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Forgotten Buckeyes: Roger Harper

Harper was an All-Ohio wide receiver, but made his mark at safety for the Buckeyes. He proved to be a natural playmaker, and became one of the first Ohio State players to leave early for the NFL Draft.

Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Shortly after I began contributing to Land Grant Holy Land, I realized that I was already struggling to come up with good content for the offseason/summer months. Hell of a start, right? But unfortunately, once the NFL Draft takes place, the content well tends to dry up unless you’ve already dialed in on one of the spring sports or the NBA Draft (but as Buckeye hoops fans... you get it). Ohio State football and basketball – our most popular topics – are still part of the news cycle, but they have taken a back seat. And recruiting... well, there are people at LGHL who do a hell of a job covering it, so I wasn’t about to swim with those sharks.

I needed to think outside the box. I thought: Football is months away, basketball is months away, recruiting is speculative and subject to change... many of the topics being covered now revolve around future events or predictions. But what about former players? And I’m not talking recent or soon-to-be draftees, because those athletes are still being talked or written about.

I am referring to unheralded and underappreciated Buckeyes from decades ago, that have been forgotten by some (or most) since they last donned the scarlet and gray. And there it was: Forgotten Buckeyes. Other OSU fans and media types have taken a similar approach to recognition, but this is my personal way of appreciating those who left an indelible mark at Ohio State.

Welcome to Volume II.

We are closing out Volume II of Forgotten Buckeyes with a look at the safety position. The last line of defense, Ohio State fans have seen a number of great safeties make an impact in Columbus, dating all the way back to 1916. Chic Harley was the OG, and helped paved the way for players such as Jack Tatum, Mike Doss, and Malik Hooker – just to name a few of my favorites. The 21st century has been particularly fruitful, producing the likes of Doss, Donte Whitner, Kurt Coleman, Vonn Bell, Hooker, and Jordan Fuller.

But as I mentioned before, Ohio State did not just start producing standout safeties at the turn of the century. One of the all-time intimidators at that position played for John Cooper during the early 1990’s, and eventually became a bit of a pioneer for future Buckeyes looking to make it to the next level.

Roger Harper was a local product from the east side of Columbus (OH), and he committed to OSU as part of Cooper’s 1989 recruiting class. He was known in high school for his offensive prowess, but would go on to become a feared playmaker on defense, and this summer’s last Forgotten Buckeye.

Harper attended Independence High School, where he was a tremendous talent for the 76ers’ football and basketball teams. He was named all-state in both sports, and could have pursued either at the Division I (college) level. He ultimately decided to move forward with football, the sport in which he excelled as a wingback — talk about old school. As a HS senior, Harper was a jack of all trades, totaling over 1,600 all-purpose yards and scoring touchdowns as a traditional runner, a receiver, and a return man (kickoff and punt). In addition to earning All-Ohio honors, he was also named Ohio Player of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Columbus.

A recruiting war broke out for Harper, due in part to his versatility and impressive athleticism. While he also played defense for Independence HS, most college teams from around the country viewed him as an exciting offensive prospect. And after a flirtation with TTUN, he eventually committed to Cooper and the Buckeyes as a wide receiver/flanker. His fraternal twin brother, Rod, was able to join Roger in Columbus as a walk-on — something that may or may not have given Ohio State the edge in Harper’s recruitment.

1989 became a redshirt year and a period of transition for Harper. A decision was made to move him to the defensive side of the ball, where he began taking reps at safety. This position was not at all foreign to the newcomer, as it was the same one he played as a two-way star in high school. The Buckeyes went 8-4 in ’89, and lost the Hall of Fame Bowl... a trend that quickly developed under Cooper. But Harper had found a new home on the field, and was ready to hit the ground running in 1990.

As a backup in ‘90, Harper appeared in all 12 games. He saw action at free safety, in addition to contributing on special teams. Listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds with DB speed, the redshirt freshman was an imposing figure to say the least. Mark Pelini started at free safety, and he was listed at 6’2”, 195... Jim Peel was the starting strong safety, and he checked in at 5-foot-11, 190... Harper had 30+ pounds on each of them! Magically, his NFL and Wikipedia pages have him more in the 6-foot-2 range, but he was still not a guy you wanted to meet in the middle of the field. He finished the season with 26 total tackles, and OSU went 7-4-1 with another bowl loss.

1991 became Harper’s breakout season. He won the starting SS job, and began making plays all over the field for the Buckeyes. He finished with 65 total tackles, 49 of the solo variety – meaning he did not require much help to bring down opposing ball carriers. He added seven tackles for loss, one sack, four forced fumbles, three interceptions (one pick-six), and a blocked field goal... whew, take a breath! With Harper, Steve Tovar, Jason Simmons, and others in the fold, Ohio State’s defense held opponents to just 15.6 points per game. Unfortunately, the team’s passing game nearly set the game of football back 50 years by producing a measly 1,558 yards and 5 TD, and OSU finished with another 8-4 record. It was capped off by, you guessed it, a third straight bowl loss.

After just 10 games as a starter, Harper had made a name for himself in the Big Ten, as well as on a national level. In addition to being listed on preseason All-Big Ten lists, he was also mentioned as a potential Thorpe Award finalist heading into the 1992 season. Harper and the Buckeyes received additional help on defense, finishing the year as one of the stingiest units in the country (13.2 PPG). But the offense was borderline dreadful once again, leading to yet another “Cooper Special” – an 8-3-1 record, complete with a bowl loss. The coach eventually became a perennial 10 or 11-game winner, but Harper would not be around to experience double-digit wins in Columbus. He finished the ’92 season with 67 total tackles and four interceptions, on his way to being named First Team All-Big Ten.

Harper then became a bit of a Buckeye pioneer after his redshirt junior season, following in the footsteps of the great Barry Sanders. Just a few years prior, Sanders had challenged the NFL’s rule prohibiting juniors from entering the draft. In 1990, after allowing the legendary running back to enter as a one-off, the league changed their rules permanently. With players who were three years out of high school now deemed eligible for the NFL Draft, Harper decided to take advantage of the opportunity. With just 19 starts under his belt and a season of eligibility remaining, he entered the 1993 NFL Draft. And despite not having a 100-tackle season or national awards on his mantle, the former Buckeye was taken 38th overall by the Atlanta Falcons.

It did not take long before Harper made an impact in the NFL. He was named the starting SS after just four games, and in 12 starts for the Falcons, totaled 112 tackles. He was named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team, and finished fourth in the AP’s Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. Harper’s career was seemingly still on the runway, preparing for takeoff after his rookie season, but ’93 actually ended up being the pinnacle of his NFL experience. He started 22/26 games for Atlanta over the next two seasons, but the production was not there. He was then traded to the Dallas Cowboys, for whom he played 14 games as a backup. America’s Team released him after one season, and Harper surprisingly never suited up for another NFL team. He was out of the league at 26, three years after being recognized as one of the best rookies in the league.

Since his NFL career ended in 1997, Harper has apparently kept a low profile. I was able to find out very little about the former intimidator, aside from the fact that he did complete his degree at Ohio State in 2006. I hope all is well with Mr. Harper, and maybe he or his family will stumble across this one day. He certainly made an impact for OSU, and helped pave the way for many future Buckeyes.

As has been the case with all of these articles, I hope you have enjoyed Volume II of Forgotten Buckeyes. Let me know who I’m missing, and maybe those players will pop up in Volume III. Go Bucks!