‘NCIS’ Once Gave Fans a Glimpse of Mark Harmon’s Fantastic Football Skills

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Before Mark Harmon ever started acting, before he ever became a beloved character on NCIS, he was known for his football skills.

And if you’re an avid NCIS fan, maybe you remember the time the show let Gibbs show off his strong arm.

The nation’s sports fans first discovered Harmon in the early 1970s, when he quarterbacked UCLA and led the Bruins out of obscurity. And more than 30 years later, in the second season of NCIS, writers gave a nod to Harmon’s athletic past by having him throw a football. Although the scene was brief, it wasn’t every day that you saw Gibbs instructing some random kid to go deep.

Writers dubbed this NCIS episode “Forced Entry.” And it ran Dec. 7, 2004. NCIS had been in existence for only 32 episodes and it still was another three years away from cracking the ratings top five. Back then, Gibbs was taking agents Kate (Sasha Alexander), DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) and probie McGee (Sean Murray) to crime scenes along with medical examiner Ducky Mallard (David McCallum).

Here’s a vintage Gibbs NCIS photo with Mark Harmon from 2006. (Cliff Lipson/CBS)

And when the episode ran 18 years ago, the college football season was coming to an end. Southern California QB Matt Leinart was about to win the Heisman. (Harmon’s dad won the same trophy six decades before). And Leinart’s Trojans, the arch enemies of the UCLA Bruins, were weeks away from a national championship.

And as we count down to college football season (and fall TV premieres), why not look back at when Harmon was an athletic star? That was back when his greatest goal was beating USC and maybe living up to his father’s legacy on the football field.

Harmon was an ace at running the wishbone, the trendy new offense sweeping college football. Because of the offense, Harmon was more of a running QB. But he could sling the football. Remember that pass he threw in the NCIS episode? It wasn’t quite as good as the one in this video. This play happened in UCLA’s upset of Nebraska, the defending national champion, to open the 1972 season.

Harmon’s first big victory was the win over the Cornhuskers. It also represented his first career start. It was like some Hollywood scriptwriter created the plot line, so no wonder Harmon was so perfect for acting. The Bruins’ victory snapped Nebraska’s 32-game winning streak. With Harmon under center, UCLA was 17-5. The year before Harmon, the Bruins won only twice. Plus, Harmon was terrific in the classroom. The National Football Foundation selected him as one of its top scholar-athletes in 1973.

In his two seasons at UCLA, Harmon rushed for 1,504 yards and 14 touchdowns as the Bruins became the top rushing team in the country. Harmon also passed for 845 yards and nine touchdowns. The future NCIS star thought about the NFL. Chuck Fairbanks, who tried to recruit Harmon to the Oklahoma Sooners, also wanted him to sign with New England, his new NFL team. But Harmon decided to get on with his adult life.

“I never thought (the NFL) was in the cards for me,” Harmon told Larry King in a 2014 interview. “I always wanted to try and play college sports. It turned out to be football. I think at the end of that time I was ready to move on.

“I think it all worked out,” he added.

Yes, it did all work out. So let’s get back to NCIS, Harmon’s acting legacy. He left the series last October, four episodes into the show’s 19th season. You can still watch the second-season episode in which Harmon throws the ball while investigating a case on a Marine base. But back in 2015, the USA Network, which picked up the show in syndication, trimmed the football scene from the episode.

The episode also revealed another unique detail about Gibbs. We learned about Rule No. 32 — “Never mess with a Marine’s coffee if you want to live.”

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