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Alabama's Legendary Harry Gilmer: 1926 - 2016

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Harry Gilmer is oft overlooked for more contemporary Alabama players but his accomplishments on the gridiron during the 1940's stands the test of time.

Harry Gilmer was one of the greatest players to ever wear crimson and white
Harry Gilmer was one of the greatest players to ever wear crimson and white
The Bryant Museum

UPDATE: It is with great sadness we note that Mr. Gilmer passed away on Saturday, Aug. 20. We are returning this story to the top of the page to commemorate his career at the Capstone. Stories about Gilmer are now up at AL.com, the Tuscaloosa News as well as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In 1962 Alabama opened the season with a new quarterback and a 35-0 thumping of the Georgia Bulldogs. Joe Namath had arrived and the SEC took notice.

Dick Flowers, an assistant at Florida State who had played for Alabama in the 1940's, saw the new Tide signal caller's style and noted it had an uncanny resemblance to a past Alabama passer he had played with.

"He looks a lot like Harry Gilmer," Flowers told the Tuscaloosa News.

Back then, Gilmer was assumed to be the benchmark for an Alabama passer but, today, Namath has eclipsed him in that regard. Ken Stabler certainly has a lot of name recognition and some folks actually recall that Bart Starr played for the Tide back in the day.

Harry Gilmer? He's been lost to the annals of time.

A big reason for that is, unlike Starr, Stabler and Namath, Gilmer's tenure in the pros was relatively uneventful due to injury. The fact that the now 90-year-old Gilmer didn't play in the era of television is certainly another. But when you compare these players in terms of their time in Tuscaloosa, Gilmer simply blows them all away.

During the four years he was at the Capstone (1944-1947), Gilmer was a legitimate superstar. He was a nationally recognized player mentioned in the same breath as his contemporaries Doak Walker and Bobby Layne. His unique jump pass style was as amazing as it was accurate (and it ruined a generation of backyard passers across the state, according to Bobby Bowden who idolized the older Gilmer).

His accomplishments were remarkable. To list a few:

  • He is the only Alabama player to be a finalist for the Heisman trophy twice.
  • He is the only Alabama player ever taken with the first selection in the NFL Draft.*
  • He was an all-American in 1945, SEC Player of the Year in 1945 and the MVP of the 1946 Rose Bowl.
  • He was the first player to leave his cleat and hand impressions in the concrete at the Walk of Fame at Denny Chimes.
  • He is a member of The Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.

If you want to learn more about this amazing Crimson Tide player, my biography of Gilmer is now available over at the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

As a compliment to that, I've gone through the University of Alabama's football record book and tallied the items that Gilmer is still listed for. It's a remarkable testament to why this phenomenal athlete remains one of the greatest to ever wear the crimson and white.

Gilmer's offensive prowess is well documented but the record book also shows how the man was a threat on defense and special teams.

For example, Gilmer's Alabama record for career punt return yards (1,119) wasn't bested until Javier Arenas topped it with 1,752 career yards more than sixty years later. As for defense, Gilmer's career record for interceptions (16) stood for a half century until Antonio Langham broke it with 19 in the 1990's.

So when you see a poll talking about the all-time greats of Alabama's football and it doesn't have Gilmer's name listed, you can rest assured, they have no idea what they are talking about.

Record Rank Total Date
Yards per Rush (game, min 5-9 attempts) 1 36.0 (6 attempts, 216 yards, 2 touchdowns) vs Kentucky Nov. 3, 1945
Rushing Yards by a QB (game) 1 216 vs Kentucky (6 attempts) Nov. 3, 1945
Punt Returns (game) 1 8 vs Tennessee (63 yards) Oct. 19, 1946
Punt Return Average (season, minimum 20 returns) 1 18.1 (21 returns, 381 yards) 1947
Kickoff Return Average (career, minimum 15 returns) 1 28.7 (574 yards, 20 returns) 1944-1947
Longest Touchdown Rush (80+ yd) 2 95 yards vs Kentucky Nov. 3, 1945
Highest Completion Pct. (season, minimum 50) 2 64.8% (57 of 88) 1945
Punt Return Yards (career) 2 1,119 (83 returns) 1944-1947
Punt Return Average (career) 2 13.4 (83 for 1,119) 1944-1947
Long Punt Returns 2 92 yards vs LSU Nov. 22, 1947
Interception Return Yards (career) 2 234 (16 interceptions) 1944-1947
Interceptions (season) 2 8 (79 yards) 1946
Interceptions (career) 2 16 (234 yards) 1944-1947
Yards per Play (game, minimum 8 plays) 3 9 plays for 226 yards vs Kentucky Nov. 3, 1945
Total Touchdowns (career) 3 52 (2 punt return, 1 kickoff return, 1 interception return, 19 rush, 29 pass) 1944-1947
Touchdown Responsibility (career) 3 52 (2 punt return, 1 kickoff return, 1 interception return, 19 rush, 29 pass) 1944-1947
Punt Return Yards (season) 3 436 (37 returns) 1947
Punt Return Average (game, minimum 2 returns) 3 40.6 vs Georgia (3 returns, 122 yards) Oct. 25, 1947
Most Point After Touchdowns (game) 4 9 vs Howard (9 attempts) Oct. 7, 1944
Punt Returns (career) 4 83 (1,119 yards) 1944-1947
Punt Return Yards (game) 4 122 vs Georgia Oct. 25, 1947
Punt Returns (season) 5 37 (436 yards) 1946
Total Touchdowns (season) 6 9 rush, 13 pass 1945
Highest Completion Pct. (game, min 10) 6 84.6% vs Georgia Tech (11 of 13) Nov. 15, 1947
Rushing Yards by a QB (game) 7 116 vs USC (16 attempts) Jan. 1, 1946
Touchdown Responsibility (season) 7 22 (9 rush, 13 passing) 1945
Punt Return Yards (season) 8 381(21 returns) 1946
Punt Return Average (season, min 20 returns) 8 11.8 (37 returns, 436 yards) 1946
Rushing Yards (game) 9 216 vs Kentucky (6 attempts) Nov. 3, 1945
All-Purpose Yards (career) 9 1,938 rushing, 574 punt return, 1,119 kickoff return 1944-1947
Winningest Quarterbacks 9 .721 (30-9-2) 1944-1947
Most Yardage (career) 10 4,657 (2,894 pass, 1,763 rush) 1944-1947
Touchdown Passes (career) 10 29 1944-1947
Long Punt Returns 11 80 yards vs Georgia Oct. 25, 1947
Career Rushing Yards 17 2,025 yards 1944-1947

* Joe Namath was selected first overall in the American Football League draft in 1964 but was taken 12th in the NFL draft that same year. The two leagues merged in 1966.