"Hollywood" Mark Harmon Wins Top Honor From National Football Foundation

Left to right: NFF President George Murphy, Tom Harmon, Mark Harmon and John Wayne. At 1973 NFF dinner awarding Wayne with Gold MedalPhoto courtesy National Football Foundation

Former UCLA quarterback led epic 1972 upset over Nebraska running the least glamorous offense ever

“Hollywood” is always looking for a twist so here’s one:

The most glamorous transfer quarterback in UCLA history had blond hair and stood tall (6-foot-4) in the pocket.

Golden boy had a god-like name, threw honey-dripped spiral passes and went on to win three Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys.

His name was Troy Aikman. He was a country hick from Oklahoma.

One of the least glamorous transfer quarterbacks in UCLA history was, on Thursday, named 2019 Gold Medal Recipient by the National Football Foundation.

His name is Mark Harmon. He WAS born in Hollywood (close enough, Burbank), but at UCLA ran a Homestead Act offense (the Wishbone).

The NFF honor is a huge deal, awarded first to Dwight Eisenhower (1958) and also to John F. Kennedy (1961), John Wayne (1973), Jackie Robinson, Archie Manning and many others.

The 2019 winner has maintained a low profile in a high-profile world. He has done good work and good deeds without ever bringing undo attention to himself.

Mark Harmon is legitimate “Hollywood.”

Yet, I’ll bet you Chip Kelly’s salary that most students on the Westwood campus today have no idea Harmon once played quarterback at UCLA.

There is also irony in knowing the most enduring football-playing star to emerge out of UCLA was a B-actor in his own huddle as part of the least “Hollywood” offense ever devised.

Harmon ran the Wishbone, hardly a break-out vehicle for a future leading man.

Imagine Clark Gable playing Sam Drucker’s role on Green Acres.

As a teenager in 1972, though, I was mesmerized by UCLA’s powder blue mystique (mostly in basketball) and distinctly recall Mark Harmon’s short football burst in Westwood.

He was only a celebrity then as the done-nothing-yet son of Tom Harmon, the football All-America out of Michigan, Ole 98.

UCLA football entering 1972 was still reeling from Tommy Prothro’s departure in 1970 to the L.A. Rams.

Pepper Rodgers, who took over for Tommy, went 2-7-1 in his first year.

Harmon was a Juco transfer from Pierce College more known as a runner than a passer.

Rodgers, preparing for the 1972 home opener against national champion Nebraska, sprung a surprise.

Pepper hit Nebraska with his own version of a ground-hugging offense, the Wishbone.

Rodgers had stolen this sneak-attack plan from Alabama Coach Bear Bryant, who literally forced Texas Coach Darrell Royal teach him the Wishbone and then used it to surprise USC in the 1971 opener.

With Harmon at the helm UCLA, as 18-point home underdogs, pulled off a shocking upset, snapping Nebraska’s 32-game winning streak.

That 20-17 win, orchestrated by Harmon, remains one of the most defining moments in UCLA grid history.

Dan Jenkins, covering for Sports Illustrated, somehow foresaw what was to come.

“And there he was,” Jenkins wrote of Mark Harmon, “in his very first major college game, becoming a hit TV Series. A Star is Born.”

Jenkins could not have possibly imagined Harmon becoming, in fact, a bigger on TV than in football.

Harmon and that UCLA team, and that Nebraska game, have faded into distant memory.

Let’s be real Harmon was, at best, the third-most famous guy in his huddle. The backfield was led by tag-team runners James McAlister and Kermit Johnson, “The Blair Pair” from Pasadena Blair High.

Bruce Walton, Bill’s brother, was on the offensive line.

Harmon played two years at UCLA before embarking on a long, steady and successful acting career.

It is hard to turn on a television without seeing his face in some current or rerun.

He has endured despite never really fitting the Hollywood stereotype. He has remained an unassuming actor and willing option-offense operator.

Harmon had more rushing yards at UCLA (1,504) than passing yards (854 total in 22 games).

In a 2012 L.A. Times look-back story on that 1972 Nebraska upset, Harmon recounted a Cornhusker standing over him after making a tackle.

“Where’s your surfboard, California boy?” the guy said.

Harmon recognized the player.

“I looked at him and said ‘Aren’t you from Glendale?’”

He was and his name was Mark Heydorff—the two have been friends for years.

I don’t know Harmon personally but have always admired his acting professionalism and off-screen humility.

He has never seemed overly enamored with his fame, wealth, good looks, family name, or good fortune.

What a concept in the today’s United States of Kardashians, right?

In 1996, though, with no cameras rolling, Harmon pulled two teenagers out of a burning car in Brentwood.

“Mr. Harmon broke out the car windows and pulled the boys to safety,” a fire department spokesman reported at the time. “The youths owe their lives to the action of Mr. Harmon.”

Harmon didn’t want hero-credit then. He just did what he always did—he acted.

Gold Medal Recipient is the highest honor the NFF bestows. It recognizes an outstanding American who has demonstrated integrity and honesty; achieved significant career success; and has reflected the basic values of those who have excelled in amateur sport, particularly football.

Hard to argue, really, with Harmon receiving this award.

Just don’t expect him to brag about it—or UCLA to ever bring back the Wishbone.

Comments (1)
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Fun story on a much-admired personality. I followed his career because I knew his father's Heisman background, of course, and when I was going to Santa Monica College, we played Pierce in football. Also, the year before when I was still in high school, we played Blair in the CIF playoffs, so I was well-versed on the Blair Pair. It was a big deal for us, playing a football game at the Rose Bowl. I remember when Parade Magazine was delivered with the daily newspaper and they had their preseason predictions. Best passer: Mark Harmon, UCLA. Laughed my ass off. Best quarterback, maybe. But how could he have been the best passer when he was throwing only 8 or 9 times a game?

Chris Dufresne
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Chris Dufresne
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