Meyer uses Harley’s retired jersey to get linebacker Hilliard

Published 1:41 am Tuesday, August 25, 2015

COLUMBUS — The Ohio State football program was closing in on the biggest prize of its 2015 recruiting class.

But just to be certain five-star Cincinnati linebacker Justin Hilliard felt the love, coach Urban Meyer punctuated his pitch with a head-turning pledge. If Hilliard signed with the Buckeyes, he could not only continue to wear his high school jersey number, Ohio State would unretire it for him.

The number was the 47, worn nearly a century earlier by Chic Harley, the Buckeyes’ first All-American and the tragic hero responsible for elevating the football program into a national power. Just as no Ohio State player would again wear the 45 of Archie Griffin or the 27 of Eddie George, the university retired Harley’s 47 in a 2004 ceremony at Ohio Stadium.

The number was to be out of circulation forever.

Unless the most coveted prospect in Ohio came to Columbus.

“That definitely meant something to me,” Hilliard said.

And so, in The House That Harley Built, No. 47 will live once more.

Hilliard came to Ohio State, and with the blessing of the Harley family, he will wear the legendary digits this fall — casting a light on a largely forgotten star but also the quirks of reversing history.

Reintroducing a retired number is not unprecedented.

More recently, Jerry Rice wore the No. 80 of Steve Largent during his lone season with the Seattle Seahawks in 2004, quarterback Peyton Manning received permission from Broncos great Frank Tripucka to wear No. 16 upon his arrival in Denver in 2012, and Michigan rolled out its controversial and now-defunct “Legends” jersey program that put the school’s five retired numbers back into circulation.

But the exceptions are rare, and rarer still — if not unheard-of — for a college freshman.

Hilliard called it a “great honor” and said he has become an amateur Harley historian, summoning unlikely inspiration from the story of a man who died 23 years before he was born. Hilliard appreciates the support from the Harley family, including Rob Harley, a former Ohio State safety and Chic’s great nephew, and his father, Bob.

If you expected a feud over the No. 47, Rob Harley said to keep looking.

“I think it’s good,” Harley said over the phone from Pittsburgh, where he is a first-year linebackers coach for Pitt. “I think it’s a good conversation piece. As I told coach Meyer, he’s the head coach. He’s the CEO.

“It’s their job to manage the tradition of that university, and I think they’ll do it the right way. I think it’s a good thing. … Shame on us if we don’t allow this based on something personal.”

For Hilliard, wearing the No. 47 means bearing a responsibility he could not have envisioned.

Hilliard came about the history unwittingly during his recruitment when he asked Meyer about the possibility of holding onto his high school number.

He learned then it was retired.

All-American linebacker A.J. Hawk wore No. 47 when it was enshrined in 2004 and kept it for his final season in 2005. But it had been out of use ever since, along with the retired numbers of Heisman winners Vic Janowicz (31), Howard “Hopalong” Cassady (40), Les Horvath (22), Griffin, and George, and Hall of Fame defensive lineman Bill Willis (99).

With permission from Griffin, linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer wore the No. 45 as a tribute to Griffin from 1996-98 — the first player to do so since Griffin’s final season at Ohio State in 1975 — but the number was not officially retired until 1999.

“Coach Meyer talked to Justin and asked him how serious his number was to him,” Hilliard’s father, Carl, said.

Pretty serious? Meyer told him to hang on. He brought the idea of reinstating the number to athletic director Gene Smith.

It must be noted here that Ohio State would be unlikely to similarly accommodate a three-star offensive lineman from Pocatello, Idaho. But if there was a recruit Meyer felt justified the extra legwork, it was Hilliard — rated by ESPN as the No. 17 overall prospect in the nation.

“It’s a great family, and I get how important numbers were when I was that age,” Meyer said. “Numbers were important. At this age, I don’t care. But at their age, they are important, and so if he’s a good guy, takes care of his work in the classroom, and he handles his business — which he does — [everyone] said, ‘It shouldn’t be a problem.’ We talked to the Harley family, I personally did. I talked to Archie Griffin. He’s kind of the guy you run all kinds of stuff through, for obvious reasons, and I didn’t see any issue at all.”

Hilliard spoke to the Harley family, too, and said he found them more than receptive. “They kind of wanted me to wear it, actually,” he said. “So that was kind of cool.”

Rob Harley saw the No. 47 returning to the field as a way to keep alive a legacy lost on much of the current generation.

More than anybody, it was Harley who set in motion the big-money monster of modern Ohio State football.

A three-time All-American, the pint-sized star from Columbus East High led the Buckeyes to their first Big Ten title in 1916. He left school in 1918 to become a fighter pilot during World War I, but returned the next year to carry Ohio State to its first win against Michigan after 15 attempts.

Harley — who played halfback, safety, kicker, and punter — dazzled the overflow crowds at 20,000-seat Ohio Field, with fans perched in trees and on the roofs of neighboring homes to catch a glimpse of his cycloning runs.

“If you ever saw him run with a football, we can’t describe it to you,” James Thurber, the famed wit who attended East High and Ohio State at the same time as Harley, once wrote. “It wasn’t like [Jim] Thorpe or [Red] Grange or [Tom] Harmon or anybody else. It was kind of a cross between music and cannon fire, and it brought your heart up under your ears.”

Harley was such a hit that Ohio State suddenly needed a bigger home. His popularity sparked the $1.34 million fund-raising drive to build Ohio Stadium, which opened in 1922 with a capacity of more than 65,000 and was known as, yes, “The House That Harley Built.”

Harley’s national fame steadily faded. Soon after his final season in Columbus, he began showing signs of mental illness and steadily deteriorated. He endured the fight until his death in 1974, spending his final 36 years at a psychiatric hospital in Danville, Ill.

Like many fans, Hilliard did not know Harley’s story, only to become engrossed by the old articles.

“I read how he played all over the field — eight different positions, and he was a little dude,” said Hilliard, who made a photo of Harley his background image on Twitter. “But it was his heart that got him through it. Reading all those stories kind of inspired me. Sometimes I’m considered undersized at 6-1, but you have to have that extra push in you and that dog in you.”

So Hilliard will play both ways too?

“I can punt the ball,” he said, laughing. “But I don’t think they want me to.”

Hilliard, though, said he does feel an added layer of pressure.

“It meant a lot for them to go out of their way to assist Justin in getting a number out of retirement, because that was his number that he wanted,” Carl Hilliard said. “He’ll wear it proud. He’s been taught from [our] family about how to be a student-athlete and how to be a gentleman, and coach Meyer, he requests that of him — to wear that number with pride and dignity.”

Naturally, the precedent of revising history for Hilliard could lead to potential issues with future recruits.

Ohio State has taken previous steps to limit such complications. Smith last year said the university will no longer retire numbers, as much for practical reasons as anything. With more than 100 players on the roster, the Buckeyes can’t become like the New York Yankees, who have retired 21 numbers, from the No. 1 of Billy Martin to the No. 51 of Bernie Williams.

When Ohio State honored 2006 Heisman winner Troy Smith last season, his No. 10 was placed on the Ohio Stadium facade but remained in circulation. Freshman quarterback Joe Burrow and sophomore defensive lineman Jalyn Holmes will both wear No. 10 this season. Ohio State casts the reinstatement of No. 47 as a one-time exception, and Hilliard does not see it as unretiring a number.

He views the digits as on loan — perhaps only for this fall. As Hilliard has come to increasingly appreciate the legacy of Harley, he now wonders if a different number would help him create one of his own.

“In some respects, you kind of want to have your own number,” he said. “You kind of think about that. But I thought it would be a really big honor to have that opportunity to wear [Harley’s] number.”