Senior Contemplates the Fine Art of Football
Not many people in the stands are watching the game. The day is warm, the beer cool, and the football game seems almost incidental, some elaborate dance removed from the heart of the Soldier's Field party. Most people seem content to scan the stands, turning their attention to the field only in response to the occasional collective "ahhhhs" of the minority of true fans. The crowd's reaction to a successful Multiflex play begins faintly and only achieves its maximum volume long after the play has been completed, when the attention of the party has finally been captured and several thousand students turn their bleary eyes to the field, surveying blankly the remnants of a long gain, patiently bearing another interruption and half-expecting to catch it all on instant replay.
Near the far sideline, before a thousand chanting, uniformed cadets, number 31 sits on the field, his legs spread out straight before him, his head hung halfway between anger and disgust. No one notices, least of all the referee, who has just blown another opportunity to penalize an Army defender for a late hit. Jim Acheson, number 31 and senior halfback for the Crimson, plucks for a moment a tuft of grass, then rises slowly, shaking his head, and jogs back to the huddle.
A player of quiet concentration--so much so that senior split end Paul Scheper has dubbed his teammate "The Space Shuttle"--Ach's playing style is calm and fluid. He reserves his intensity for carrying the ball, catching a quick Ron Cuccia pass or blocking for fellow running backs Jim Callinan, Steve Bianucci and Jim Garvey. Part of the key to his success is his agility. He may trip occasionally, but never on the football field.
Ach's style is the product of 14 years of football, beginning in the Boston Pop Warner League and leading ultimately, via Newton North High and Andover, to Soldier's Field.
"At Newton High there was really high intensity in the football program," Acheson says. "At Andover, football was very low key. I guess I learned at Andover to play in the proper perspective, playing more for my interest in the game than to satisfy my own ego."
A prerequisite to a career at Harvard, where a fan islikely to be more interested in things being passed around the stadium than in things being passed on the field. But the adjustment to the rather ambiguous status of the Harvard football player hasn't always been easy for Acheson.
As a senior at Newton, Ach scored 13 touchdowns (for a total of 21 in two years on the varsity) to lead his team to the finals of the state championship. He seemed destined to continue his success in the Ivy League, until the fickle Harvard Admissions Office informed him he would have to spend an extra year doing postgraduate work at Andover before entering the Yard. Neither of his parents ever graduated from college, so Ach had already decided that he wanted a degree from Harvard.
So, more than a year after graduating from Newton, Acheson finally arrived in Cambridge for his freshman football season. Within two months he had been introduced to the kind of frustrating experience that seems to set Harvard in general, and Harvard football in particular, apart from other universities. He destroyed his knee, and then spent his entire sophomore season hobbled by shin-splints.
Acheson describes those days philosophically. "They sucked," he says As Acheson was trying to reconstruct his legs and football career, he was also in the process of switching from the Government Department to Fine Arts, trying to meet his intellectual interests as well as to avoid slipping into the mold of the stereotypical football player.
"We have to deal with a double stigma here," says Acheson of his identity as a Harvard football player. "On campus you often get the basic dumb football player treatment. Outside, you get the stigma attached to all of the Ivy League, that we don't play a very good brand of football."
What are typically perceived to be qualities that announce Ach's individuality--his Fine Arts concentration, his interest in classical and jazz music, his love of plants, his internship last summer at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts--are simply a departure from the stereotype. The fact that most Harvard students are surprised to discover that Acheson has these interests is evidence that the dumb-football-player attitude persists.
"There are very few people around here with any real understanding or appreciation for football," he says. "I don't want to be held in awe because I play the game, but neither do I want to be belittled because I play. No one frowns on anyone for singing or playing an instrument here. Football happens to be one of my main sources of enjoyment."
It's not surprising, given his interest in art, that Acheson considers his football career an aesthetic experience. "There are basically three types of people," he says. "There are artists, those with any kind of creative impulses; there are non-artists, those without any real creative impulses; and there are madmen. Athletics is my artistic release, my only way of expressing myself emotionally and creatively."
On a purely athletic level, Ach has often wished that he could have experienced a big-time program, where football players are expected to think only of football. Ultimately, though, he concludes that he might have encountered an unbearable intellectual void playing "a Midwest brand" of the game.
"What makes the athletes here so special is that they can devote so much of themselves to both athletics and academics," Ach says, adding, "The good thing about this place is that you meet unique people."
But these days, as the probable end of his 14-year football career approaches, Ach has a lot to think about.
"Football has been a major part of my life, of my identity," Acheson says, pausing occasionally to push aside notes for another Fine Arts paper that clutter his bed. "I've always liked having that as part of my identity, as well as being a little different--by being a Fine Arts major, or by playing the sax.
"Football is total emotional involvement, total release, total release of aggression," Ach continues. "I really don't know yet what the hell it's going to be like when I have to stop playing."
A 14-year habit is not easy to break, and although Acheson is uncertain about how he'll compensate for the loss, he knows he will begin spending more time playing the saxophone and writing and studying art.
He's also thinking about the National Football League, although his plans for the pros are still pretty vague. "Realistically," he says, "I think the Yale Bowl will be the last place I ever play. But in terms of my hopes and fantasies, I'd like to keep playing football. It's a dream every college football player has, I might as well try it just to answer the questions I have in my own head."
And right now Acheson has a lot of questions about his future, only one of which is whether he'll find a position on a pro roster. And even though he knows he loves to play football, even though he knows he'd like to continue to play, he has trouble isolating exactly what it is about the game that he loves. "It's hard to say what I like about football, in the same sense that it's difficult for someone who's been playing the violin for years to define why he loves it--it's almost become an extension of his arm. It's a combination of intangibles. I like the violence, I like the challenge, I like the clearly defined goals and striving to attain those goals with ten other people. It's one of the few opportunities you have to see what kind of character you possess."