Thomas Dudley Harmon: The Man, The Myth, The Michigan Legend

Posted on Posted in Michigan Football

118 S Weston St Rensselaer, Indiana. The family house where it all began.

On September 28th 1919, Louis and Rose Marie Harmon welcomed their youngest child into the world, named Thomas Dudley Harmon. Little did they know, they would give birth to the golden child of Michigan football lore. Perhaps, even the greatest player to ever grace a college football field.

Tom Harmon wasn’t human on the football field. Looking back, his feats were so incredible, it seemed like he was just a make-believe children’s story. A figment of the younger generation’s imagination. His grace unrivaled, his skills unparalleled, his bravery unmatched, a likeness never to be seen again in the hallowed halls of Schembechler Hall.

In 1924, the Harmon family would relocate to Gary where Tom would become a local high school star while attending Horace Mann High School. During his time in Gary, Harmon would amass over 14 varsity letters, named All-State quarterback twice, captain of the baskteball team, and won the 100 and 200 yard dashes at the state finals as a senior.

Even at a mere 18 years old, Harmon was the perfect athlete. Anything he participated in the competition was obliterated.

Harmon eventually traveled to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan and play for the football team as well as the basketball team for two seasons. A good student, Harmon maintained his scholarship by keeping a B average. He was an active member of the Michigan Alpha Chapter of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity on campus. The fraternity recognized Harmon years later with an award, the Harmon-Rice Award, in his honor.  He even hosted a sports radio show on local radio on Saturday mornings. Harmon yearned to be a sports broadcaster all of his life, eventually in the 70’s his wish was granted.

The following excerpt from Life Magazine explains the kind of worker Harmon was off the football field:

He helps pay his way through college by distributing gum samples, selling shoes and books, running copy for a printer.

Off the football field, Harmon was human. On it, he was untouchable.

Tailback. Quarterback. Kicker. Punter. Defensive specialist. Those words would describe Harmon, but not define him.

Playing all 60 minute games eight times in his career, Harmon was known as a power runner with vicious cutbacks through tacklers, often times resulting in torn jerseys. Amassing over 2,134 yards on the ground, he also completed 100 passes for 1,304 yards and 16 touchdowns in his career at Michigan. Not to mention, he was accountable for 237 points of scoring by himself. Leading the nation in scoring from 1939 to 1940, a feat that has yet to be matched to this day.

Harmon’s hard work and dedication came full circle in 1940. Even though he was awarded All-America honors in 1939 and 1940, he was destined for much more. During his final game of his Michigan career against Ohio State, Harmon single-handedly dismantled the Buckeyes. On their way to a 40-0 victory, Harmon amassed three rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns, four extra points, three interceptions and three punts for an average of 50 yards.

After the game, the Ohio State crowd in Columbus actually stood up and applauded Harmon for his efforts. This, by far, is the highest honor bestowed upon anyone. A once-in-a-lifetime event never to be seen, or heard, again.

A few weeks later, Harmon was awarded with the Heisman Trophy. By far the best player in the
country, it wasn’t even close.

A child named Thomas was born in 1919. A University of Michigan sports legend — no, deity — was born and solidified in 1940.

The NFL Draft in 1941 brought no surprises, as the powerhouse Chicago Bears selected Harmon first overall in the draft. But, Harmon never reported to the team. Instead opting to play for the New York Americans of the American Football League.

1941 also brought in the call of war, Harmon answered that call. Harmon enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a pilot on November 8th of that year.

Two years later, the football superstar from Indiana would be known with another monicker. American War Hero.

During a tropical storm in 1943 over the jungles of South America, Harmon was forced to parachute into a tropical storm when his plane flew in to the impending danger. Harmon was the only crewman to escape alive. Four long and excruciating days the Army tried searching for Harmon, no luck. Until he stumbled into a clearing. He was saved.

Fastforward to October of 1943, Harmon would once again be tested. His plane was shot down by the Japanese during an escort mission. Forced to bail-out in Japanese occupied China, Harmon was saved by anti-Japanese Chinese guerrillas. For his actions, Harmon was awarded a Purple Heart and the Silver Star. Once again, the legend was saved.

In 1946 and 1947, Harmon attempted a comeback with the Los Angeles Rams. The attempt was wildly considered unsuccessful. The once nimble and powerful Harmon was limited to a form of what he once was. Wartime injuries suffered to his leg lost his effectiveness and his luster.

Younger generational fans won’t remember what Harmon did on the football field. Some may not even know who he is. But, this coming Saturday, his achievements will be celebrated and cherished under the lights.

Michigan fans will celebrate the life that was, the purest of Michigan Men. One of the select few who
will be enshrined together in the Holy Grail of Michigan Lore with the likes of Crisler, Yost, Oosterbaan, Schembechler, Howard, Woodson, and many more who were privileged enough to wear the winged helmet or lead the finest of men into battle every Saturday.

Today, we celebrate what Tom Harmon was and always will be, a Michigan legend. Tomorrow, we’ll appreciate Michigan’s rich history and tradition just like every day.

Harmon paved the way for football players today. He powered through the hearts of Michigan fans alike, just like he powered through the trials and tribulations of war. He was the best to ever do it and the only one who ever will do it like he did.

Thomas Dudley Harmon, forever idolized, forever a Michigan Man, forever 98.

Derek Devine
Institutional voice of Alma College during the day, Michigan fanatic at night. Taking TBHR to the next level one post at a time.