Chic Harley

Though his name has not been placed in Ohio Stadium until today, Chic Harley has always been watching over Ohio State football. That much is certain – for there would not be an Ohio Stadium without him.

While the five current names that hang there – Heisman Trophy winners Les Horvath, Vic Janowicz, Howard Cassady, Archie Griffin and Eddie George – have become household names to Buckeye fans young and old, when the name Harley goes up beside them, not everyone will be sure to whom it refers. That is the case, unfortunately, because Harley was a Buckeye when even older OSU fans were just a twinkle in their parents’ eyes.

Stories of Harley’s accomplishments and what he did for Ohio State football and for the university should become more prevalent now as his No. 47 jersey is retired and finds its rightful place inside the stadium that was built because, at the time, there was no stadium in existence that could contain all the people who wanted to see the things he could do on the football field.

Accepting Harley’s honors today are members of his family, including current Buckeye defensive back, No. 34 Rob Harley, who is Chic’s great-great nephew.

Born Charles Wesley Harley in Chicago on Sept. 15, 1895, but known throughout his entire life as “Chic,” Harley’s credentials alone warrant a place up among OSU’s Heisman Trophy winners that look down from above the north end zone of the historic Horseshoe. Had the Heisman Trophy existed when Harley played, he surely would have won the honor at least twice and perhaps three times. Harley was a consensus All-American all three years he played – 1916, 1917 and 1919. It would be 16 years after his last season that the Heisman Trophy was first awarded to the nation’s outstanding college football player.

In 1950, when the Associated Press selected its All-Star college football team of the first half of the 20th century, the well-known running back great Red Grange from Illinois was a second-team selection. The first-team running backs were Carlisle’s Jim Thorpe and Ohio State’s Chic Harley.

Bill Harley, 81, Chic’s nephew who lives in Oakbrook, Ill., said he remembers hearing a reporter’s explanation as to why he voted Chic above Grange.

“He was asked why,” Bill Harley said, “and he said, ‘Red Grange was a great runner, but that’s all he was. Chic Harley was a great runner, a great passer, a great kicker and a great defensive back. That’s why he’s on my first-team.’ But he played 85 years ago, so there aren’t any alums out there any more who remember Uncle Chic.”

Which is a shame, because with all due respect to the greatest athletes in Ohio State history, Harley should stand alone with that title. He is one of Ohio State’s few four-sport lettermen. In addition to his football heroics, he was a two-year starter at guard on the basketball team and a three-year starter in the outfield for the baseball team – the Chicago White Sox and the St. Louis Browns later offered him contracts to play Major League Baseball. In the spring of his sophomore year, as a favor to Ohio State track coach Dr. Frank Castleman, he competed in a track meet for the Buckeyes and set a Big Ten record in the 50-yard dash that stood for years. The first time Harley’s nephews took him golfing he shot an 82. The legendary pool player Willie Hoppe once lost to Harley in a game of billiards at the Clock Restaurant in downtown Columbus.

Bob Harley, Bill’s son and father of current Buckeye Rob Harley, remembers when he and his twin brother, Bill, met Woody Hayes on campus in St. John Arena and introduced themselves to the OSU coaching legend.

“Coach Hayes recognized our name and sat down and told us stories about Chic,” Bob Harley said. “He talked about what Chic meant to OSU. He said the program, fervor and passion for OSU football began with Chic.”

The historical magnitude of what Harley meant to Ohio State was never lost on Hayes, who would routinely tell stories about Chic to his players.

“Everybody knew about Chic Harley and how great he was because Woody would tell stories about him,” Archie Griffin said. “And for me, being from Columbus, I heard all the stories growing up, too. He really was the first player to attract people to Ohio Field.”

Many say Chic Harley should have been the first player to have his jersey number retired, but the Harley family is just thankful Chic’s day has finally arrived.

“We’re just happy he’s going to be honored and remembered,” Bob Harley said. “We’re just proud he’ll be up in that ring of honor. I’m sure a lot of Buckeye fans aren’t too aware of what all Chic meant. It’s been 85 years.”

Everything came natural to Chic Harley, but most of all, anything having to do with a football. Bob Hooey, longtime sports editor of the Ohio State Journal, once wrote a piece about Harley entitled, “The One and Only.”

“If you never saw him run with a football, we can’t describe it to you,” Hooey wrote. “It wasn’t like Thorpe or Grange or Harmon or anyone else. It was kind of a cross between music and cannon fire, and it brought your heart up under your ears. In the hardest-fought gridiron battles, Harley usually would get away and score the winning touchdown.”

“I can’t recall ever seeing him brought down by one man after he’d broken past the line of scrimmage,” Lew Bryer, former sports editor of the Columbus Citizen once said. “That timing is rare talent. Coaches can’t teach it. It seems to be instinctive.”

Hooey, like all other football fans of Harley’s day, and perhaps some around today, identified Harley as Ohio State’s first great football player and the catalyst for the Buckeyes’ Western Conference championships of 1916 and 1917.

“With his famous side-step, his reliable toe, his dashing runs and his cool judgment, Harley paved the way for Ohio State’s first two Conference championships,” Hooey said. “His fame grew so great and spread so far that people came to look upon him as a wizard.”

Marv Homan, who served as Ohio State’s sports information director from 1973-87, has said Harley is in a class by himself.

“He had all the tools,” Homan said. “He was one of those very rare, gifted runners that was as fast as any sprinter, but very shifty and had unusual body balance. And not only did he do every thing in the game, he performed at a top-flight level.”

It was just as true then, as it is now, that football is a team game. That said, however, Harley almost single-handedly brought Ohio State up from the reputation as a Midwest cow college to the forefront of national attention that having a big time college football program brings.

Having fielded its first football team in 1890 and then joining the Western Conference (which would later become the Big Ten) in 1913, Ohio State’s football beginnings were modest at best. The Buckeyes rarely played Big Ten-caliber opponents before joining the conference, and after they had joined, did not have much success against them. That all changed, however, when Harley stepped onto the field in 1916.

Harley moved to Columbus in 1912 from Chicago with his parents and three brothers and three sisters. He attended East High School, where he developed a following of fans that outnumbered the few thousand people who showed up to watch Ohio State games at Ohio Field. The football field at East would later be renamed Harley Field.

Harley lost just one game his entire high school career, that coming in his final game to North High School. In 1915, he enrolled at Ohio State and played that fall with the freshman team, as freshmen were not permitted to play varsity.

Few could have predicted the immediate impact he would have for Ohio State. For starters, many thought he was too small to play collegiate football in the Western Conference with such powers as Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Chicago. By most accounts, Harley was 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, although some publications listed him up to 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds. One thing was for sure, though – Harley could do it all.

He proved that in Ohio State’s first conference game in his sophomore season of 1916. With 1:10 left to play in the rain at defending Western Conference champion Illinois, Harley dropped back to pass, scrambled, faked a throw and bolted into the end zone for a 13-yard scoring run through the sloppy field. He then called timeout, put on a clean shoe, and calmly kicked the game-winning extra point, handing Illinois a 7-6 defeat, its first loss at home in four years.

Wins like that would become commonplace for Harley and the Buckeyes during his three seasons, which were briefly interrupted in 1918 when he spent a year as a fighter pilot in World War I. In Harley’s three seasons, Ohio State posted a 21-1-1 overall record and won every Western Conference game except one, which oddly enough, was Harley’s last game as a Buckeye at home to the same Illinois squad, which he began his storied career against.

Between those two games, however, Harley turned in historic performances nearly every week. As a sophomore, Harley and the upstart Buckeyes knocked off unbeaten Wisconsin, 14-13 (Harley scored both touchdowns and kicked both extra points), and toppled undefeated Northwestern, 23-3, in the season finale for the conference championship in front of a then-record crowd of 15,000 fans at Ohio Field.

Following Harley’s sophomore season, he was named to famed Walter Camp’s All-American team. It was the first time Camp, who had been an All-American at Yale and later helped revolutionize the game, had ever bestowed such an honor on a sophomore.

“In that era, East Coast players, especially from the Ivy League, dominated the college football scene,” Homan said. “So for Harley to win that honor, especially as a sophomore, was unheard of.”

As a junior, Harley was even better, and so were the Buckeyes. They out-scored the opposition 292-6 and claimed their second consecutive undefeated season and Western Conference championship. When Harley returned in 1919, it set the stage for a win that would become the biggest victory in Ohio State history.

After a five-year hiatus, Michigan had rejoined the Western Conference for the 1919 season and was considered by many as the best team in the league. The Buckeyes, 3-0 and unscored upon, were set to travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., Oct. 25 to meet the Wolverines, 2-0 and unscored upon, as well.

The night before the team left for Ann Arbor, an overflow pep rally worked itself into a frenzy as Harley led the Buckeyes, which had never defeated Michigan in 15 tries, into the Armory to address the throng of cheering students. The Columbus Dispatch recounted Harley’s comments in its Saturday edition.

“Captain Chic Harley was then called on. Chic never was much on talking to a crowd or telling about what he is going to do. He said, ‘I never realized what a Michigan game was before tonight. That is I never thought it more than a Wisconsin or an Illinois game. This crowd sure made the team feel like fighting harder than ever. That’s all.'”

Ohio State knocked off Michigan that day 13-3. Harley’s long touchdown run, from 35 yards to 50 yards depending on which account of the game you read, were the final points of the day, but his reported four interceptions were what really did in the Wolverines.

The 28,000 fans in attendance that day, the largest ever to see a game at Michigan’s Ferry Field, saw Harley put on a display of running, passing and defending that impressed not only themselves, but legendary UM head coach Fielding H. Yost, who asked for, and was granted, a rare moment to address his opponent in their locker room after the game. The Columbus Dispatch recounted Yost’s comments.

“After congratulating Dr. Wilce and Director of Athletics St. John, Yost said to the team: ‘You deserve your victory; you fought brilliantly. You boys gave a grand exhibition of football strategy and while I am sorry, dreadfully sorry, that we lost, I want to congratulate you. And you, Mr. Harley, I believe, are one of the finest little machines I have ever seen.'”

Columbus native Hank Gowdy, a former major league baseball player and war hero who added commentary in the Dispatch for events such as this, knew he was seeing greatness when Harley touched the football.

“When George Foerster and the rest of us were in France we sometimes used to wonder if we’d ever again be situated so that we could see Chic Harley play football,” Gowdy wrote in the Sunday Dispatch after the game. “But all the Columbus Chamber of Commerce crowd will be in early Sunday and then many of those who couldn’t be in Ann Arbor will hear more about how we lucky ones felt when Harley let loose for that 35-yard run.”

H.A. Miller, sports editor of the Columbus Dispatch, used the following lines to open his story of the game.

“Chic Harley, the premier football player certainly of the Western Conference, if not of the entire country, became a captain of achievement here today, rather than nominal leadership, when 25,000 football fans gathered from the plains and valleys of two states, watched this superman of the moleskin lead an attack with all the dash of an old-time cavalry chieftain that resulted in a 13 to 3 victory for the Scarlet and Gray.”

Harley’s last-second field goal in the brutal cold at Wisconsin Nov. 15, which he would later tell his nephew Bill was one of his proudest accomplishments, would be Harley’s final win at Ohio State. The following week at home against Illinois, the Buckeyes fell, 9-7, to an Illini field goal with eight seconds left. An overflow crowd estimated to be 20,000 was on hand to witness the contest.

In his three seasons, Harley scored 23 touchdowns, made 35 PAT kicks and kicked eight field goals for a school record total of 198 points. That record would stand until Cassady amassed 222 points in four seasons, culminating with the Heisman Trophy in 1955.

By no coincidence, the Ohio State Board of Trustees met that day after the Illinois game and signed a resolution giving Athletics Director Lynn W. St. John the go-ahead to begin the process of building a new football stadium. St. John, who later said he could have sold 50,000 tickets for Harley’s final game, immediately went to work revitalizing the stadium plan first set forth initially by Thomas E. French several years earlier and then drawn up by architect Howard Dwight Thomas.

“This school had never had a football player remotely close to Harley,” Homan said. “And this school had never seen a team as good as Harley’s teams of 1916, 1917 and 1919. Lynn St. John had the perfect catalyst for people to think big when it came to the new stadium, and there is no question Harley’s tremendous popularity launched the fundraising campaign.”

Because of Harley’s exploits, interest in Ohio State football was at a never-before-seen high in Columbus, whose own son had put Buckeye football on the map. And perhaps only because it was by one of its own, the community was able to finance such an undertaking, for the board of trustees also signed a measure in their resolution that called for no university money to be used for the project.

If his playing feats were not enough, Harley’s own words helped spark the campaign drive to raise the $1.3 million needed to build the great new stadium on the banks of the Olentangy River.

“Maybe it’s unconsciously, but somehow we go in there playing harder to win the bigger the crowd that backs us,” Harley wrote for the Ohio State University Monthly in February 1920. “There is inspiration, the finest kind, in the thousands and thousands of backers that a stadium like this one we’re trying for gives room to seat.”

While many at the time scoffed at the notion of a structure the size of what Ohio Stadium would become, folks like St. John, French, and Harley, for sure, knew the possibilities of what Ohio State football could become.

“It’s pretty hard to say in words what college spirit is but the team on the field and the crowd in the bleachers know mighty well what it is when the cheers are cut loose,” Harley wrote. “I want to be there when our team trots out for that first game in the stadium – as an alumnus then, of course. I want to hear those 50,000 rooters roar at the kickoff. We’re heart and soul for this stadium, the fellows who know what it is to go in there and fight with all that’s in us for Ohio State and her glory.”

In the House that Harley Built, his words ring true. His final line is written above the doorway of the Buckeyes’ locker room. Rob Harley and the Buckeyes slap the sign on their way to the field, where the legendary Chic never played, but has his footprints all over it. Today, Ohio Stadium has existed as perhaps the most recognized icon of the world-renowned institution for which it serves.

Following his playing days at Ohio Field, Harley stayed on at Ohio State and completed his eligibility in basketball and baseball and helped coach the football Buckeyes with head coach John Wilce. Then in 1921, Harley, his brother Bill, and fellow collegiate standout players George Halas and Ed “Dutch” Sternaman became equal partners in a professional football franchise, the Decatur (Ill.) Staleys. In the fledgling young National Football League, Harley’s name made the team prosperous, but after one year Halas signed a deal with Wrigley Field in Chicago to move the team there and change the name to the Chicago Bears.

The Harley’s were out of the deal. They sued Halas and as a settlement were granted two NFL franchises, but without enough investors to get the teams started, the Harley’s were out of luck. It was about that same time Harley began to suffer from depression, most likely caused by a combination of war trauma, a football injury suffered with the Staleys and the realization his athletic career was over. Baseball offers from the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox, as well as a standing offer from the University of Tennessee to be their head football coach, were wiped out.

Eventually, in 1938 he was admitted into the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Danville, Ill., where we would be a patient for the remainder of his life. That life, however, was far from over.

In the summer of 1948 as Harley neared his 54th birthday, a new doctor for Harley recommended he try “shock treatment” as a way of trying to return to a normal condition. The therapy did wonders for Harley and he began to show an interest in Ohio State that he had not shown in years. By coincidence, the Buckeyes were scheduled to play road games that fall at Indiana, Northwestern and Illinois, all of which were games within driving distance of Harley’s location in Danville, Ill. He attended those games and enjoyed seeing Ohio State play so much that he wanted to see the Buckeyes play in Columbus against Michigan in the 1948 season finale.

When the announcement was made Harley would be attending the game, the city and campus community prepared as if royalty would be attending the game. He was greeted at Union Terminal by city and university officials, as well as former teammates and family. A crowd estimated at 75,000 people lined High Street downtown for a ticker tape parade as his open-top convertible made its way to the capital building with a complete police escort and more than 20 university floats.

“We have seen pictures of that parade in the University archives,” Bob Harley said. “The expression on Chic’s face seemed like he couldn’t understand why they were doing this for him. He was just so humble and unassuming.”

“He was such a laid back person,” Bill Harley said. “As a young man, I remember looking at him and not believing someone could have done all that. He never talked about it unless you drew it out of him. During that parade, he was so taken that all the people remembered him that he cried.”

Even the Ohio State marching band got into the act. On several occasions, including at halftime of the Michigan game that day with Harley was in attendance, the band would open up the right side of the O’s in script Ohio to spell Chic.

Harley, though shy, spoke on several radio programs that weekend and did dozens of interviews to newspapers and other media. For the game he sat in Section 18-A, row 28, seat 30 but witnessed Michigan top Ohio State, 13-3. Harley had been the guest of honor at the Captain’s Breakfast that morning, after which pulled Hooey aside and asked for a favor.

“Please thank everybody for the fine time I had here,” Harley asked of Hooey. “I enjoyed meeting all the fellows. It was so nice to have that parade for me. I am not deserving of that.”

In his column the next day, Hooey wrote, “Those words of Chic’s – ‘I am not deserving of that’ – will never be forgotten. They were typical Chic Harley, the modest of the modest.”

“He could do it all, but he was a very unselfish player,” Bill Harley said. “I remember talking with some of the guys he played with, and they said he was just a nice, quiet man. He never talked about what he had done or accomplished.”

At the age of 78, Harley died April 21, 1974 of bronchial pneumonia at Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Danville, Ill., where he had been a patient since 1938. Years earlier, he had asked his family and teammates that he be buried in Columbus upon his death.

It was a warm, sunny day in the spring of 1974 when he was laid to rest in Union Cemetery, just a mile north of Ohio Stadium on Olentangy River Road. His funeral service would rival that of any head of state. Pallbearers were the 1974 Ohio State football captains, Archie Griffin, Pete Cusick, Neal Colzie and Steve Myers along with Kurt Schumacher.

“It was really an honor to be a pallbearer for the greatest player in Ohio State history,” Griffin said, noting Chic’s name still comes up from time to time on Griffin’s trips as president of the OSU Alumni Association. “Chic put Ohio State football on the map.”

Dozens of his former teammates were honorary pallbearers. Bill Daugherty, who penned “Across the Field,” and who was a student manager on the 1916 team, Harley’s sophomore year, was there. University officials included President Harold Enarson, Director of Athletics Ed Weaver and head football coach Woody Hayes. Also present were long-time trainer, Ernie Godfrey, Dick Larkins, Floyd Stahl and Ernie Leggett, Dispatch sports editor Paul Hornung, and long-time head of stadium ushers Howard Wentz. Thousands of people lined up along the street for the funeral procession.

Humble as he was, Harley could not stop the honors from coming in even after his playing days were long gone. Before his death, he became the first Ohio State player to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1951. Other honors, official and unofficial, bear Harley’s name. In 1977 he was in the inaugural class to be inducted into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame. For the last 49 years the Touchdown Club of Columbus has presented the Chic Harley Award annually to college football’s player of the year.

The words ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘pioneering’ barely do Harley justice, for there is only a slight chance Ohio State football would be what it is today without Harley’s feats. Though the voices clamoring for Ohio Stadium to be renamed Chic Harley Field have subsided over the years, his legacy has not. Though he never played in Ohio Stadium, neither would Archie Griffin or Eddie George had it not been for what Harley brought about so many years ago.

Having played in the era long before modern video or photography, Harley’s breath-taking touchdown runs were perhaps best described by the pen of James Thurber, an Ohio State student from 1914-17 who would later go on to become a well-known writer and artist and associate editor of The New Yorker. Inspired by Harley’s feats, Thurber wrote “When Chic Harley Got Away.” The following is the first stanza of that work.

“The years of football playing reach back a long, long way,
And the heroes are a hundred who have worn the red and gray;
You can name the brilliant players from the year the game began,
You can say that someone’s plunging was the best you ever saw –
You can claim the boys now playing stage a game without a flaw –
But admit there was no splendor in all the bright array
Like the glory of the going when Chic Harley got away.”

From the humble beginnings which Ohio State was born came Chic Harley, an even more humble young man that would change not only the football program, but the university, forever.