Harmon Wages started just two games in college but found himself in the NFL for six years, including an unforgettable day for the Falcons in 1969 which he threw, caught and ran for a touchdown.
It didn’t start quite so simply.
Born in Waycross but adopted by a family in Jacksonville, Wages didn’t play tackle football until he was in the 10th grade at Robert E. Lee High School. His sport was baseball but by happenchance, the football coach saw him throw a football 60 yards and, “He told me, ‘You want to play baseball, then you are going to play football.’ They could do that back then.’’
On a team that played some of the best schools both in and outside the state of Florida, Wages, a running quarterback, led the team to 8-2 and 7-3 records as a junior and senior. He was widely recruited was even visited by coach from West Point, but chose to go to Florida.
The issue there was Steve Spurrier, who was a year ahead of him. While freshmen could not yet eligible play on the varsity, Wages watched Spurrier for two years, including his Heisman season in 1966.
Wages finally got his chance his senior season but broke his ankle in preseason practice. He tried to play in the opener against Illinois but ended up having to sit for seven games before the Gators played Kentucky, with future Falcons teammate Jeff Van Note at linebacker for the Wildcats. Wages played well, Florida won 28-12 but he found himself back on the bench the following week against Miami. Down 20-0 against the Hurricanes, Wages came off the bench in the second half and led the Gators to two touchdowns but they still lost 20-13.
While Wages played some special teams in college, his career passing totals were 56-for-119 for 710 yards and three touchdowns. He didn’t expect to be selected in the 1968 draft and flew to Atlanta to participate in a tryout camp put on by the Falcons at Grady High School.
Tom Braatz, the team’s director of player personnel, liked what he saw and offered Wages a $2,000 signing bonus, a $3,000 bonus if he made the team and $15,000 for the season.
Wages made the team as third quarterback but was switched to running back due to injuries. He played little as a rookie year but saw time in 1969, which included a December game against New Orleans when he became the fourth NFL player to throw, run and catch a touchdown pass in the same game.
He would play four more seasons with the Falcons, mainly coming off the bench but he became a fan favorite with his good looks, blonde hair and “Charmin Harmon’’ personality. When the NFL went on strike after the 1973 season, Wages joined other local players in work-outs at the Lovett School. One day, Joe Namath was in town, showed up and threw a long pass to Wages, who got his foot caught in a sprinkler head as he turned to catch it.
He tore his ACL as well as cartilage and his career was essentially over. He did get a tryout with the Eagles the next season but was cut and retired. Wages finished his NFL career with 1,321 rushing yards and five touchdowns and 85 receptions and five scores. He also completed three of the four passes he threw.
Next came his broadcasting career, beginning with WAGA where he was a weekend anchor. He subsequently became sports director and led an on-camera team that included the Braves’ Phil Niekro of the Braves, the Falcons’ Alfred Jenkins, the Flames’ Curt Bennett and the Hawks’ Lou Hudson.
He also began doing CBS college games with Paul Hornung and Falcons radio games with Bob Neal. It was during this time he met soon-to-be TV star Deborah Norville, an intern at WAGA, and they began a six-year relationship. Wages then worked for WXIA.
It appeared to be the perfect relationship. When Norville left for a job in Chicago, Wages quit his job to follow her in hopes of catching on with a local station. But then a story broke that a local cocaine dealer had been busted and there was evidence that Wages was a customer. Wages was later charged with distribution and lying to a grand jury.
Norville dropped him immediately. Wages ended up doing three months in a federal prison camp in Atlanta for misdemeanor possession.
Down on his luck for a while, Wages finally made it back on television after returning home to Jacksonville and joining WTLV. He worked there for two years, returned to Atlanta to work at WGNX and then retired. Back in Jacksonville, he spent many years as an advisory board member for the Police Athletic League, working off his community service time from his cocaine sentence and telling his story to city youth.
Where he lives: Wages, 70 and divorced, lives in Jacksonville. He has a son, Travis, who he did not meet until eight years ago, and three grandchildren. He said he has established relationships with two half-brothers from his birth mother.
What he does now: Wages, who continues to be a popular speaker, is planning to write a book.
On being adopted: “I was sold to my uncle for $500 and he gave me to his sister-in-law, who was my mother. I didn’t even have a birth certificate and my birth mother was 17. I never knew who was father was.’’
On why he didn’t go to West Point: “When coach (Paul) Dietzel came down to visit me, my dad told him, ‘I don’t think my son is quite cut out for West Point.’ I went to North Carolina to visit and the coach (Jim Hickey) handed me a scholarship (form) and said, ‘If you want it, mail it back to me.’ He didn’t seem real interested. I went back home and decided Florida was the best for me.’’
On facing future Falcons teammate Jeff Van Note when he was at Kentucky: “We were playing in the Swamp and it was about 2,000 degrees. I got up to the line and I am looking right across from Van Note. I would run one sweep to one side and then the other. Jeff got cotton mouth. I had a good game.’’
On playing behind Spurrier: “He was damn good. I could run faster, throw the ball better but he was a fox on the field and great play-caller. He would drop-kick the ball 50 yards in practice.’’
On trying out for the Falcons: “My father and I knew I could play in the NFL and we decided to pick the worst team in the league and at that time, it was the Falcons. So I flew myself up to a tryout camp at Grady and I think I was the only white guy there. There was about 120 players and some really good athletes but I out-ran a lot of them and Tom Braatz offered me a deal.’’
On moving from football to broadcasting: “I beat on people’s doors for about a year and finally, Channel 5 gave me a shot. I remember the first broadcast. There was no teleprompter and I was nervous and sweating like crazy. I knew I was terrible and on the show, I just stopped and told the viewers I know I am bad but I will get better. The apathy turned to empathy.’’
On his drug trial and conviction: “The prosecutor told me I would have total immunity if I would squeal on some other guys. I told him I wouldn’t do it and the interesting thing is, all I got convicted on was a misdemeanor. But the judge told me they had spent some money on the trail and that I was getting 90 days. The jail I went to we called ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ It was right next to the federal pen in Atlanta.’’
On Norville: “She is one of the nicest, smartest people I know and is a pure talent. She has a voice of an angel. I met her when she was an intern and I will never forget she hated dumb blonde jokes. One time we ran into Howard Cosell and Tommy Lasorda on an elevator and Howard asked her what airline she was with. She went right up to Howard and said, ‘NBC’ and a few other things I can’t say.’’
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