FLORENCE — One of the area’s sports icons has died.
Harlon Hill, who brought then-Florence State Teachers College to prominence and starred in the National Football League with his football prowess, died Thursday at Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital. He was 80.
Hill suffered from a variety of health problems in recent years before his death, but always made a comeback.
These days, Hill is best known as being the namesake for the Harlon Hill Trophy, the NCAA Division II equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.
Ronnie Thomas, a longtime friend and former sports writer at the TimesDaily and sports information director at the University of North Alabama, chronicled Hill’s life in the 1977 book “Victory after the Game.”
Thomas remembered first hearing of Hill while watching Bears games on television in his youth.
“We didn’t have a TV in Piedmont, so we’d go over to another person’s house and watch,” Thomas recalled. “It seemed like the Bears were always playing. Because Harlon was from Alabama, I kind of latched onto him. I had bubble gum cards on my wall and everything.”
Thomas formed a friendship with Hill during his time at the TimesDaily and UNA. Thomas said he would visit Hill at his home and loved listening to his stories. He tape recorded many conversations and used much of them later in the book.
“I’d go to his house and we’d just talk,” Thomas said. “I got him to talk about Rogersville and playing football at Lauderdale County and what football meant to him.”
Thomas said he looked at Hill from a child’s viewpoint, not as a journalist.
“Back then, for most people who grew up in cotton mill village, to actually see a pro player was unheard of,” he said. “I connected with Harlon and it got to be a friendship with his family.”
Hill played high school football at Lauderdale County High School and enrolled at Florence State Teachers College (now UNA), where he starred as a wide receiver in the team’s run-first offense. He caught 54 passes in 35 games for the Lions, but 19 resulted in touchdowns.
He finished his college career with 54 catches for 1,020 yards and 19 TDs. He averaged 18.8 yards per catch.
Despite catching only 12 passes his senior season, Hill was a NAIA All-American in 1953 and caught the attention of a Chicago Bears scout. Hill was drafted in the 15th round by the Bears and made an immediate impact in the NFL.
In a 1990 issue of The Coffin Corner, a bi-monthly magazine published by the Professional Football Researchers Association, Hill talked about being “discovered” by the NFL.
“I was surprised when I found out I was drafted by the Bears,” Hill said in the article. “I had no idea I had been ‘discovered.’ I really did not know much about the National Football League. I was walking across campus and Mr. Van Pelt — who is still down there — he came up to me and told me about it. I did not know what to think, but after I found out what it was all about, naturally I was elated.
“Being from a small college, it was sort of a coincidence that I was discovered. One of the scouts from the Bears was at the Blue-Gray Game in Montgomery. A coach from Jacksonville State, who I had played against for four years, mentioned my name to him and told him a little about me. George Halas, one of the pioneers if not the pioneer of the National Football League, had discovered Bulldog Turner and Ed Sprinkle at a small college. They both played for Hardin-Simmons, which was a bigger school than Florence State Teachers College at the time.
“Anyway, he called coach (Hal) Self and asked for a film. He must have liked something he saw. I was drafted in the 15th round. Of course, I didn’t know what to expect when I went up there, but after staying in training camp for a week or so, I started feeling maybe I could play.
“I was very fortunate. At the time, they had a new innovation in professional football — two wide receivers in most offensive formations. The Bears that particular year were going to that. I just happened to have the ability and arrived at the right time in the right place.”
Hill’s rookie season with the Bears resulted in statistics that nearly surpassed his entire college career numbers. Hill caught 45 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, leading the team in all three categories.
The Bears improved from 3-8-1 in 1953 to 8-4 in his first season and Hill’s play resulted in his being named Rookie of the Year and to the league’s All-Pro team.
Hill’s best game in his rookie season came against San Francisco when he caught seven passes for 214 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winner on a 66-yard pass from George Blanda with 33 seconds to play. His four TD catches remain a Bears record.
Hill had another excellent season in 1955, catching 42 passes for 789 yards and nine touchdowns and was awarded the Jim Thorpe Trophy, given to the league’s most valuable player. He was named all-pro and captained the West team in the Pro Bowl.
Hill turned in a third consecutive all-pro season in 1956 with 47 catches for 1,128 yards and 11 touchdowns as the Bears reached the NFL championship game, losing 47-7 to the New York Giants.
Hill never attained similar numbers the rest of his career, although he remained a valuable weapon in the Bears offense.
Hill stayed with the Bears through the 1961 season and spent 1962 with Pittsburgh and Detroit before retiring.
Some of Hill’s marks still are in the Bears record book. He ranks second with 226 receptions, 4,616 yards and 40 TD catches.
After his NFL career ended, Hill returned to UNA and received his master’s degree in education. He eventually taught and coached at Brooks High School, and later became the school’s principal.
Former UNA football standout Tuffy Hudson said Hill brought tremendous recognition to UNA.
“I’ve traveled to places and people see my 1960 Alabama College Conference championship ring and want to know what it is for,” Hudson said. “When I tell them I played at Florence State, they’ll say they know that name because of Harlon Hill. Harlon really put UNA on the front page. He was an outstanding man and is a huge part of Florence State and UNA history.”
Hill is a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, UNA’s Athletic Hall of Fame and the Lauderdale County Sports Hall of Fame. He also is a member of the Chicago Bears Ring of Honor and was named one of the 50 greatest Bears by ESPN.
His son, Jerry, was a standout player at UNA and is the head football coach at Brooks.
Jerry Hill said his father was always very modest about his football accomplishments.
“He was a very humble person and didn’t really talk much about his playing days,” Jerry Hill said. “He was proud of his roots and proud to have played at UNA. When he finished playing he came back here to live in the community he loved.”
Jerry Hill said the outpouring of support the family has received the past week has been overwhelming.
“We’ve been getting cards and phone calls from people all over the country,” he said. “That’s when it really hits you what he has done and how many lives he affected. He was a people person; he loved people and would give someone the shirt off his back.”
Florence Mayor Mickey Haddock said that while Hill is known for his football achievements, his influence went far beyond athletics.
“Harlon was just so involved in the community,” Haddock said. “He set the bar so high with his athletic achievements, but he also raised the bar in his time as an administrator. He demanded that his students do the right things and taught them that if they made the right choices they would be successful in life.”
Jeff Hodges, chairman of the National Harlon Hill Award Committee and assistant athletic director for Communications at UNA, said meeting Hill was always a special moment for the three finalists for the award.
“The players knew his name because of the trophy,” Hodges said. “But getting the opportunity to meet Harlon was a treat for them. Seeing the film of him playing and hearing about his accomplishments made them realize why his name was on the trophy. Having Harlon around for so many years added so much to the event.
“In our 27-year relationship with the Hill Trophy, Harlon was always very gracious and humbled that his story and legacy could be used to inspire new generations of student-athletes to excel and dream of what they could accomplish. I think he was as appreciative that he was a part of the creation of an award program that honored Division II athletes as he was that his name was on the trophy.”
Jerry Hill said funeral arrangements are pending.
Gregg Dewalt can be reached at email@example.com.
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