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 theMichigan 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 UCLAand 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 Harmonfamily 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 downtownAnn 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.
By the end of 1940 Michigan was 7-1, and Harmon had finished his collegiate career with 3,438 combined rushing and passing yards, and 551 yards in punt and kickoff returns. Some were even calling him "Greater than Grange,"Illinois's famed back from the mid-1920s who had gained 3,362 yards and scored 31 touchdowns—two fewer thanHarmon.
It was Crisler who called Harmon to tell him he had won the Heisman Trophy. "I jumped three feet in the air and let out a war whoop and called my parents at once," Harmon wrote. After the trophy presentation at the Downtown Athletic Club, Harmon, his parents and broadcaster Ted Husing dined at the New York City hot spot Toots Shor's, then lunched at the fashionable 21 restaurant the next day. "I was shocked because many of the great personalities of the movies and Broadway were coming up to Ted Husing and asking him to introduce them to me,"Harmon wrote. "I couldn't get over that."
The halfback called the trip to New York "one of the great highlights of my life," but he had to hurry back to Ann Arbor to study for exams. The celebration continued the following spring after graduation, when Harmon visitedHollywood to film Harmon of Michigan, a mostly nonbiographical film. Old 98 earned enough money from that to build a house for his parents, but The New York Times called the movie "about as lethargic as a benchwarmer's pulse" and blamed Columbia Pictures for "trying to make Hamlet out of a halfback."
His acting career was short-lived (he is credited in 18 movies), but it was in Hollywood that Harmon met Elyse Knox, a starlet from Greenwich, Conn. "Elyse hit me right between the eyes, much harder than any lineman hit me," he later recalled. The two began a courtship that was interrupted by Harmon's enlistment in the Army Air Corps. During World War II, he flew P-38s and B-25s and was twice reported missing: once in South America in the jungles of French Guiana (he survived for four days in swamps and forests before being rescued by natives) and once in the mountains of China after failing to return from an attack on a Japanese-controlled port along the Yangtze River (he pretended to be dead and then was smuggled to safety by Chinese friendlies). In August 1944Harmon and Knox were married, with Evashevski as the best man. The bride wore a gown fashioned from the white silk and white cords recovered from the bullet-riddled parachute that the groom, who earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, had used to bail out over China.
After Harmon completed his service in 1944, he and his wife settled in Los Angeles, where Elyse, who had made her motion picture debut in '37, continued her acting career and Harmon played for the Rams. Combat injuries had robbed Old 98 of his power, and he had already dabbled in broadcasting before the war. So after two lackluster seasons during which he started four games, Harmon retired from football and forewent a $20,000 a year salary to earn $100 a week as a radio announcer.
Even out on the West Coast, as his broadcasting career was taking off, Harmon didn't lose touch with hisWolverines roots. Chuck Ortmann, who played halfback for Michigan from 1948 through '50, remembers meeting the legend before the '51 Rose Bowl. Ortmann, who had grown up listening to Wolverines games on the radio and said Harmon was the main reason he chose to play at Michigan, was sitting in the lobby of the Huntington Hotel inPasadena when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Harmon. "I had to gulp a couple of times," says Ortmann. "We grabbed a cup of coffee, and we just sat together and had a little visit."
After 20 years in the booth for CBS radio and television, Harmon began a national radio show on ABC while also keeping his foot "in the TV door too," as he put it. He began broadcasting more and more sporting events on television—including 10 British Opens and five Olympics—but didn't talk about his work very much at home with Elyse or his children, Mark, Kelly and Kristin. "He could be doing the Olympics one day or doing an interview withBen Hogan," recalls Mark, "and the next day sitting at the breakfast table, it was not something he was talking about."
Harmon also broadcasted UCLA football games for Los Angeles television station KTLA, including when Mark quarterbacked the Bruins in 1972 and '73. In his first game Mark accounted for two touchdowns to help UCLA snap two-time defending national champion Nebraska's 32-game winning streak. The Bruins' locker room exploded with excitement after the game, so Mark didn't even notice his dad standing along a far wall. Harmon had been there for at least two hours, simply observing the scene and the son who had spent afternoons watching those 33 touchdowns scored on that 16-millimeter film. But, on this day, Harmon got to see Mark play.
As the newest UCLA star headed for the showers, he finally noticed his dad. "We embraced and had a few words," remembers Mark, "and I have said that from that moment on, I knew my father."