Harlon Hill: From Florence State to the NFL

Stories about unknown or undrafted collegiate players making it big in the NFL, are rare, but always entertaining!

One such case occurred in December of 1953 when Chicago Bears’ assistant coach Clark Shaughnessy was scouting the Blue-Gray all-star game in Montgomery, AL. A local coach shared that “the best end in this part of the country wasn’t chosen to play in this game.”

From the hotel lobby gossip, Shaughnessy learned about a rangy, and unstoppable, big end from Florence State Teachers College (now North Alabama) known as Harlon Hill who was not invited to the game simply because he was from a smaller college. The other coaches who had seen this marvel in person considered Hill a better prospect than anyone from the bigger state schools such as Alabama or Auburn. This guy apparently had super-hero powers on the gridiron and could easily demolish any and all opposition.

And yet, during his senior season, with his team running the archaic single-wing offense, the talented end captured just 12 passes for 246 yards for the year. By that time, he was a marked man on offense due to his speed and exceptional hands.

I Couldn't Spell Florence!

Of course, fables about the abilities of unknown players are often more fictitious than factual. Would the Bears’ assistant coach simply file this information away, or take it seriously and share it with his management staff? Shaughnessy chose the latter, informing coach George Halas about the unknown receiver and Halas quickly followed up with a request for game film from Florence State.

Halas recalled: “When Shaughnessy told me about Hill, I told him I couldn’t spell Florence, let alone locate it!” The Bears’ owner liked what he saw in the film and told Shaughnessy: “Let’s give this kid a look, Clark.” Halas was delighted that this untested prospect might soon become a member of the Chicago Bears… if he was still available late in the NFL annual draft.

Now the waiting began…

Did other teams know about this player? Would they pluck him from the draft before Halas could make his selection? But Coach Halas had done his homework and patiently waited through the opening rounds of the draft before happily selecting Harlon Hill in the 15th round. It was a gem of a discovery since Hill was 6-3, 200 pounds, and ran the hundred-yard dash in less than ten seconds…even if no one had heard about him!

Harlon Hill of the Chicago Bears
Photo Courtesy Joe Ziemba of Harlon Hill of the Chicago Bears

We Gambled And Won!

As assistant coach Phil Handler once told the Chicago Tribune regarding the surprise drafting of the unheralded Hill: “We gambled and won. I was over my nervous stomach within a few months!” Hill himself was unaware of his draft selection until informed by a faculty member on campus. Hill later recalled:

“I had no idea I had been ‘discovered.’ I really did not know much about the National Football League. I did not know what to think, but after I found out what it was all about, naturally, I was elated!”

So, where did Harlon Hill come from and why was an athletic gentleman with such enormous talent playing at Florence State? Hill grew up in Killen, AL, and played halfback for Lauderdale County High School near Florence, AL. Columnist Fred Pettijohn of the Fort Lauderdale Press described Killen “As one of those places where the odds are strong that you can roll a bowling ball down the sidewalk of Main Street and not touch a soul at noon of any day except Saturday.”

He weighed only about 165 lbs. in high school at the time and was not yet known for his speed–a late bloomer as such. In the distant future, he hoped to become a football coach but knew he needed collegiate playing experience…and the scholarship that could offer him the opportunity to secure his education. Without financial assistance, Hill’s path to a degree, and a coaching future, would likely be terminated.

You're Too Small To Play In College

When the bigger schools failed to visit, or even show the slightest interest, Hill took the initiative to visit the University of Alabama in an effort to sell himself and find a spot on the Crimson Tide team. He was politely told: “You’re too small to play college football.”

Discouraged, but not defeated, Hill decided to stay in his hometown area and enrolled at Florence State Teachers College in 1950, a school that was just beginning its football program under coach Hal Self. Coach Self and line coach George Weeks both worked with Hill during his four-year stay at Florence State, and according to the Decatur (AL) Daily, “Hill set a new passing record for Florence State in 1951, and then bettered his own record in 1952.”

By his senior year, Hill was selected as an honorable mention selection on the small college (NAIA) Little All-American team. Despite his lack of significant statistical numbers his senior year, the potential of Hill was observed by Coach Halas on film. As Halas wrote in his autobiography, “I signed Hill. He had an uncanny knack for pulling down impossible passes.”

No TV In The Sticks

When Hill initially reported to the Bears, he admitted he was a bit clueless about the level of competition in the NFL: “I didn’t know what anybody else in the pros was like. You know, coming from the sticks in Alabama. No TV back then.”

Yet from the first day of training camp in Rensselaer, IN, Hill was impressive. Lineman George Connor raved: “Harlon Hill was the best piece of rawboned talent I ever saw walk into a training camp. He could run all day and all night and never break a sweat, never drop a football. I swear he had three speeds. He was great!”

Bears’ long-time assistant Paddy Driscoll added: “When we saw Hill perform on the first day of our 1954 training camp, we knew he would make good in pro ball.”

Once the NFL regular season began in 1954, Hill shared his impact with the rest of the league. From the start, it was as if his career was shot out of a cannon.

As a rookie, Hill topped the Bears in three major offensive categories as he hauled in 45 passes for 1,124 yards and twelve touchdowns. His most amazing performance occurred in San Francisco on October 31 when Hill snared seven tosses, mostly from quarterback George Blanda, for 214 yards and four TDs.

The final scoring play secured the victory for the Bears, but the pass was not thrown by Blanda, but rather it was from reserve QB Ed Brown, appearing quietly for the first time in his career as a halfback.

49'ers Fans Saw Hopes Go A Glimmering

The 49ers had just grabbed a 27-24 lead with only 37 seconds remaining in the ball game. The vociferous crowd of nearly 50,000 was celebrating the success of the second field goal of the day by Gordon Soltau that broke a 24-24 deadlock.

It was then that Halas pulled up a surprise play dubbed “Pass 48, Long Flag.” Brown reported in as a halfback, took a short pitch from Blanda, and unleashed a 66-yard scoring toss to Hill that brought the Bears a stunning 31-27 victory over the previously undefeated 49ers.

The San Francisco Examiner reported: “Instead of throwing the ball himself, Blanda slipped it to Brown, who drifted back and let go with all the power in his good right arm. John Henry Johnson, who was in there on defense as a replacement, saw what was happening but was too late to do anything about it. He let the fleet-footed Hill get behind him to make the catch. Johnson gave chase but Hill easily outran him to the end zone as the partisan crowd saw its hopes of an unbeaten 49er season go a glimmering.”

Hill delayed slightly at the snap, then turned on the jets as Johnson broke his way. Hill later explained that “When I saw Johnson coming up at me, I just took off!” And Hill took off from the rest of the NFL as well, easily winning rookie-of-the-year honors in 1954 after his tremendous season.

Left The Defender All Tied Up In A Knot

In 1955, Hill grabbed 42 passes for 789 yards, nine more touchdowns, and was voted as the NFL’s MVP by the Newspaper Enterprise Association. His receiving expertise was on display in a 24-14 win at Detroit on November 20, 1955, when Hill snared a pair of touchdown passes.

But it was not the fact that he caught the touchdowns, it was the way he did it. The Detroit Free Press reported: “Harlon Hill fooled Detroit pass defenders twice with his baffling fakery. On both plays, Hill feinted defenders out of position to make the tallies possible” The Chicago Tribune added: “Hill gave Bill Stits the hip, shoulder, and eyeball treatment, leaving the young defender all tied up in a knot on the ground.”

Paddy Driscoll became the head coach of the Bears in 1956 due to another George Halas “retirement” and the Bears, with a 9-2-1 record, qualified for the NFL title game thanks to a pair of spectacular catches by Hill late in a 17-17 come-from-behind draw with the New York Giants. One of those impressive grabs has been included in the list of the 100 greatest plays in NFL history.

Trailing the Giants 17-3 in the fourth quarter, the Bears rallied to tie the game as Hill hauled in scoring passes of 79 and 56 yards. But it was the final pass that has been immortalized and is still available to watch on YouTube. Hill juggled the ball at least twice before ultimately securing the pigskin as he fell into the end zone. Giants’ coach Jim Lee Howell marveled at Hill’s capabilities by saying: “Those long legs of Hill are deceptive. He’s going faster than you think.”

Although the deadlock with the Giants helped the Bears retain their slim divisional lead, the club eventually met the Giants again in the NFL title match, where the Giants obliterated the Chicagoans 47-7. Hill completed his finest season during the 1956 NFL campaign by grabbing 47 passes for 1,128 yards and 11 touchdowns. During his first three years in the league, Hill was named an All-Pro all three seasons and, in that time, compiled an impressive offensive record of 134 receptions for 3,041 yards, and 32 touchdowns. 

Sometimes You Act As A Decoy

Although Hill’s receiving numbers fell in the ensuing years, primarily due to injuries, he was still a serious threat on the field but was not against serving as a decoy when needed. In an article he wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1957, Hill explained the realities of his position:

“Sometimes you will act as a decoy. This is almost as much fun as catching a pass. On many occasions I have taken two or more defenders with me in the wrong direction, leaving a teammate open for a pass.”

After spending the summer of 1957 in the military, Hill caught 21 passes for 483 yards and a pair of touchdowns. However, he was limited by an injured shoulder that required surgery. A year later, on November 16, 1958, Hill ruptured his Achilles tendon in a 17-0 loss against Baltimore that ended his season.

This is a very difficult injury to overcome, but Hill returned to action the next season and said: “I was the first one to recover, any athlete, from a completely severed Achilles tendon. That was a serious injury. But I had a great doctor in Chicago that repaired it and enabled me to play…but it slowed me done a bit.” 

Hill continued to play for the Bears, both on offense and then gradually more on defense through the 1961 season when he caught just three passes for 51 yards. He was traded to the Steelers on July 22, 1962 (for a future draft choice), but was released by Pittsburgh on October 31. Hill was immediately signed by Detroit on November 1 and finished his NFL career with the Lions that season. 

I Began Drinking More And More

Yet there was another problem lurking behind the scenes during his last years in the NFL that wasn’t discussed much in public back then, but which Hill readily shared in later years. He had a drinking issue. As he explained to the Opelika-Auburn News in 1976:

“I had been up there [Chicago] a while when I started going out after the games and drinking a little. We had Mondays off and some of the fellows would go out and drink. As the years went along, I began drinking more and more, and it became a problem.”

With five children and his football career behind him, Hill bravely made the decision to abandon that lifestyle: “I knew I had to take a turn in life or go all the way to the bottom. You can’t make excuses by saying you’re drinking socially. What you’ve got to do is look in the mirror and tell yourself alcohol has become a problem. I believe I’ve licked it.”

Hill did turn his life around, earning a Master’s degree in 1969, and became a high school teacher, coach, and principal. Hill passed away on March 21, 2013, at the age of 80.

Still Holds Bears' Records

Although he was never able to duplicate his startling numbers from his first few seasons, Hill still holds several Chicago Bears’ records including the most receiving touchdowns in a game with four; the most 100-yard receiving games with 19; most touchdowns (12) and yards (1,124) by a rookie, and is still second in most career reception yards with 4,616.

His 214 receiving yards in one game in 1954 still ranks third on the Bears’ all-time list. For his overall career, Hill grabbed 233 receptions for 4,717 yards and 40 touchdowns.

Harlon Award Created In 1986

Yet the biggest testimony to the career of Harlon Hill was the creation of the Harlon Hill Award in 1986. It is awarded each year to the most outstanding NCAA Division II football player in the country and was developed in honor of Hill’s remarkable collegiate career back at Florence State Teachers College.

From a small school to everlasting NFL fame, to overcoming personal demons, Harlon Hill will be remembered forever as one of the most outstanding, and remarkable, receivers in the history of professional football. Thank you for joining us for this episode of “When Football Was Football” here on the Sports History Network.

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Author and Host - Joe Ziemba

Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.

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