When an incredible football player is consistently overlooked for inclusion in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we often hear several reasons for this absence…things like:
“He was OK, but he never led the league in anything.”
“He was good, but he never won a title.”
Or even: “He was great for his team, but he was never an All-Pro or MVP.”
In this episode of “When Football Was Football,” we’ll look at the impressive career of Marlin “Pat” Harder who accomplished all of the superlatives that have been utilized as reasons for keeping a player out of the Hall of Fame.
During his eight-year NFL career with the Cardinals and the Lions, Harder won three NFL championships, topped the league in scoring three times, was the NFL’s MVP in 1948, and was selected as an All-Pro six times.
In short, he was everything that one might look for in a Hall of Famer who played fullback and linebacker back when players went both ways and handled the kicking chores for some of the best teams in NFL history.
To understand the depth and prominence of Pat Harder’s career, let’s begin with his introduction to football at Milwaukee’s Washington High School. During his senior season, Harder scored 143 points in just eight games to establish a city record. He was also named to the all-state team twice.
In addition, Harder was the captain of the Washington basketball team and also won the Wisconsin high school low hurdles championship.
Led Big Ten in Rushing and Scoring
It only seemed natural that Harder would then enroll at the University of Wisconsin in 1940. Of course, at that time, freshmen were not allowed to participate in varsity sports but Harder became an instant star during the 1941 campaign.
That year, he led the Big Ten in both rushing and scoring. His 72 points stood as a Wisconsin record for most points in a season until broken by Rufus Ferguson almost 30 years later.
Purdue head coach Mal Edward said of the versatile rusher: “Pat Harder is the best sophomore fullback I’ve ever seen!”
In 1942, Harder partnered with the great Elroy Hirsch to lead the Badgers to an 8-1-1 record with the only blemish being a controversial 6-0 loss to Iowa when officials ruled that Harder’s plunge for a tying touchdown fell just short of the goal line.
Still, the Badgers finished third in national polls and Harder was named an All-American. Despite his offensive accolades, Harder was also remembered for his defensive abilities according to columnist Tom Butler of the Wisconsin State Journal: “Harder epitomized consistency and did so many things well, including playing a rough and rugged game at linebacker.”
Randy Coughlin, another writer for the State Journal added: “Harder is the best back I’ve seen at Wisconsin in my time. You must remember Harder’s wonderful qualifications are not all offense, it’s his defensive play and team play. He’s just one of those naturals that are hard to find.”
Hit 'Em Again, Hit 'Em Again, Harder, Harder!
Harder was also responsible for one of the most enduring chants heard at high school and college football games even today. After a game against Purdue in 1941, the Journal and Courier newspaper in Lafayette, IN stated that “Pat ‘Hit ‘Em’ Harder was in a class by himself.
Probably the best fullback in the land, Harder ran the pigskin 30 times during the afternoon and picked up 171 yards! His speed, shiftiness, and tremendous drive were a source of agony to the Purdue eleven from start to finish.”
The writer had picked up on the now-famous chant from the Wisconsin fans of “Hit ’em again Harder, Harder,” which of course, was aimed in praise at their pile-driving fullback and linebacker, Pat Harder.
Due to the ongoing hostilities during World War II, Harder entered the Marines in 1943 and gave up his final year of collegiate eligibility. However, before he departed for the service, Harder was named the MVP of the 1943 College All-Star game after he scored on a 33-yard run and a 37-yard pass reception in a surprisingly easy 27-7 win over the Washington Redskins. In addition to his pair of touchdowns, Harder also booted two extra points.
While in the service, Harder was selected as the second overall pick of the 1944 NFL draft by the Chicago Cardinals. Although Harder could have returned to Wisconsin for one more season following his discharge, he elected to try pro football in 1946. Harder was part of a revitalized Cardinals team that recently shook off a 29-game losing streak to finish 6-5 under Coach Jimmy Conzelman, the team’s first winning season since 1937.
NFL Scoring Leader Three Times
Although not a huge man at 5-11, 203 pounds, Harder enjoyed a lengthy pro career, playing with the Cardinals from 1946-1950 and then concluding with the Detroit Lions from 1951-1953. His impact with the Cardinals was immediate.
In 1946, he rushed for 545 yards on just 106 carries (5.1 yards per carry), good for second place in the NFL behind Bill Dudley. Harder also grabbed 11 passes for another 128 yards, allowing him to finish the season with the second-best average in yards per touch with 5.8.
Then in 1947, the Cardinals turned over the place-kicking duties to Harder and his value to the team soared.
He was near-perfect on his extra points in 1947 (39-40), 1948 (a perfect 53-53), and 1949 (45-47). With his rushing and receiving touchdowns, along with his efficient kicking, Harder became the first NFL player to score 100 points in three straight seasons. He was the NFL’s leading scorer in 1947 with 102 points, as well as in 1948 with 110 tallies, and again in 1949 with 102 points.
In 1947, Harder was part of the Cardinals’ “Dream Backfield” which was the first time that a professional club started four college All-Americans in the same backfield. Harder teamed with halfbacks Marshall Goldberg and Charley Trippi, along with quarterback Paul Christman. Later, Goldberg switched to defense and the talented Elmer Angsman added his speed to the backfield.
Both Trippi and Angsman scored a pair of touchdowns each as the Cardinals knocked off the Philadelphia Eagles 28-21 to capture the 1947 NFL title. Harder added two extra points to the final tally. During the 1948 season, the Cardinals were even more dominant, finishing the regular schedule with an 11-1 record before falling to the Eagles 7-0 in a championship tilt marred by a blinding snowstorm.
1948 NFL MVP!
During that season, Harder was selected by UPI as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player after scoring 110 points, including that perfect 53-53 in extra points, and added seven field goals and six rushing touchdowns.
He was once again very solid running the ball, picking up 554 yards in 126 attempts, and grabbing 13 passes for another 93 yards. His rushing efforts were good for sixth in the league with Trippi and Angsman finishing second and third respectively.
Won Three NFL Titles
For some reason, the Cardinals traded Harder to Detroit before the 1951 season. Actually, Harder announced his retirement on January 21, 1951, but reconsidered just prior to the opening of the Cardinals 1951 training camp. However, Coach Curly Lambeau refused to allow Harder back and completed the trade with Detroit where Harder continued to excel for the Lions.
Harder posted one of his finest individual performances in the 1952 National Conference title game victory over the Rams. In that game, Harder picked up over 100 yards on the ground and scored 19 points in the Lions’ 31-21 win. With Harder on the roster, the Lions picked up two NFL championships in 1952 and 1953, leaving Harder with three titles overall for his career.
In addition to his MVP award and the numerous All-Pro honors, Harder was also selected as a member of the “All-Decade” team for the 1940s. He finished among the leaders in the NFL during several seasons in categories such as: most extra points made and attempted; most field goals made; highest field goal percentage; most rushing yards; most all-purpose yards; and most rushing yards per game.
Still, with all of these gaudy accomplishments, Harder remains absent from the Hall of Fame. In 1992, shortly after his death, the Wisconsin State Journal surmised as to why Harder did not receive more recognition: “Pat was one of the NFL pioneers who helped popularize pro football. His career ended before the glitzy television boom. The old-timers are dwindling and the new breed doesn’t remember him.”
It is certainly questionable as to why Pat Harder has not reached the pinnacle of professional football accomplishments by being selected to the Pro Football HOF. Maybe someday, sometime…
Thank you for spending some time with us today and we look forward to the next episode of “When Football Was Football,” when we’ll look back at the Cardinals’ first extensive post-season tour following the 1934 season, which we’ll call the “Cardinals Magical Mystery Tour.”
Enjoy the holidays and we will see you again soon here on the Sports History Network!
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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