Mark Harmon’s Football Life Before He Became Famous Might Surprise You

Like many sports, football has a tradition of second-generation players. All four Matthews brothers, Casey, Kevin, Jake, and Clay III, are third-generation NFL players. Archie Manning’s sons Eli and Peyton both won the Super Bowl twice.

Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon capped a successful college career with a short stint in the NFL, paving the way for his son. Did you know NCIS‘s Mark Harmon built on his father’s college football legacy before becoming an actor?

The Harmon family

Mark grew up with a football-star father with highlights always available to watch. Unaware of the difference between a highlight reel and real game, Mark joked “I was literally, like, eight before I realized my dad ever got tackled because, on the reel, he scores every time he gets the ball.”

His father Tom’s biggest football achievement was leading the country in scoring in back-to-back seasons. He played well enough to go down as an all-time great University of Michigan Wolverine.

In 1940, Tom was eligible for the NFL draft. The Chicago Bears used the first overall pick on him, but Tom informed the league he didn’t plan to keep playing. He competed later that year for an AFL team. But 1941 brought America’s entry into World War II, and Tom was called to serve.

In April 1943, Tom survived a plane crash. He left the military in 1945 when the war ended. Tom played briefly for the Rams but found his way to broadcasting in 1947. As his children grew up, Tom brought Mark to games and let him watch from the press box. 

Mark Harmon’s college football career

Mark is best known for his roles in NCIS and The West Wing, along with earning People’s 1986 Sexiest Man Alive award. Before he began acting, Mark earned an associate’s degree and enrolled at UCLA to earn his bachelor’s.

While studying at UCLA, he played quarterback for the Bruins, beating the national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers in his first game. Mark earned the National Football Foundation Award for All-Around Excellence and led his team to a 17-5 record during his college tenure.

Mark Harmon transitions to acting

Mark graduated cum laude in 1974 and left football behind. He began picking up small acting roles, eventually working on St. Elsewhere alongside another Sexiest Man Alive winner, Denzel Washington.

Mark eventually earned his part in The West Wing, which led to a guest role on JAG and a starring role on NCIS. He has stayed on board as NCIS entered its 17th season, making it clear he’ll remain with the franchise for the foreseeable future.

Other celebrities on the gridiron range from Gerald Ford and Dwayne Johnson to Matthew Fox and Rose Bowl-winner Jole McHale. The bar for college football is set significantly lower than the NFL, but it’s still difficult to make a team.

Mark went much further in football than most people, even if he eventually found a career better suited for him. It’s certainly interesting that the 17-season star of NCIS could have been on a competing channel throwing touchdowns.

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