From left to right, Arta Harman, son Wade, and Doc Harman. Wade was back in Iowa scouting tight ends for the upcoming NFL draft, before visiting his parents at their house east of Corydon. Photo by Jason Selby
AFTER CLOSE LOSS IN SUPER BOWL 51, FORMER WAYNE FOOTBALL STANDOUT KEEPS FIRING FOR THE ATLANTA FALCONS
On April Fool’s Day at Doc and Arta Harman’s house, the television in the kitchen is tuned to a football field somewhere in America, except it is college lacrosse, Michigan at Maryland. The Harmans might be the only people in Iowa watching the game. Outside, son Wade Harman, who lived in Maryland while coaching the Baltimore Ravens for 15 years, loads a replica of a 1927 .45 caliber Tommy Gun.
Harman is in Iowa on business, scouting tight ends for the Atlanta Falcons’ NFL draft. He takes the opportunity to spend a few days with his folks. The Thompson submachine gun is no April Fool’s joke. It is quality time with his father, the former Corydon veterinarian.
After watching the Iowa Hawkeyes’ George Kittle block, snag passes and run the 40-yard dash, and then traveling to Des Moines to take notes on under-the-radar prospect Eric Saubert of Drake, Harman has enough room and wingspan to spread his arms and embrace his parents in one big hug. He looms almost a foot taller than both of them.
If Atlanta were to draft Kittle, it would be the third Hawkeye Harman has mentored. He coached Dallas Clark in Baltimore and Tony Moeaki with the Falcons.
“They’ve had some good guys come through,” Harman said of Iowa. “They do a good job with their program. Their players are well-coached.”
Harman’s son Hunter plays high school lacrosse. That is why the television is on—Harman is using ESPNU to explain the rules to his mother. Because of the work trip, he cannot travel back to Georgia in time to watch Hunter play that day.
For what it is worth, at the end of the Michigan-Maryland game on the TV behind them, Kim Hicks’ Terrapins beat Tom Brady’s Wolverines 15-8.
To put this in perspective, Hicks is Wayne of Corydon’s high school golf coach, but led Maryland to a women’s field hockey title in 1987. She scored both goals in a 2-1 win over North Carolina. Brady won a college football championship in 1997 as Michigan’s backup quarterback, throwing only 15 passes all season but winning the crown. Athletic success is relative, a product of suspended disbelief. Family is real.
Wade Harman can wear two Super Bowl rings if he wants, but the Iowa farm boy isn’t one for bling. For the 1982 graduate of Wayne Community High School, living with children free of cancer is more important than being a sports idol.
When he was growing up in his parents’ farmhouse on a hill east of town, Harman dreamed of playing for the Minnesota Vikings. But he had chores to do each night.
Even if there was a blizzard out, Harman could not skip haying his father’s cattle—in fact, days like that were when overseeing the herd was most important. He still managed to rush for 1,300 yards his senior year for head coach Paul Epperly’s Wayne Falcons.
“It established a work ethic being here on the farm,” Harman said of life with three brothers and a sister in a Lutheran family. “I always had responsibilities, and things you had to get done. My dad was tired of paying for milk for four boys. So he bought a milk cow.
“Even in the wintertime, every morning before school, I had to trudge all the way over to the barn. You can’t put it off until the next day—it’s got to get done. It didn’t matter what the weather was like—it’s a little colder here than in Atlanta.
“My parents were always supportive of whatever you were trying to do. They didn’t say you have to play football, or you have to do this, but if you did, you had to give it your best effort. You had to show up. You couldn’t ever quit. If you start something, always finish it.”
Colleges recruited the southern Iowa athlete as a middle linebacker. He chose Drake, which at the time was a Division I team. In 1985, the Bulldogs last season as a scholarship program, Harman wrestled down Iowa State quarterback Alex Espinoza for a fourth quarter sack. He also recorded a tackle-for-a-loss on a critical fourth and short while leading Drake to a 20-17 victory.
“Drake was a good fit for me—it worked out well, even with the program dropping,” said Harman, who got a chance to talk face-to-face with NFL prospect Saubert as the draft approaches April 27. It would be quite an opportunity to coach a tight end from his old school. “It was neat to get back on campus and check it out.”
After Drake, Harman followed head coach Chuck Shelton to Utah State for his final playing days. That’s where offensive coordinator Brian Billick took Harman under his wing, first as a graduate assistant for the Utes, before bringing the young computer programmer to his staff as offensive coordinator for the Vikings.
If not for Billick, Harman might have been satisfied sticking with his childhood team, Minnesota, close to home. But when Baltimore hired Billick away, Harman became the Ravens’ tight ends and offensive line coach. It wasn’t solid tackling, in the end, but Harman’s mind that placed him on a professional sideline.
Billick and Harman won a Super Bowl their second season behind one of the best defenses in NFL history.
“It really helped us on offense,” Harman said, “practicing against them in training camp. They did so many different things—you got exposed to everything. You knew when it got to Sunday, it wasn’t going to be as tough as what you’ve faced every day.”
Seventeen years later, Harman has reached the Super Bowl twice more, his only loss coming this year with Atlanta.
Epperly is now battling cancer. Harman planned to visit Epperly Field at the new Saling Athletic Complex in Corydon while he was home, to see the stadium named after his old teacher.
“I played some as a freshman,” Harman said. “Epperly was really good with me as a coach, leader and mentor. He brought me along from a young guy—it’s not an easy thing to do. He was instrumental in helping me grow as a player and as a person. I’ve been lucky to be around some good coaches—it started with him in high school.”
After Epperly, Harman went on to serve under Shelton, Billick, Dennis Green, John Harbaugh, Mike Smith and Dan Quinn.
Epperly was also Harman’s mentor in the classroom, since math and analytics were the Wayne Falcon linebacker’s forte off the field.
His senior year at Wayne, Harman earned Iowa All-State honors at running back. The quarterback for that team was another veterinarian’s son, Mike Freese. His father, Dr. Leo Freese, worked out of the same office as Doc Harman.
“Good little quarterback,” Wade Harman said of Mike. “He threw the ball really well. We had a good year.”
Playing tight end was younger brother Greg, along with Nick Street, now a professor at the University of Iowa. They caught passes from Freese and blocked for Harman. Nick—a cousin of former Hawkeye basketball standout Chris Street—also threw shot put with Harman for the track and field team.
“He had good form,” Harman said of Nick, who by his own admission was not quite as strong as Wade. “He was basically my coach. He taught me how to do it. We spent a lot of time in the shot put ring pit, tossing and talking. Without him, I wouldn’t have known anything about it. He was a unique, crazy smart guy, and had a really good personality.”
Thanks in part to Street, Harman qualified for the Iowa State Track and Field Meet at Drake Stadium as a senior in shot put.
Later, Harman and Street were both computer science majors together at Drake.
At Utah State, Harman minored in math while performing statistical analysis, and that propelled him to his next position, uploading playbooks digitally to computer for the Vikings.
“I got the chance to use some of my education,” Harman said. “Not just on the field, but off the field, too.”
As a freshman at Wayne, Harman played with older brother Tork. When Harman was an upperclassman, he played with future Iowa free safety Tork Hook, who was named after Harman’s older brother. Hook still holds the Hawkeye record for most interceptions in a bowl game.
The year Harman’s Drake Bulldogs beat Iowa State, they were not so fortunate against Big Ten champion Iowa, a squad led by seniors Chuck Long and Ronnie Harmon. Former teammate Hook was a freshman on injured reserve that season. Iowa beat the Bulldogs 58-0.
Another outstanding athlete for the Falcons who blocked for Harman was lineman Matt Garver. Garver went on to play for Kansas State—that made three players, from the same small town Iowa team, that started at the Division I level.
“It was a neat time in a small community,” Harman said. “The town was very supportive. They gave you the best they could from what they had.”
“Coaching is a crazy business,” Harman said. “You move a lot. I was in Utah, California, Iowa and Minnesota. To sit in one spot, Baltimore, for 15 seasons is unheard of—it doesn’t happen often. So it was tough leaving. We still go up there and see friends. My son was born there. My girls grew up there.”
Harman and wife Angie have three children. The oldest, Madison, will graduate from the University of Maryland this May. Rylee is in her second year at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Hunter is a junior in high school.
Some of Harman’s favorite moments involve having his children on the sidelines with him. That stands out in his mind more than winning championships, though Hunter was on the field when Baltimore beat San Francisco in 2013 for the title. Like this year’s big game, that season’s champion was not decided until the final play.
When Gary Kubiak became offensive coordinator for the Ravens three years ago, Harman did not expect to be pushed out of a job. Baltimore had just won their second Super Bowl two seasons before that. But Kubiak brought in his own staff, which included a tight ends coach.
“After 15 years, it didn’t end the way you want it,” Harman said. “But you accept it and move on.”
By default Harman was released, but was lucky enough to find another job the same year with Atlanta. He saw the Falcons had potential, but he did not know they would make the Super Bowl in only a few more seasons.
At Utah State, Coach Shelton was responsible for piquing Harman’s interest in coaching an offensive position after playing defense.
“He said, ‘I’m going to put you on offense so you can learn a little more about the other side of the ball.’
“I really started working with the [offensive] line with Coach Billick. Second year, I worked with the tight ends.”
Billick told Harman it was a good spot for him, because a tight ends coach has to be versatile.
“You do a little bit of everything,” Harman said. “You run and pass block, you’re involved in the passing game. [Billick] said that was a good way to learn offensive football.”
While never having played tight end, Harman learned by watching the coaches around him. He is a quick study.
“I did enough work with receivers, so I knew about routes and catching the football,” Harman said. “I did enough stuff with the line—I knew about skills for run blocking, pass protecting. So I had a little exposure to both. Tight end was just putting them together. It was a natural progression.”
A few of the tight ends Harman has coached include Shannon Sharpe, Todd Heap, Ben Coates, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. He worked with Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden when he helped coach the offensive line in Baltimore. Harman was with the Vikings when they drafted Matt Birk out of Harvard, and 15 years later he got to watch Birk win a Super Bowl with Baltimore in his last season before retirement.
As a tight ends coach, Harman gets the opportunity to work with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan as the receivers go through their passing routes.
“He’s really good with the guys,” Harman said.
A wide receiver that stands out in Harman’s eyes for both character and talent is Anquan Boldin, who played for the Ravens’ 2013 Super Bowl championship team.
“A great human being,” Harman said of Boldin. “Guys like that, you love when they have success because they’re such good people, too.”
As a member of Baltimore’s staff, Harman also coached the AFC squad in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
SUPER BOWL 52
“Sometimes I’m the last to know about those things,” Harman said of rumors Atlanta is considering trading for shutdown corner Richard Sherman of Seattle. Dan Quinn was Sherman’s defensive coordinator before taking the head coaching position for the Falcons. “You can’t get enough of those guys. The NFL is a passing league anymore.”
When Atlanta lost to New England in Super Bowl 51, they were playing without their best cornerback, Desmond Trufant, which did not help when Brady was picking their secondary apart in the second half. On April 8, the Falcons locked in Trufant for another five years. Jordan Schultz of 'The Huffington Post' calls Trufant "one of the league's brightest young defensive stars."
“Any time you lose a guy [it hurts],” Harman said of the impact of Trufant’s absence. “But that’s the NFL—you always get guys knocked out and coming back in. It happens. Better years, when you keep everybody healthy, you have a better shot. [Trufant] should be back and ready to go.”
One of the players Harman had a say in drafting last year was Stanford rookie Austin Hooper, who caught a touchdown pass against the Patriots.
“You just never know who’s going to be left when you pick, especially down the line a little bit,” Harman said of the NFL draft. Because of this season’s success, the Falcons must wait until the 31st slot in the first round.
Though the Atlanta players were distraught after allowing a championship to slip through their fingertips, this is the most important time for a coach to be there for the young men he mentors. Just like growing up in Iowa, when the blizzard hits, that is when a farmer must trudge through the drifts. The wind is now calm. And Harman is carrying a Tommy Gun.
“I still enjoy getting up and going to work,” Harman said. “It’s not work for me. I still have a passion for it.”
Even after the heartbreaking loss in February’s Super Bowl, life goes on for Harman and for the Atlanta Falcons.
“Every loss is heartbreaking,” Harman said. “But we’ve got a process we go through to try and get better. We stay with it. We’re competitors, and that’s what we do. All losses are hard. That’s what makes it special when you win it.
“We’ve got some strong character guys—I’ll take this group. We’ve already looked at some things in the offseason—how do we change our process, what things do we want to do a bit different, and we’ll crank it up again. It was a great year. It was a fun year. If that’s the worse thing that happens, you lose a Super Bowl, that’s a pretty good life.”