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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Nearly Forgotten Sports Hero

From Football to War Hero Back to Football then Sportscasting

By Tom Morrow

One of America’s most famous athletes turned sportscaster was Tom Harmon – and, along the way he was a fighter pilot for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.
Thomas Dudley Harmon was born Sept. 28, 1919. He was sometimes known by the nickname “Old 98,” which was the number on his jersey at the University of Michigan and later the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.

Harmon grew up in Gary, Indiana, and played halfback for the University of Michigan from 1938 to 1940. He led the nation in scoring and was a consensus All-American in both 1939 and 1940. He won the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, and the Associated Press Athlete of the Year award in 1940. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954.

Tom Harmon in game vs Yale, 1939

Harmon won the Indiana state championship both in the 100-yard dash and 220-yard low hurdles and won the national interscholastic scoring championship in football with 150 points. He ran the 100-yard dash in 9.9 seconds (half a second slower than Jesse Owens’ world record) and 220-yard low hurdles in 22.6 seconds. He also was a star basketball player and threw two no-hitters as a pitcher in AAU baseball.

In his three seasons at Michigan, Harmon rushed for 2,151 yards on 399 carries, completed 101 of 233 passes for 1,396 yards and 16 touchdowns, and scored 237 points. During his career he played all 60 minutes eight times. Harmon also scored 33 touchdowns, breaking Red Grange’s collegiate record of 31 touchdowns. He led the nation in scoring in both 1939 and 1940 (a feat that remains unmatched). His career average of 9.9 points per game stood as an NCAA record for 10 seasons.

During World War II, Harmon served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps. In April 1943, he was the sole survivor of the crash of a bomber he piloted in South America en route to North Africa. Six months later, while flying a P-38 fighter, he was shot down in a dogfight with Japanese near Kiukiang in China. Harmon was forced to bail out into Japanese-occupied China, but not before shooting down two Japanese fighters. He was later rescued by anti-Japanese Chinese guerrillas. Harmon was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for his actions with the 449th Fighter Squadron.

After the war, Harmon played two seasons of professional football for the Los Angeles Rams and later pursued a career in sports broadcasting. He was the play-by-play announcer for the first televised Rose Bowl in the late 1940s and worked for CBS from 1950 to 1962, and then moved to the ABC radio network. Harmon worked as the sports anchor on KTLA-TV, Los Angeles from 1958 to 1964. He also handled play-by-play responsibility on broadcasts of UCLA football games in the 1960s and 1970s.

In August 1944, Harmon was married to movie actress and model Elyse Knox in a ceremony at the University of Michigan. Harmon saved his silk parachute from the crash of his P-38, and it was used as the material for his wife’s wedding dress. The couple had three children: daughter Kristin born in 1945, (who married recording artist Rick Nelson); Kelly, who was born in 1948, and became an interior decorator; Mark, born in 1951, who today is a major television star (NCIS), married to actress Pam Dawber. Like his Dad, Mark was a standout football player for UCLA before becoming an actor.

On March 15, 1990, Tom Harmon suffered a heart attack after winning a golf tournament at Bel Air Country Club.

Harmon was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1962, the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 1974, and the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor (as one of five inaugural inductees) in 1978.

In 2007, Harmon was ranked 16th on ESPN’s Top 25 Players in the College Football list. Harmon also was ranked fifth on the Big Ten Network’s program “Big 10 Icons,” honoring the greatest athletes in the Big 10 Conference’s history. Few American athletes have won and been honored more than Tom Harmon. Few athletes have accomplished such an array of achievements in sports along with decorated military service.

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