got the star halfback's uniform on. Go back up there and take it off." By this time all the best uniforms were taken, and all that was left was an old, tattered jersey: number 98. That didn't bother Harmon, who would end up wearing the number throughout his college career.

In addition to being named all-state quarterback twice, Harmon earned 14 varsity letters at Horace Mann, captaining the 1936 basketball team, pitching three no-hitters for the baseball team and winning the state title in the 100-yard dash and the 200-yard low hurdles. He idolized Jay Berwanger, who in '35 won the first Heisman, having watched Berwanger's Chicago team play Purdue that year. Harmon nearly followed his three older brothers to Purdue but settled on Michigan, where he began his varsity career as a sophomore at right halfback.

It was in the backfield in '38 that Harmon befriended Forest Evashevski, a sophomore who had moved from lineman to quarterback, which was essentially a blocking position in coach Fritz Crisler's single wing offense. Harmon and Evashevski would often double-date and frequented the Pretzel Bell, a popular hangout in downtown Ann Arbor. "Tom was very outgoing," recalls Evashevski, 90. "He loved to dance. He liked good music and good dance bands."

It was only appropriate, then, that TIME magazine should describe Harmon as having "rumba hips." In 1939 he graced the cover toward the end of a 19-touchdown (13 rushing, six passing) junior campaign that saw him come in second to Iowa's Nile Kinnick in the Heisman balloting. In the story Harmon was poetically portrayed as "a gregarious, lantern-jawed six-footer with a Tarzan physique and a yen for swing music" and the ability to run "with the power of a wild buffalo and the cunning of a hounded fox." Harmon, as ever, tried to deflect such accolades even as he earned national attention, telling TIME after he scored all of the Wolverines' points in a 27-7 win over Kinnick's Hawkeyes, "Anybody could have done it with that Evashevski and those others in there blocking like that. They don't make them any better than that Evashevski."

Maybe so, but they also didn't make them any better than Harmon. For his part, Evashevski says today, "Very seldom did one man tackle Tom. It took one man to slow him down, and then others could pile on."

Not only was Harmon a prolific open-field runner, but he also blocked, passed, punted and kicked 33 extra points over his three-year career. He spent the summer before his senior year as a lifeguard at the municipal beach back in Gary ("and punting up and down the sand for at least an hour a day" as TIME noted) and was in shape to rule the Big Ten again. Michigan opened the 1940 season against California on Sept. 28, Harmon's birthday, but instead of taking the train, the Wolverines had traveled by plane, becoming the first intercollegiate team to do so. Unbeknownst to Harmon, Evashevski had gathered the rest of the team, urging the guys to dedicate the opening kickoff to his pal's 21st birthday. With blocking from energized teammates, Harmon returned the kick 95 yards for a touchdown. "It was a firecracker start to a great year," Harmon wrote years later in a questionnaire to Heisman winners.

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