JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – He was a Lee High General long before the school was renamed.
He was also a Florida Gator alongside legend Steve Spurrier and he went on to become a record-setting Atlanta Falcon.
After football, he was a sports broadcaster but was also a federal prison inmate.
Now, Jacksonville’s own Harmon Wages, 77, is also a published author.
I sat down with him in his old hometown to discuss his book about his remarkable life.
Wages and I have known each other for 46 years. We met when we were both covering the 1977 Florida-Georgia game.
Our reunion was at Pine Grove Market in Avondale which used to be his father’s market and butcher shop.
Wages titled his autobiography “The Butcher’s Boy” and he dedicated the book to his adoptive father and mother. They figure prominently in his greatest football memory when he was a Falcon under coach Norm Van Brocklin.
“Mother called me, she said your dad’s heart is giving out. This game he is coming to against the Saints, December 7, 1969, Pearl Harbor Day, will be the last game the doctors will allow him to see. So Van Brocklin found out about this, mother swears she didn’t call him, I think she did, he knew I’d be playing hard so he built a game plan around me,” Wages said. “I ran for a touchdown. I threw for a touchdown. I caught a touchdown pass.”
Wages is one of only a handful of NFL players who have ever pulled off that hat trick.
“And my daddy comes up to me after the game, Tom, ‘Sonny boy, I didn’t know you could do that!” Wages said laughing.
Neither did he.
That game ball now has a special resting place.
“[The] game ball is buried with my father [Leon Wages] under his right arm...out at the Normandy cemetery in Jacksonville and I go out there and sit and chat with him whenever I’m in town,” Wages said.
Fully retired, Wages now lives in South Carolina. You can tell from his shirt he is still a Falcons fan. He last played for the team in 1973, his only team for his five NFL seasons.
He said the most he’s ever made as a player was $38,000 for a season, but he has no regrets even when he sees the massive money today’s NFL players make.
“I’m happy. I was born in ‘46. I’m a war baby. And, um, everything worked out fine. I’m happy,” Wages said.
Part of his happiness comes from a photo he shared that shows the people who are special to him now: Travis, Carli, Eli, Tyler and Chase.
Travis is a son that Wages didn’t know he had until Travis was 34 years old and reached out.
“His mother, the bio[logical] mother, told Travis on her deathbed that who he thought was his daddy was not. It was me,” Wages said. “So Travis called me up, told me the situation, and he and I have become friends along with his three boys.”
Naturally, all three boys play football. Eli, 19, plays for Stetson in DeLand and Tyler, 16, and Chase, 14, play for Fletcher High School in Neptune Beach.
Overnight, he became an instant father and grandfather.
“They don’t put that on the shelf, instant coffee, instant granddaddy,” he said laughing. “We get along good. We get along fine.”
Wages and I first met on the Friday night before the 1977 Florida-Georgia game. It was an unforgettable introduction because both he and his date, Deborah Norville, now seen on Inside Edition, were wearing full-length black mink coats. Mink coats are just not that common here in North Florida.
Harmon played his college ball at the University of Florida. He was on the Gator sideline where he overheard the dramatic conversations that set the stage for the most famous field goal in the history of the college game.
On Oct. 29, 1966, with the score tied at 27, Spurrier, a star Gator quarterback, became a kicker and booted a field goal to beat Auburn.
Wages, who was the bench-warming backup quarterback behind Spurrier, said the kick almost didn’t happen.
“In a game, homecoming game, national TV, he kicked the winning field goal, 40 yarder, 7 yards back, 47 yards, Spurrier was not our kicker. Our kicker broke his toe. Steve said, on the sidelines, I’m standing right there, ‘Let me kick the ball.’ Coach says, ‘No’...‘Let me kick the ball, I can kick the ball, let me kick the ball, I can kick that damn ball,’ That’s Spurrier. Coach Graves says, ‘Let him kick the ‘blankety-blank’ ball.’ So he goes in, kicks a 47-yard field goal. Wins the Heisman trophy,” Wages said.
Even though Wages hardly played, what he did end up winning was an advertising gig for a new product invented by a UF scientist, Dr. Robert Cade.
“Gatorade, Dr. Cade, they were going to market it in Northeast Florida, that’s Jax., so they needed somebody from Northeast Florida. There I was,” he said. “That’s the only reason I got it, because I wasn’t playing, was because I was behind Spurrier, so they wanted somebody who people in Northeast Florida would recognize, and people would recognize me from Lee High School and from some publicity I’d gotten so boom, that’s what happened. Right place, right time. Thank you, Lord.”
Wages lived a charmed life, but not entirely.
“You wound up going to federal prison for drugs. I hate to bring that up but I have to bring that up,” I said.
“That’s alright. Well, I use it a lot of times when I speak to kids’ groups,” Wages said. “I got caught up in the fast lane, being cool. [A] prosecutor, running for DA, saw the opportunity. One of the people he arrested told the prosecutor that he had sold some cocaine to me. I was a customer. Three times. Made my nose run so I quit. But it was too late. I was a big name. The government is trying to make an impression on people not to do it. And so that was it. My mistake. Big mistake. Paid for it but learned a lot too.”
Wages ended up doing time in a “white collar prison.”
“It’s not a prison. There are no bars. It’s like going to summer camp. You have rules and regulations and your freedom is taken away,” he said.
But life changed when he got out.
“About 85% [of people] were very positive. Understood. And then there were a few who felt I let them down which I did so it was something you have to deal with and learn from and never make the same mistake twice,” Wages said.
As for advice he gives to young athletes, Harmon said the most important factor is your relationship with your coach or coaches. If it is a good relationship, you will enjoy success, he said.
The book also talks about his relationship with his parents, Leon and Nell Wages, who adopted Harmon when he was a baby.
Part of the proceeds from the sale of the book goes to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
Watch the uncut interview below: