Harlon Hill trophy signifies tradition and pride in Florence area

Ferris State University quarterback Jason Vander Laan speaks at the Harlon Hill Trophy banquet in the Guillot University Center Jan. 9. Vander Laan became the first player from his school to win the award.

Strike a pose Jason Vander Laan.

The 6’4” 241 pound quarterback from Ferris State University took home the 29th Harlon Hill trophy during a ceremony held at the Guillot University Center Jan. 9. The Harlon Hill trophy is given annually to the best player in D-II.

“I’m very honored to win this award and I’m proud of the way our school is coming along,” Vander Laan said. “I feel great about our team and the accomplishments we had this year, and to cap it off with this is special.”

The dual-threat quarterback threw for 2,381 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for 1,466 yards and 20 touchdowns.

“We just have a phenomenal option team,” Vander Laan said. “We have so many weapons out there it’s hard to defend us. We have a great offensive line and receivers, so it all works out well.”

Vander Laan said he was only focusing on winning games this season and not the prestigious award. Vander Laan led the Bulldogs to an 11-1 record and the first round of the playoffs.

“Obviously everybody knows what the Harlon Hill trophy is, but I really wasn’t focused on it,” he said. “We returned a lot of guys and it’s the third year we’ve had this coaching staff so I knew we were going to have a lot of success this year.”

The Harlon Hill trophy ceremony was previously held the night before the D-II National Championship game, but with Florence no longer hosting the game, the banquet’s future was in question.

“We created it here so I went through every scenario on how to do the ceremony here,” said Jeff Hodges, chairman of the Harlon Hill Committee and UNA sports information director. “With the championship game being gone, everything was kind of new to us this year. The trophy is ours, so even though we created it to coincide with the game there was no doubt we’d make sure it stayed here.”

Before 1986 there was no player of the year award for D-II, so Hodges contacted the NCAA and wrote the proposal for it.

“I felt we needed to honor some of these great athletes that were playing at this level,” he said.

And Harlon Hill was one of those.

Hill played at UNA, known as Florence State at the time, from 1949-53. Hill was named NAIA All-American in 1953 and was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the 15th round in 1954.

“Hill was just a natural fit to name the award after,” Hodges said. “We were all familiar with him and he was a national figure. He was one of the very first small college players to make it in the NFL, and he also had the connection with the area.”

Hill would go on to make an immediate impact in the NFL by being named rookie of the year in 1954. His success continued as he made three Pro Bowls with the Bears. He retired with the Detroit Lions in 1962 and returned to the Florence area.

Hill passed away at the age of 80, March 21, 2013.

“Knowing Harlon Hill and what a great person he was, I’m very proud that the trophy is from here,” said UNA football head coach Bobby Wallace. “It’s a great thing for the university because we are always mentioned at the ceremony. The trophy bring a lot of pride to this area.”

Athletic Director Mark Linder said even though Hill was a former NFL star he was always so humble and unassuming.

“Humility is one of the keys to success and even we can all have the spirit like him we can accomplish great things,” Linder said.

UNA has two former players to win the Harlon Hill Trophy: linebacker Ronald McKinnon (1995) and quarterback Will Hall (2003).

Vander Laan said he is honored to be the first Ferris State player to win the award and is marveled at the accomplishments Hill made at the next level.

“Coming down here and meeting with Harlon’s son and seeing all the accomplishments (of Harlon Hill) has made a big impact on me,” he said.