Memories of Bears' Hill will live on

Well before video games and other sensory-overload hand-held entertainment devices captivated our youth, kids of my generation collected and exchanged trading cards of our favorite football and baseball players.

The cards weren't interactive devices in today's technical sense, yet there seemed to be a virtual lifetime connection created between the youngster and the player depicted.

When I was 7, childhood friend Paige Smith offered me two of his cards — Chicago Cardinals quarterback Lamar McHan and halfback John David Crow — in exchange for Bears receiver Harlon Hill. I firmly declined the offer.

Hill, who passed away Thursday at 80, remains the Bears' second all-time leading receiver in career yards (4,616, behind Johnny Morris' 5,059). And, remember, NFL teams played only 12 games per season until 1961, Hill's last of eight seasons with the Bears. Hill averaged 20.2 yards a catch during an era when defensive backs were allowed to hit receivers downfield before the ball was in the air.

Hill's stats and the fact Sid Luckman from the 1940s still holds many of the Bears' passing records says a lot about the Bears' lack of progress offensively in the modern era.

Through my decades as a Tribune sportswriter, meeting famous athletes has become fairly routine. Yet, when I have the opportunity to chat with former players whom I admired as a young boy, I tend to turn into that awkward old Chris Farley character on "Saturday Night Live" who would begin every interview with: "Remember the time you made that unbelievable play? … That was great, wasn't it? …"

I had the opportunity to connect with Hill the last several years over the phone. He had been in failing health for quite some time as his daughters cared for him at his home in Killen, Ala. He had undergone numerous surgeries and was relegated to a wheelchair. His daughters would alert me before putting Hill on the phone that his speech and memory lapses were a concern. Yet I discovered his recall of Bears games from the late 1950s was remarkable.

I spoke with Hill in October before the Bears faced the Lions in a Monday night game. We talked about the 1956 Bears-Lions game that ended in a players brawl and near fan riot at Wrigley Field. It was the first NFL game my father had taken me to see.

"I remember that game," Hill said of the 38-21 Bears victory in which he caught a 44-yard touchdown pass. "(Defensive end) Ed Meadows knocked (quarterback) Bobby Layne out of that game. (The Lions) were playing dirty."

Hill said he didn't think the Bears would be intimidated by the Lions on Oct. 22. That turned out to be the game Ndamukong Suh slammed Jay Cutler to the ground to cause a concussion.

"I don't think the Bears have any sissies; they won't put up with that," Hill said.

Listed at 6 feet 3, 199 pounds, Hill was drafted by the Bears out of Florence State Teachers College (now the University of North Alabama) and was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 1954 after catching 45 passes for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was league MVP in 1955 and wound up his nine-year career with the Steelers and Lions in 1962. Hill later became a high school coach and then principal.

He is the namesake of the Harlon Hill Trophy that annually goes to the best college player in Division II.

In college, Hill was the favorite target of quarterback George Lindsey, who would become an actor and played "Goober Pyle" on the Andy Griffith Show.

Hill said Lindsey's favorite play to call in the huddle was: "Harlon, go long."

I still cherish my Harlon Hill football card and the memories that go with it. And the answer is still, no. There is no way I would trade it.

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter @kicker34

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