State Your Case: Harlon Hill

NFL Rookie of the Year in 1954 & NFL MVP in 1955

(Published June 2016)

Gridiron greatness is defined on the football field by those who play the game.

We as members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee are then asked to judge that greatness. And that’s where it gets sticky.

How long does that window of greatness need to stay open for a player to be deemed worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

A five-year window earned Gale Sayers a bust in Canton. But a six-year window hasn’t been a winning ticket for Sterling Sharpe, nor has a four-year window for Terrell Davis.

Billy Sims had a three-year window of greatness in the early 1980s but can’t even get into the room to be discussed. For 38 games in the late 1980s, Bo Jackson appeared to be Jim Brown re-incarnate. But his name never comes up in the Hall of Fame discussion, either.

All gave us glimpses of greatness, but injuries prevented them from sustaining it.

Which brings me to Harlon Hill, who was the best wide receiver and arguably the NFL’s best player for a three-year stretch in the mid-1950s.

You may not remember Hill as a player, but you should know his name. The Harlon Hill Award was created in 1986 as the NCAA Division II Heisman Trophy. Future NFLers Johnny Bailey, Ron Moore, Ronald McKinnon, Danny Woodhead, Bernard Scott and Joique Bell were all Hill Award winners.

Hill was a Division II legend himself at Florence State Teachers College, now known as the University of North Alabama. And for three years after his selection by the Chicago Bears in the 15th round of the 1954 draft, Hill was every bit an NFL legend.

“Harlon Hill was the best piece of raw-boned talent I ever saw walk into a training camp,” Bears’ Hall-of-Famer George Connor was quoted in the George Halas autobiography, “Papa Bear.”

There were just three NFL receivers with 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 1954-56. Hill was the only player to do it twice. He caught 45 passes for 1,124 yards and an NFL-leading 12 touchdowns in 1954 and 47 passes for 1,128 yards and 11 touchdowns in 1956. He was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 1954 and then won the inaugural Thorpe Award as the NFL MVP in 1955 after catching 42 passes for 789 yards and a league-leading nine touchdowns.

Hill followed that up with his NFL-runnerup 11-touchdown season in 1956 to propel the Bears to the NFL championship game. He was voted to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons and made first-team All-NFL all three years. He was a burner with career touchdown grabs of 88, 86, 79 and 76 yards.

But Hill suffered a back injury in that 1956 championship game against the New York Giants — the first in a series of injuries that cost him his speed, productivity … and greatness. He suffered a separated shoulder that cost him four games in 1957 and then ruptured his Achilles tendon in 1958 that ended his season after eight games.

And that’s why Hill’s name has never come up in discussions for Canton. He caught 134 passes for 3,041 yards and 32 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons — but only 99 passes for 1,676 yards and eight touchdowns in his final six, injury-riddled seasons. He finished up with a season in Pittsburgh in 1961 and another in Detroit in 1962 before retiring.

Hill returned to his hometown after football and became a coach, a teacher and, eventually, the principal at his old high school. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 80.

Harlon Hill hasn’t played football for more than 50 years. But he still holds the Bears’ record for career 100-yard games (19). He also holds Chicago single-game records for most receiving yards (214) and touchdowns (four), plus single-season records for most receiving yards and touchdowns by a rookie. His 4,616 yards and 40 touchdowns with the Bears still rank second in franchise history, and his career average of 20.24 yards per catch ranks third in NFL history.

Harlon Hill was a great football player. Without a bust in Canton, though, his greatness has been forgotten. And that’s too bad. It shouldn’t be. For three years of his life, he was a Hall-of-Fame player.

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