Given that the Falcons are, in the short term, out of the business of making great memories, we today reach back – way back – to recycle one.
This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of one of the top individual performances by one of the franchise’s more colorful, if capricious, characters.
On Dec. 7, 1969, at the old Atlanta Stadium, running back Harmon Wages became just one of a rare handful of players to record a rushing, receiving and passing touchdown in the same game. Among those who have done likewise include Walter Payton, LaDainian Tomlinson and former Falcons coach Dan Reeves.
If Wages today needs to remind himself of that long-ago magic moment – he considers it a borderline spiritual one, for reasons that will follow – he has the highlights always at hand. “Oh, yeah,” he says with a laugh, “I got them on my tablet and my cellphone.”
Currently, you’ll find Wages, 73, living outside Charleston in a quiet that is almost poignant when compared to his tumultuous younger years. He survived a celebrity relationship – dating TV’s Deborah Norville – fits of drug and alcohol abuse – including brief imprisonment for misdemeanor drug possession in the mid-1980s – and a very public profession, broadcasting sports in Atlanta and Jacksonville. Now, “Charmin’ Harmon” as he was known, lives in Summerville, S.C. with his longtime companion, the same girl he used to date when they were in middle school.
Back to that game a half-century ago:
The touchdown hat trick was set motion that week before the New Orleans Saints came to town. Hardly known as the sentimental sort, Falcons coach Norm Van Brocklin nevertheless was aware that Wages’ adoptive father was in failing health and that the opportunities for him to see his son play were fading. “Wednesday in huddle, he said we’re going to put a game plan in for ol’ Leon,” Wages remembered.
Having the chance to do something special and actually doing it were two quite separate issues.
“I swear I was on my knees praying every day and night before that game,” Wages said. “Not for me, God. Let me do this for my dad. That was the plan.”
And as that game in Atlanta unfolded and Wages kept breaking free and beating Saints to the end zone, he came to believe there were forces at work beyond Van Broklin’s plan. “I just wasn’t that fast,” he said, crediting more the power of his prayer.
First came the halfback pass, a 16-yard scoring completion to Paul Flatley in the first quarter. Wages had backed up Steve Spurrier for a couple of seasons at Florida as quarterback, so he knew something about winging it.
“I went down with Flatley before the game underneath the stadium and I warmed up for about 15-20 minutes before we went out. I didn’t want to be throwing the ball too much where they could see it,” he said.
“I can still see the DB, he came up because he thought it was a sweep. He saw me raise my arm, he eyes got so wide because he knew someone was behind him and that was it.”
Then, in the second quarter, came an 88-yard TD reception from Falcons quarterback Bob Berry.
“I caught the ball on the dead run,” Wages said. “I caught it right on the 50 near their sideline in front of Jim Taylor who was with the Saints at the time. The (defensive back) kind of stumbled a little bit. I was at least as fast as (the Saints secondary) was.”
All to be capped by a 66-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, the exclamation point to a 45-17 Falcons victory.
On the sideline, Wages said he told Van Brocklin that one of the Falcons guards, by the way he was leaning, was tipping the Saints on the sweep. “So Norm says to Bob Berry, get the ball to Harmon but don’t tell anyone. (The guard) pulled, (Saints tackle) Mike Tilleman chased him and I went right up the middle, and then stiff-armed one guy along the way,” Wages said.
Wages squeezed out five seasons with the Falcons before a knee injury ushered him out of the league. His personality was always bigger than his career numbers – 1,321 rushing yards, 765 receiving yards, and, yes, 50 passing yards on three completions. On that single day 50 years ago, Wages would amass more than one-quarter of his NFL career touchdowns (he had a total of 11 in five seasons).
More important was the memory that outlasts every season, good and bad, and still warms one old player long after the playing is done.
“He knew the game was for him,” Wages said of his father. “This was the man who gave me a home. After the game was over, he was down there, he kind of shuffled up to me in that old man shuffle and leaned over and said, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’
“He’s buried with the game ball.”
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