Gary’s Harmon an all-time legend
By John Mutka Post-Tribune senior correspondent January 27, 2013 11:35PM
Updated: March 1, 2013 7:16PM
Role models are not always what they’re cracked up to be, especially when they’re athletes.
Take 13-time all-pro linebacker Ray Lewis, for example. Kids tempted to embrace him should quote the Raven never more, considering his checkered past. In 2000, Lewis, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting were charged with murder after two men died of stab wounds in a fight outside an Atlanta night club. Lewis later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and testified that Oakley instigated the fight. Oakley countered by saying it began because Lewis got involved in an argument. No one was ever convicted of murder, but the episode makes it hard to picture him in a Superman costume.
Fortunately, we’ve had much better luck with hero worship in Northwest Indiana. Pros like Junior Bridgeman, Dan Plesac, Lloyd McClendon, Ron Kittle, Al Pilarcik, LaTroy Hawkins, Bryce Drew, Hank Stram and Nick Strincevich have led exemplary lives.
My personal favorite — though I never saw him play — would be Gary’s most celebrated athlete, Tom Harmon. Michigan’s first Heisman Trophy winner (1940), he also won the Maxwell Award, then went on to become a war hero.
His is the stuff of legends, but unlike some near-mythological figures hatched by Notre Dame, Harmon’s story did not have to be embellished by overzealous sports writers.
A single-wing tailback, “Ole 98” rushed for 2,134 yards, threw 16 touchdown passes, kicked 33 extra points and two field goals in an era when nine-game schedules were the norm and bowl games were limited to the Big Four on Jan. 1. The two-time All-American led the nation in scoring for two straight years, an unprecedented feat, and finished with a career record of 237 points.
Harmon reserved his most memorable performance for his college finale. In a 40-0 rout of host Ohio State, he scored three touchdowns, threw for two more, intercepted three passes, kicked four extra points and punted three times. Afterward, stunned OSU fans gave him a standing ovation.
Closing the book on college, he opened another chapter by serving as a pilot for four years during World War II. After bailing out of a bomber in 1943 he survived four days in a Dutch Guiana jungle before reaching civilization Harmon also earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for his service as a fighter pilot.
Shot down over China, he saved his silk parachute which was later used as material for his wife’s wedding dress. Leg injuries suffered in combat shortened his pro career with the Los Angeles Rams to 1946-47 but he switched to sports broadcasting on the west coast.
This modern-day fairy tale included marriage to glamorous actress Elyse Knox, who appeared in 39 movies, most notably “The Mummy Returns” and as the love interest in six films based on comic strip boxer “Joe Palooka.”
Mark Harmon, one of their three children, emulated his dad by quarterbacking UCLA to a 17-5 record in the 1970s. Married to actress Pam Dawber (Mork & Mindy), he now stars on the CBS hit show “NCIS.”
Mark’s amazing dad grew up running the beaches at Marquette Park and earned 14 letters at Horace Mann before graduating in 1937. On his way to fame and fortune the all-state back also pocketed state titles in the 100-yard dash and the 200-yard low hurdles and served as captain of the basketball team.
On Sept. 7, the University of Michigan will honor Harmon as one of its football legends in a ceremony before the Wolverines challenge visiting Notre Dame. My only question is what took them so long? The game takes on added significance because one of college football’s greatest rivalries will end — at least for the forseeable future.
Michigan-Notre Dame is just one casualty of some bizarre conference realignments that involve Maryland and Rutgers moving to the Big Ten and the Irish giving up traditional rivalries down the road to pack five ACC teams into its annual schedule. They are also obligated to schedule at least one game per ACC team every three years. So, instead of Michigan Irish fans might be settling for North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, Georgia Tech or Wake Forest.
Honored Michigan football legends who preceded Harmon were Benny Oosterbaan, former president Gerald Ford and Ron Kramer.
In 1927-28 Oosterbaan stunned the sports world by winning the Big Ten batting crown, basketball scoring title and All-America football honors. His achievement is widely regarded as the most dominant three-sport performance in any conference for one year. The All-America end also served as a Michigan assistant coach when Harmon played, then was promoted to head coach from 1948-58.
Kramer, a three-time All-America end, toiled for Oosterbaan from 1954-56 and later starred for the Packers and Lions.
Harmon is ranked No. 16 on ESPN’s top 25 all-time list for college football. He’s ranked No. 5 by the Big Ten on its list of icons for all sports.
Little known fact: he was born in Rensselaer, but moved to Gary shortly before his fifth birthday.