1940 : Michigan’s Tom Harmon Sets the Stage for a Heisman Season

September 28, 2018 all-day

Tom Harmon, Michigan's First Heisman Winner

On this day Michigan’s halfback Tom Harmon (number 98) won the admiration of the nation in a game against the California Golden Bears in Berkeley, California. At the end of the 1939 season, Time magazine had claimed that Tom Harmon was the number 1 footballer of the year. But since Michigan and other teams from the East, South, and Midwest rarely made the trip out to the West Coast because of the time involved and the expense, the 35,401 fans in attendance wondered what the hype was all about.

Unlike Michigan’s first trip to the West Coast in 1902 which took 8 days, this one took only two days thanks to the novel idea of air travel although it did take three planes to tranport the entire team. Although airsickness was an issue for many of the first time airplane passengers, it was mollified by stops in Denver and Salt Lake City, and when the trip was over, Coach Crysler and the players had to admit flying was the way to go for future long trips.

But back to Harmon who was celebrating his 21st birthday. It only took him 15 seconds to score his first touchdown –a 94 year run — untouched by the other team — after receiving the opening kickoff. Soon afterwards another touchdown was narrowly averted when a Michigan player dropped one of Harmon’s passes on the goal line. Early in the second quarter, Harmon fielded a punt on his own 28 but fumbled it, and had to retreat 10 yards to pick it up again. Dashing for another touchedown, he was credited with a 72-yarder but probably ran twice that distance during the process. Later in the second period, Harmon scored a 3rd touchdown of 86 years on a reverse. With 6 minutes left in the first half, Michigan decided to let up on California so Harmon was allowed to sit on the bench until later in the 4th quarter. He then proceeded to score a fourth touchdown on an 8 year run and threw a 5-year pass for another. Final score : the University of Michigan 41, California 0.

Another amusing note, an inebriated California fan ran on the field and attempted to tackle Harmon on the 1 yard line during his 86 year ramble in the second quarter, since the other Golden Bears were lagging far behind. He failed, but made the photographic spread in Life Magazine the following week. Thanks to newspapers, magazines, and newsreels shown in movie theaters across the nation, Harmon’s exploits became known far and wide.

Later on, Harmon recalled if he had counted all the people who said they saw him in the California game, the number would have been around 3 million, with another 20 million witnessing it in the local theaters! Needless to say, Tom Harmon would go on to win the 6th Heisman Trophy Award on November 27, 1940.

For more information about the September 28, 1940 game and a lot more, see Honor on the Line: The Fifth Down and the Spectacular 1940 College Football Season by Robert J. Scott and others (available via Amazon.com; snippets available via Google Books).

Tom Harmon Runs 86 Yards and Eludes California fan via YouTube

Harmon trivia: Tom Harmon, the pride of Gary, Indiana, was the leading scorer in both the 1939 and 1940 seasons and received All American honors in both years.

Harmon Update : Mark Harmon said his father talked as much about 1940’s only loss – a 7-6 defeat to Minnesota where Harmon missed the extra point – as he did about his other 33 touchdowns.

Mark Snyder, “Mark Harmon: Father, Tom Harmon, would be embarrassed but proud of Michigan honoring No. 98”, Detroit Free Press, September 8, 2013.

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