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The triumphs and tragedies of Chic Harley — Ohio State’s first football superstar

Despite his successes on the field in Columbus, Harley’s post-football life was filled with pain and sadness.

Ohio State University

Certainly, Chic Harley was one of the most celebrated of Oho State gridiron greats. Yet — I’m tempted to write this article in two columns. On the left side, I’d detail Harley’s many contributions to the Buckeye program; after all, it was Chic Harley who put the Buckeyes on the college football map. On the right side, however, I’d consider the darker side of Harley’s career: the numerous head injuries, the lack of discipline, the long history of mental illness. Columns are too complicated, but here’s Chic’s story in two parts.

Part 1, Chic Harley and Ohio State football greatness. Charles Wesley Harley was born in Chicago on Sept. 15, 1894. He and his family moved to Columbus when he was in elementary school, and he adopted the nickname “Chic,” short for his home town of Chicago. Chic attended Columbus East High School, where he was an athletic phenomenon, excelling in all sports, but especially in football. The midwestern football powerhouses — Notre Dame, Michigan, the University of Chicago — all wanted him.

Did Ohio State even have a chance to sign the hometown star? Harley’s undefeated East teams often played their games at Ohio Field, where the university team played at the time, and drew larger crowds than the Buckeyes. If Harley played for Ohio State, would it be a step down? The story goes that Chic was recruited not only by the Buckeye coaching staff, but also by Phi Gamma Delta, one of the leading fraternities on campus and the oldest, establishing its OSU chapter in 1878. The Phi Gam brothers constantly visited Harley, invited him to the house, urged him to join. And he did. Curiously, in old newspaper stories about Harley’s games and exploits, he’s referred to as the “Phi Gamma Delta” man. Fraternity affiliation was clearly important to Harley, and maybe it was important to readers as well.

Harley’s varsity career at Ohio State, 1916-19, marks such a turnaround that football history at OSU should be labeled B.H and A.H. “before and after Harley.”

Consider: before Harley’s arrival on the team, Ohio State had only one undefeated season (1899) since it began the football program in 1890; having joined the Western Conference (forerunner to the Big Ten) in 1913, the Bucks had never won a conference championship; beginning the famed series with Michigan in 1897, Ohio State had never beaten the Wolverines, and had a record against them of 0-13-2.

Once Harley started playing in the 1916 season, everything changed. The Buckeyes were unbeaten in both the 1916 and 1917 seasons, going 7-0 and 8-0-1. They were also a combined 8-0 in Western Conference games, winning the league championship in both seasons.

Harley missed the 1918 season after he enlisted in the armed services as an aviator, but he returned to play in 1919. It was in that season that Ohio State finally beat TTUN, 13-3. Illinois kicked a final-minute field goal to beat the Buckeyes in Harley’s final game, the only contest that he ever lost at Ohio State. The Buckeyes were 21-1-1 with Chic Harley on the field.

And he was all over the field — and never off of it. He usually played wingback, but sometimes quarterback. He ran and passed. He punted and was the place kicker. He was an outstanding defensive back. As a runner, Harley was known not only for his speed but for his deception: his change of pace, his sudden change of direction. The 197 points that Harley amassed in his OSU career (23 touchdowns, 35 extra points, eight field goals) stood as an Ohio State record until Heisman-winner Howard (“Hopalong”) Cassady beat it in 1955. Chic Harley was a three-time All American and the first real Ohio State football star.

Perhaps just as important as his on-field contributions were Harley’s efforts in getting Ohio Stadium built. While he played, the Buckeyes set attendance records at the dated Ohio Field. Suddenly, fans cared about Ohio State football. Harley was a chief spokesperson and fund-raiser, stoking the effort to complete the ambitious stadium project. Since it opened in 1922, many have thought that Ohio Stadium should have Chic Harley’s name somewhere. After all, he started the glory that is OSU football. While it did not, many still refer to The Horseshoe as “The House That Harley Built.”

Part 2: The tragedy of Chic Harley

Maybe I should just stop here. But I can’t. Harley fought mental illness and behavioral problems all of his life. To what extent these issues are related to football injuries is hard to gauge, especially from this distance, but Harley began experiencing head injuries in high school. The protective equipment used in the day wasn’t much; there was no concussion protocol; there was no trainer or team doctor. A player dusted himself off and went back in.

At Ohio State, Harley often failed to attend practice or showed up late. He was frequently benched or suspended for not adhering to team rules. And yet, how could OSU coach John Wilce bench the school’s greatest player ever, the player that the fans came to see?

Harley missed the 1918 football season, having enlisted for pilot training in the military. He never went overseas or participated in the war, however; rather, he was dismissed from the service (the equivalent, I suppose, of a dishonorable discharge) for a number of disciplinary infractions, including “unauthorized use of an aircraft.”

Harley did have a very brief pro football career. He and his brother put some money in with George Halas and other backers to form the Decatur (IL) Staleys. He played in nine games, starting five of them. Halas moved the team to Chicago and renamed them the Bears. Harley was out. After years of largely unsuccessful treatment, Harley was admitted in 1938 to the VA Hospital mental facility in Danville, Ill. He would spend the rest of his life there, dying in 1974.

It’s hard not to look back at Chic Harley’s life and think about the dangers of football. At somewhere between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, Harley’s body must have taken a sound beating over the years. Perhaps his mental issues preceded his football years. Who knows? But it seems likely that Chic Harley paid a steep price to attain the glory of his college days.