FLORENCE — One of the area’s sports icons has died.
Harlon Hill, who brought then-Florence State Teachers College to prominence and starred in the National Football League with his football prowess, died tonight. He was 80.
Hill suffered from a variety of health problems in recent years before his death, but always made a comeback.
These days, Hill is best known as being the namesake for the Harlon Hill Trophy. The NCAA Division II equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.
Hill played high school football at Lauderdale County High School and enrolled at Florence State Teachers College (now UNA), where he starred as a wide receiver in the team’s run-first offense. He caught 54 passes in 35 games for the Lions, but 19 resulted in touchdowns. He finished his college career with 54 catches for 1,020 yards and 19 TDs. He averaged 18.8 yards per catch.
Despite catching only 12 passes his senior season, Hill was a NAIA All-American in 1953 and caught the attention of a Chicago Bears scout. Hill was drafted in the 15th round by the Bears and made an immediate impact in the NFL.
Hill’s rookie season with the Bears resulted in statistics that nearly surpassed his entire college career numbers. Hill caught 45 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, leading the team in all three categories.
The Bears improved from 3-8-1 in 1953 to 8-4 in his first season and Hill’s play resulted in his being named Rookie of the Year and to the league’s All-Pro team.
Hill stayed with the Bears through the 1961 season and spent 1962 with Pittsburgh and Detroit before retiring.
Some of Hill’s marks still are in the Bears record book. He ranks second with 226 receptions, 4,616 yards and 40 TD catches.
After his NFL career ended, Hill returned to UNA and received his Master’s degree in Education. He eventually taught and coached at Brooks High School, and later became the school’s principal.
Hill is a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, UNA's Athletic Hall of Fame and the Lauderdale County Sports Hall of Fame. He also is a member of the Chicago Bears Ring of Honor and was named one of the 50 greatest Bears by ESPN.
His son, Jerry, was a standout player at UNA and is the head football coach at Brooks.