William Claire Harding was born in Wichita, Kansas, on November 13, 1904. I don’t know anything about his parents or his upbringing, but indirect evidence suggests that the family probably moved to Chicago when he was relatively young. In the early 1920s he attended Knox College of Galesburg, Illinois, for at least a year; by fall 1924, he had transferred to Wilberforce University in Ohio, home of one of the best black college football teams in the country. He also played basketball and baseball in college, but he was best known as a quarterback and punter.
At the time there was evidently a problem with what you might call “revolvers” in black college football, players who used up their eligibility at one school, then simply moved on to another one. Elwood Barker blew the whistle on this sort of activity in a 1933 article in the Chicago Defender, noting for example that “a few years ago” a number of players at “a certain school in Georgia” popped up two years later, en masse, at “another school in Tennessee and being called young blood” (Chicago Defender, September 9, 1933). Often the college teams claimed that new players were freshmen recruited out of high school, touting recommendations from their former high school coaches, when in reality the school had simply recruited them from a rival. The insinuation here is that the players were being paid under the table, and that at least the major colleges were effectively running professional or semi-professional football teams.
Halley Harding, wrote Barker, departed from the usual pattern, first by essentially doing his own PR work, developing a network of contacts among the sportswriters of the black weeklies; and second by advertising the fact that he was moving from college to college rather than trying to conceal it. His openness apparently didn’t hurt his college career; aside from Knox and Wilberforce, Harding also played for Wiley College in Texas and Fisk University, running up a total of at least seven (and possibly more) college football seasons from 1924 through 1931.
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