All Pepped Up But No Place to Go
Soccer's Mark Pepper
For a soccer player, Harvard Captain Mark Pepper has been spending a lot of time on ice.
At a preseason practice, Pepper tore a quadricep muscle in his right thigh. The injury sidelined him for the booters' early season--and it wasn't until October 13 that he finally made his debut on the field, playing sweeper against Boston University.
No sooner did he hit the turf, though, than three late-game Terrier tackles knocked him back to the sidelines for the remainder of his senior season.
"It's hard to be a senior and be out all season," Pepper says.
Especially hard if you're not just any old soccer player, but a consistent contributor on a consistent winner. Since arriving at Harvard from West Germany--after passing up an offer to turn pro--Pepper has been a four-year starter for a varsity squad that has reached the NCAA's three of those four years.
Junior year, Pepper copped first team All-Ivy honors and was named first-team New England. At the end of last season, the team elected him captain, and, but for the injury, he would have been a likely All-America candidate, according to Crimson Coach Mike Getman.
With those kind of credentials, the persistent leg injury has proved doubly hard to take. "It's not only physical. It gets you down when the doctor says `one week' five weeks in a row," Pepper says.
"It's been very difficult for [Pepper] to cope with being injured all year, but he's handled it superbly," Harvard midfielder Paul Baverstock says. "[He's] nothing but a positive influence."
Despite the difficulty of captaining from the bench, Pepper has "done a great job as team leader," Getman says. "He's a tremendous player, but also a tremendous leader. He's out at practice each day watching and helping when he can," adds the first-year coach.
But soccer fans shouldn't despair of seeing Pepper in action. Even if he's on ice for the NCAAs, Pepper says there's a chance that he'll return to Ohiri Field next fall. Time on the sidelines has given Pepper the eligibility to red-shirt--and the sociology concentrator says he might take spring semester off or begin work on a master's.
If not, Pepper says he will "follow the same route as everyone else" and head for a New York consulting firm or bank. After that, he may go to business school or return to Germany.
So is soccer worth putting life after Harvard on hold?
"There's no question about that," Pepper says.
After all, when someone has been playing soccer for 16 years, the sport has to be more than just a way to kill time.
"For all my life I've had soccer all year round, every day," says Pepper, who grew up in Pirmasens, West Germany and started playing on German youth clubs when he was six.
"I've loved [soccer] ever since," Pepper says. "When I was small it was more important than anything else."
Pepper kicked his way up from an F-level youth club to the highest amateur ranks, the A level. He also put in a brief stint in California during the sixth and seventh grade.
While playing high school soccer, "I was definitely thinking of making soccer my career," Pepper says. While playing A-level ball, he received an offer to attend a tryout/training session with a professional squad.
But according to Pepper, after being accepted at Harvard, "I decided not to play soccer because I thought it was more important to go to college and get a degree."
On the way to a degree in sociology, he has picked up a few soccer awards. But despite last year's accolades, Pepper will only term last season "all right."
"You get a little piece of paper that looks nice on the wall. It's nice, but it's just a piece of paper," he says. "If I feel good about the way I played it's a lot more important than if someone tells me 'here's an award.'"
But along with the wallpaper came one award Pepper does value: the captainship of the Harvard squad. "That was very important," he says. "That's more than a piece of paper."
Pepps is a leader on the field," junior Ramy Rajballie says."
Unfortunately, Pepper's been leading from the sidelines for most of the season. He's a familiar face, standing by the edge of the field, batting a soccer ball back and forth.
Waiting, just waiting.