UNA legend named best Chicago Bears receiver ever

Former UNA and Chicago Bears star Harlon Hill stands on the sideline during a Bears game. Chicago Magazine recently named Hill the best receiver in Bears history. Hill made the Pro Bowl in his first three seasons in the NFL.

by Sports Editor Dustin Pollard

The best receiver to ever don a Chicago Bears uniform played his college career at Florence State Teachers College (now UNA).

And no, that is no typo. His name is Harlon Hill.

Hill played for the Lions from 1949-53, finishing with 19 career touchdowns en route to being an NAIA All-American as a senior.

Drafted in the 15th round of the 1954 NFL draft by the Bears, Hill played his next eight seasons in Chicago.

The trade of Brandon Marshall from the Bears to the New York Jets sparked the debate if he was the best receiver in Bears history, but Hill was even better, according to Whet Moser in Chicago Magazine.

“For three years, Hill was a real star — a big, fast, acrobatic, entertaining receiver at the dawn of the position, and probably still the best the Bears have had since,” Moser said in his article.

“I’m not at all surprised to see him named the best (Bears receiver) at all,” said UNA head coach Bobby Wallace. “All you have to do is look at the stats, and you see how good his stats were during that time when the rules for defensive backs were different, which makes it more impressive. Today, the passing game is so much more advanced thanks to the rules.”

Little known due to playing football at a smaller school, Hill wasted no time to make his name heard at the next level. He finished his rookie season with 1,124 yards, 12 touchdowns and an average of 25 yards per catch — his yards per reception and touchdowns led the league.

Hill earned NFL Rookie of the Year in 1954 for his performance on the gridiron.

In his 1979 autobiography “Halas by Halas,” Bears founder and coach George Halas said Hill had “an uncanny knack for pulling down impossible passes.”

During his second season Hill posted 789 yards and nine touchdowns on the way to winning the Jim Thorpe Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

In 1956, Hill led the Bears to the NFL championship game.

Hill made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons in the league while ending his career with 40 total touchdowns.

“Harlon is one that proved that there are players at our level that can play in the NFL and have high success,” Wallace said. “It’s almost a miracle he got founded by the scouts because there is not the exposure at this level like now.”

A completely severed Achilles tendon in 1958 slowed Hill, and he tried to bounce back to Pro Bowl form but was not able. Hill retired from the game following the 1962 season.

“He helped change the game and his contributions as a receiver are significant,” said UNA Sports Information Director Jeff Hodges. “He helped establish the deep ball passes in the game.”

Hill returned to his roots following retirement and served as an assistant coach for the UNA football team in late 1960s while working on his master’s degree in education.

“He means a lot to the community and the community meant a lot to him,” Wallace said. “He did a lot for UNA and the Florence area. He was a man of high character.”

Hill became principal at nearby Brooks High School in Killen in 1980 and retired in 1992.

He remained in Killen until his death March 21, 2013.

“What I really admired about Hill was how humble of a person he was,” said Athletic Director Mark Linder.

Moser may be right about Hill being better when comparing the numbers.

Hill’s stats in first three season: 36 games, 3,041 yards, 32 touchdowns, 134 receptions and 22.7 yards per catch.

Marshall’s stats in with the Bears: 45 games, 3,524 yards, 31 touchdowns, 279 receptions and 12.6 yards per catch.