Michigan at Ohio, November 23, 1940
With 38 seconds remaining in the game, the home crowd, donning scarlet and gray, stands and cheers in honor of a once-in-a-lifetime player as he walks off the college gridiron for the final time. The score: 40-0. He wears a Maize and Blue uniform with the number 98 stitched on both sides of his jersey. Moments ago, he scored a final touchdown to conclude one of the most prolific careers in Michigan football history as well as a remarkable individual performance: two passing touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns, three interceptions, and four extra points. "Old 98" left college football with the fans of his fiercest rival cheering for him, something few, if any, athletes can claim, regardless of sport.
Prior to demolishing Ohio in his final game, Tom Harmon had already rewrote the Michigan record books in ways no player has since or ever will. In his three-year career from 1938-40, Harmon led the team in passing, rushing, and total offense each season as well as punting in '40 and total scoring in '39 and '40. Beyond that, he led the nation in scoring in each of his final two seasons. He also set multiple team records at the time, including, to name a few, most rushing touchdowns in a season (14 in '40), most career rushing touchdowns (30), most punts in a game (12 in '40), most touchdowns returned in a game (2 in '40), most points scored in a game (28 in '40), most points in a season (117 in '40), most touchdowns in a game (4 in '39 and '40), most touchdowns scored in a season (16 in '40), most touchdowns in a career (33), longest play from scrimmage (86 yards in '40), longest interception return (95 yards in '39), and longest kickoff return (94 yards in '40). While most of these have since been surpassed, Harmon remains the only Michigan player to record more than one touchdown return in a game, and he still holds the longest interception return at 95 yards. He's also one of twelve Michigan players to return a kickoff for a touchdown.
All of this culminated in Harmon earning the two biggest individual honors in college football following his dominant senior year in 1940: the Heisman Trophy and the Maxwell Award. He was the first Wolverine to bring home either award, and it would stay that way until Desmond Howard repeated Harmon's success over five decades later in '91. Aside from these, Harmon also earned All-American honors in both '39 and '40 as well as the Chicago Tribune Silver Football in '40. He was a renaissance man who did it all: pass, run, kick, block, defend. The man was in a league of his own.
And the great thing about Tom Harmon is that his success and accolades continued well after his football career at Michigan ended. He began by starring in the film "Harmon of Michigan" which paid for a new home for his parents in Ann Arbor, even if the critics didn't enjoy it. Then, the Chicago Bears picked him with the first-overall pick in the '41 NFL Draft, but Harmon never played a snap in the Windy City. Instead, he signed with the New York Americans of the American Football League, played one game, rushed ten times for 37 yards, and took home a $1,500 paycheck. Shortly thereafter, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps for WWII as a fighter pilot. During his four-year service, Harmon was reported missing twice and was the only one to survive when his plane was shot down in China in '43. Later, he won the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his service. Following WWII, he signed with the Los Angeles Rams in '46; however, war injuries to his legs limited his effectiveness, and his playing days were done for good by '47. For the remainder of his professional life, Harmon was a top-flight sports broadcaster, calling such events as the Olympics and Rose Bowl. He died in 1990 at the age of 70, hours after winning a golf tournament.
There's not much more to say about Tom Harmon. If you don't believe he's the greatest Wolverine of all-time, then you have to admit that he was the first legend in Michigan football history. Dave Brandon made many blunders during his tenure as Athletic Director, but in my opinion, he hit the nail on the head in regards to Harmon: "The best football player in the history of Michigan football could easily be Tom Harmon." I believe that Harmon is, without a doubt, the greatest football player in Michigan football history. The accolades speak for themselves, as does his success post-Michigan. But how many Michigan players have run over a fan trying to tackle them en route to a touchdown? How many have single-handedly beaten Ohio and received cheers rather than boos as they left the field? As Harmon's son Mark commented in regards to the ceremony honoring Harmon before the Notre Dame game in 2013: "There wasn't anything my dad did in his life that didn't have the word Michigan attached to it."
If Tom Harmon doesn't deserve a spot on Michigan's Mount Rushmore, then nobody does.
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