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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hut one - hut two, Hah-vahd!

Hut one - hut two, Hah-vahd!
By Warren L. Bingham

Harvard University is located about 800 miles north of the geographic center of North Carolina, yet North Carolinians know Harvard. Practically everyone knows Harvard, America's most recognized brand in higher education. However, very few from the Tar Heel state know about Harvard football, a sport the school has played since 1874.

Since childhood I have been intrigued with the Ivy League, a collection of many of America's oldest private universities: Harvard, Yale, Penn, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, and Cornell. These schools have challenged one another in athletics since the 19th century, and since 1956, the eight schools have competed formally as the Ivy League.

Even as a kid, I loved history and tradition and I was always taken with the depictions of Ivy League men garbed in long raccoon coats cheering their team in raucous fashion, waving pennants, singing, swaying, and swilling from flasks. By high school, I even knew the words to the Yale fight song, "Boola, Boola." Over the years, I have visited most of the Ivy campuses, including their football stadiums.

In the early 1990s my interest in Ivy athletics turned toward Harvard when my bright, ambitious, and athletic cousin from Lexington was recruited to play football for Harvard's Crimson. Ironically, Lexington, best known for its barbecue pork, is named in honor of the American Revolution hotspot, Lexington, Mass., located just a few miles from Cambridge, the home of Harvard.

Cousin Jim matriculated to Harvard, but alas, he had to drop football entirely after the recurrence of a neck injury just a week before the first game of his freshman season. Medical staff deemed his neck forever vulnerable to serious injury and football too risky to ever play again. Jim remained at Harvard, becoming a football fan instead of a player. He graduated, enjoying everything but the long bitter winters, and returned home to Duke Law School.

Now Cousin Jim is busy with career and family in our Piedmont Triad, but thanks to my irrepressible desire to perpetually remain 12 years old, I continue to follow Harvard football. I attended my first Harvard game on a perfect blue-sky day in September 2006. There were only 12,000 in attendance, and in my enthusiasm I chatted with dozens on hand - from cheerleaders to alumni to students to concessionaires. Making the most of the day, I even spoke with the men's room attendant, who wore an official Crimson smock. I was fully engaged.

In recent years, I have taken delight as North Carolinians have played a prominent role in Harvard football. Last year, there were six Tar Heel natives on the roster of a team that went 9-1 on the season. Three from "down home" remain on the team this year.

Returning for their senior season are roommates Alex Spisak, a center from Charlotte's Vance High School, who made second-team All-Ivy last season, and Wilmington Ashley product Patrick Long, a lanky 6'3" kicker, who booted 13 field goals last year.

Long studies psychology, and co-hosts a Harvard football show for the campus radio station. Spisak, an affable government major, is genetically predisposed to succeed in athletics: his mother was a swimmer at N.C. State, his dad played football at Bucknell, and an uncle, Matt Millen, was a longtime NFL linebacker.

A third player from North Carolina, John Lyon, a sophomore defensive lineman, was the class valedictorian at Durham Hillside High School. He aspires to medical school, but en route he hopes to sack a few quarterbacks.

In exchanging e-mails with these footballers, I have learned of their genuine passion for football and academics. Though some Ivy players make it in professional football, most play for fun and pride. The league offers no athletics-grants-in-aid nor is it a fast track to the NFL. Yet like all college players, they sweat, ache, and give up considerable time, they tell me that to be a part of a world-class school makes their sacrifice - even the cold winters - well worth it. Like Cousin Jim, I hope, eventually, they all will come home to North Carolina.

Warren L. Bingham is a writer and speaker from Raleigh. Contact him at wbingham001@nc.rr.com.
© Copyright 2009, The News & Observer Publishing Company

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