He came along when Ohio State was struggling to find its place in college football. By the time he had finished his career in Scarlet and Gray, Buckeye football had been changed forever, transformed into the status of perennial powerhouse it continues to enjoy today.
Born Sept. 15, 1895, in Chicago, Charles Wesley Harley was nicknamed "Chic" at an early age. He moved with his family to Columbus when he was 12 and later prepped at East High School where he was a classmate of noted author James Thurber and painter George Bellows.
Harley quickly earned his own fame as a football star, leading the Tigers to several City League championships. In fact, he lost only one game during his high school playing days. But football wasn't his only game as he was a standout in basketball and baseball as well.
When it came time to select a college, Harley didn't take much time in making a decision. He admired OSU head coach John W. Wilce and the Buckeyes had made improvements in each of Wilce's first three seasons. Even so, Ohio State was not yet a power in college football. Once Harley joined the team, however, that changed forever.
Harley was the featured star from his halfback position, running and throwing the ball with equal ease. The Buckeyes rolled to victories in their first two games of the 1916 season, including a 128-0 pounding of Oberlin that still ranks as the highest point total ever in school history. But the third game of the season was when Harley's legend began to grow.
In their first Western Conference game of the season, the Buckeyes traveled to Illinois to take on the powerful Illini, a team they had never beaten in five previous tries. With Illinois clinging to a 6-0 lead in the fourth quarter, Harley broke off a 20-yard touchdown run on a sloppy field that tied the score. Then, after changing his muddy shoes to clean ones, he calmly drop-kicked the extra point to give the Buckeyes a 7-6 victory.
Later that season, Harley ran for touchdowns of 27 and 80 yards and drop-kicked two extra points to account for all of his team's scoring in a 14-13 win over Wisconsin. Then he closed out his first season with another remarkable performance during a 23-3 victory over Northwestern, running for 20- and 67-yard touchdowns and booting a 34-yard field goal.
The Buckeyes rolled through the 1916 season with a perfect 7-0 record – the school's first unblemished mark in its history – and won its initial Western Conference championship. For his part, Harley was named to the Walter Camp All-American team, becoming only the second Buckeye ever to be honored. Boyd Cherry was OSU's first-ever All-American honoree in 1914.
It was more of the same in 1917 during Harley's sophomore season. He scored four touchdowns in a 26-3 win at Indiana, threw for two scores in a 16-3 victory at Wisconsin and threw for another touchdown and kicked two field goals in a 13-0 shutout of Illinois.
The Buckeyes again went undefeated although a 0-0 tie in the season's next-to-last game prevented another perfect campaign. But the team posted an 8-0-1 record, won its second straight conference championship and became one of the most feared teams in college football.
During that '17 season, OSU rolled up 292 points on offense and limited its nine opponents to just six total points. Only Indiana and Wisconsin managed to score on the Buckeyes that year – each team getting a field goal – as Ohio State posted seven shutouts in nine games.
Harley again earned All-America honors after the season, becoming the first OSU player to win the honor twice, and his exploits started to make national news. In fact, he was becoming such a drawing card that the Buckeyes were quickly outgrowing their home stadium, Ohio Field.
Designed only to accommodate about 5,000, the stadium was soon overflowing as crowds at least double that size began to flock to Ohio State games to catch a glimpse of Harley in action.
Just as the team was approaching a dynasty, however, World War I raged in Europe and most of the young men in the country enlisted in the military. Harley left the Buckeyes to become a member of the fledgling U.S. Army Air Corps and flew some of the country's earliest combat airplanes.
With the war armistice signed in November 1918, Harley prepared to return to Ohio State the following year and resume his football career. And the Buckeyes welcomed him with open arms since they had fallen to a 3-3 record that included an 0-3 conference mark.
It was just like he had never been gone. Elected team captain – unprecedented for a player who had not participated the year before – Harley's team rattled off three consecutive shutouts to begin the 1919 campaign.
Then, it was a trip to Michigan to play the Wolverines. At that time, Ohio State had never beaten Michigan in 15 previous tries. In fact, the Wolverines had shut out the Buckeyes in 11 of those games and had never given up more than six points in the other four contests.
But Michigan had never played an Ohio State team with Harley in the lineup. He proved to be the difference-maker, breaking off a 40-yard run that many experts at the time said was the best piece of broken-field running in college football history. The Buckeyes eventually took a 13-3 victory over the Wolverines, raising Harley's stature even more.
When the team returned to Ohio Field the following week for a game against Purdue, more than 20,000 fans flocked to the stadium and stood as many as 10 deep around the edges of the field to watch the game.
The Buckeyes rolled to two more victories before the season finale against Illinois in what would be Harley's final game for the Buckeyes. And he didn't disappoint the fans, running for a touchdown and kicking an extra point to give OSU a 7-6 lead late in the game. But the Illini made a last-second drive and booted a field goal to snatch away a 9-7 win. It was the only loss Harley ever experienced as a Buckeye.
He received his third All-American award following the season, becoming the first OSU player to accomplish that feat.
In three seasons, Harley scored 23 touchdowns, booted 39 extra points and kicked eight field goals, setting the school career scoring mark at 201 points. That record lasted for 36 years until it was broken in 1955 by Heisman Trophy winner Howard "Hopalong" Cassady. Almost unbelievably, nearly 90 years after he played his final game for the Buckeyes, Harley still ranks 17th on the school's career scoring list.
In addition to his football exploits, Harley also excelled at baseball and basketball for the Buckeyes, becoming Ohio State's first four-year letter-winner in each of those sports.
Even before his graduation, the university realized it had outgrown Ohio Field and had begun fund-raising activities on a new football stadium on the banks of the Olentangy River. Completed in 1922 at the cost of a then-lofty $1.3 million, the Buckeyes opened play in Ohio Stadium which immediately became known as "The House That Harley Built."
Harley returned to the stadium on only a few occasions, playing in an all-star game for charity in 1923 and in 1954 for a 35th reunion of the 1919 team. He played professional football briefly with the Chicago Bears, but a knee injury that he had kept quiet since his high school days progressively worsened. His pro career was cut short and Harley never seemed to recover.
Hospitalized for much of the rest of his life with chronic depression, Harley was seldom seen in public with the exception of a few reunions at Ohio State. He spent most of his final years at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Danville, Ill., and died there on April 21, 1974. He was 78.
Harley's body was driven past Ohio Stadium one last time on its way to burial in Union Cemetery on Olentangy River Road. Archie Griffin served as one of Harley's pallbearers.
Harley was selected in 1951 as a member of the inaugural class of inductees to the College Football Hall of Fame, honored along with such other legends as Sammy Baugh, Walter Camp, George Gipp, Red Grange, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Knute Rockne and Glenn "Pop" Warner.
In 1977, Ohio State honored him in the first-ever class of inductees to the university's athletic hall of fame.
Then during halftime of the 2004 OSU-Penn State game, Harley was honored again in Ohio Stadium when the university retired his jersey. At the time, he was only the sixth player in school history – and the first who did not win the Heisman Trophy – to be afforded such an honor.
It was an honor long overdue for the man who made Ohio State football into what so many millions of fans enjoy today.
Yesterday: No. 2 Archie Griffin
Tomorrow: Ohio State kicks off its 2008 season