Harlon Hill Article
Was Brandon Marshall the Best Bears Receiver Ever? Meet Harlon Hill
By Whet Moser
Published March 6, 2015
Photo: Wikimedia Commons (left), Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune (right)
For three years in the 1950s, the Monsters of the Midway had the most exciting receiver in football—big, fast, acrobatic Harlon Hill, a 15th-round draft pick out of tiny Florence State Teachers College in northern Alabama.
Today the Bears managed to trade Brandon Marshall to the Jets, just before he would likely have been released in order to save $7.7 million in cash and $3.95 million in cap savings. Marshall was divisive, struggled with injuries, and is coming up on his 31st birthday, but he was also the team’s first real number-one receiver since… Marty Booker in 2001-2002?
He’s the only Bear ever to break the 1,500 yard mark, and his 118 receptions in 2012 are the most ever for a Bears receiver. As ESPN’s Stats & Info department just noted, the Bears’ QBR was more than twice as good with Marshall on the field in the last two seasons—which doesn’t count his best season—than without him.
But is he the best Bears receiver ever? Actually, I might have to go with Harlon Hill.
You might not have heard of Harlon Hill, who died two years ago. Back in the day, no one had heard of Harlon Hill; he was a college star at and 15th round pick in 1954 out of Florence State Teachers College, just after it rebooted its football program, and it was exactly the football powerhouse it sounds like. (It’s now the University of North Alabama, and they’ve now got a good Division II team.)
And Harlon Hill didn’t really know what the NFL was either, as he told Pro Football Researchers in 1983:
I was surprised when I found out I was drafted by the Bears. 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.
Hill was discovered during the 1953 Blue-Gray senior game. Only he wasn’t actually there. “The Montgomery promotion needed All-Americans, not unknowns, to lure cash customers,” the Tribune’s David Condon reported in 1955. But a coach told Clark Shaughnessy, an assistant to George Halas, that Hill was as good as Don Hutson, the best and most innovative receiver—possibly the first real wide receiver—in the game during the 1930s and 1940s. Hutson’s still considered by some to be the best wide receiver ever; it was a promising tip.
Granted, it’s impossible to really compare NFL players across that many years, as Hill admitted: “compared to today’s players, we’d look like a high-school team…. the football team this year at University of North Alabama would beat the best team I played on probably by forty points.” But in the 1950s NFL, Hill was as good as advertised to Shaughnessy. Before he was hobbled by injuries, the Bears could claim possibly the best receiver in the NFL, starting in his first year.
That was 1954, and Hill led the league with a 25.0 yards-per-reception average and 12 touchdowns, and finished second in yards with 1,124—252 more than the third-place finisher—and third in yards from scrimmage, averaging 93.7 yards per game. Hill’s yards per catch that season ranks 13th all time.
Hill fell back a bit in 1955—789 yards, 18.8 yards per catch, and 65.8 yards per game, ranking third in each. But he still led the league in receiving touchdowns.
1956 was Hill’s last great season—24 yards per catch, first in the NFL; 1,128 yards, just 60 behind Green Bay’s Billy Howton; 94 yards per game, five behind Howton; and 11 touchdowns, one fewer than Howton. And he made what was, at the time, considered one of the all-time great catches.
OK, it was a different era. But he had “an uncanny knack for pulling down impossible passes,” according to George Halas. And not only was he fast, he was big: 6’3” and 199 pounds, kind of the A.J. Green of his day.
Hill caught six passes for 87 yards in the NFL Championship game—but future Hall of Famer Frank Gifford caught four for 131 yards and a touchdown as the Giants, with three future Hall of Famers on defense, steamrolled the Bears 47-7.
In 1957 everything began to fall apart. Eight games into the season, during which Hill was averaging 23 yards per catch and 60.4 yards per game, Hill separated his shoulder, missing the final four games. He returned in 1958, seemingly lessened, averaging just 45.6 yards per game.
After another eight games, Hill was lost for the season again, this time to a torn Achilles tendon. It was reported that his career was over; even in the modern era, only two-thirds of players return from the injury. But he somehow came back; according to Hill, he was “the first one ever to recover—any athlete—to recover from a completely severed Achilles tendon.”
But Hill wasn’t the speedster of his promising early career. He lost his starting job after one game of the 1960 season, playing all 12 games but catching just five passes. The next year the Bears turned Hill into a safety, where he registered a respectable three interceptions and a fumble recovery. Pittsburgh traded for Hill and tried to turn him back into a receiver, but he caught just seven passes in seven games. After another seven games with the Lions, in which he caught no passes, Hill retired from football. When Pro Football Researchers tracked him down, he’d gotten a master’s in education, quit drinking—he was busted in 1959 for a DUI and leaving the scene of an accident—written a book, and was a high school principal in Killen, Alabama, his hometown.
Here’s how he stacks up to Marshall, comparing Marshall’s three seasons with the Bears versus Hill’s first three and only healthy seasons:
But what about DITKA, the team’s greatest tight end? They played about the same number of games in their Bears careers, 89 for Hill and 84 for Ditka. They averaged about the same number of yards per game, 51.9 (Hill) and 53.6 (Ditka). They had about the same number of yards, 4,616 (Hill) and 4,503 (Ditka). Yet Hill had six more touchdowns than Ditka (40 versus 36) and averaged 6.1 more yards per catch (20.4 versus 14.3)—and that’s including three mediocre-to-bad seasons after being the first athlete to come back from a full Achilles tear.
Hill’s number hasn’t been retired by the Bears; his prime simply didn’t last long enough. (Mike Ditka’s the only pass-catcher in the history of the Bears to have his number retired, much less make the Hall of Fame.) But for three years, Harlon Hill was a real star—a big, fast, acrobatic, entertaining wide receiver at the dawn of the position, and probably still the best they’ve had since.