Male Athlete of the Year: Senior Isaiah Kacyevenski Realizes His NFL Dream
"Male Athlete of the Year" seems almost puny next to his other accomplishments. First-Team All-Ivy three times, one of 20 to accomplish that feat in league history. Ivy League Rookie of the Year. Harvard career record for tackles (395). School single-season record for tackles (135). First to start 40 games in a Harvard career.
All of these accolades came in the little-respected Ivy League, but then senior linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski got all the confirmation he needed with one phone call in April. Fourth-round pick in the NFL draft, No. 119 overall, by the Seattle Seahawks. Now he has another title--highest draft pick in school history.
Kacyvenski's story is an amazing one for the uninitiated. He comes from Endicott, N.Y., the son of a janitor. His parents divorced because of his father's alcoholism. His mother died when he was a senior in high school. Now he's a Harvard graduate and is about to fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL.
Fittingly, his storybook college career is ending in a storybook way. Today, as Kacyvenski continues to toil in Seattle in preparation for training camp, his father Dave will be accepting his diploma in a Leverett House ceremony.
"I'm excited about that," Kacyvenski said. "It means a lot to me because he barely graduated from high school, and he's real excited. He's an emotional guy, so he started crying when he heard. I was so pumped up we were able to go through with that, I'm real proud to have him accept it for me."
Kacyvenski started from the 1996 season opener against Columbia and was a defensive leader, calling signals the whole way. That year, he was the easy choice as Ivy League Rookie of the Year, thanks to his 72 tackles and four interceptions. He won the Rookie of the Week award three times that year.
As a sophomore, Kacyvenski upped his total to a team-leading 80 tackles and was part of an amazing defense that brought Harvard the 1997 Ivy championship. The Crimson went 9-1 that year (7-0 Ivy), thanks to a dominant defense that allowed only 6.4 points per game in league play and had two shutouts. Harvard surrendered only four touchdowns in league games, none rushing.
After that season, Kacyvenski was named to the All-Ivy First Team for the first time, along with three starters on the defensive line.
In 1998, Kacyvenski set the school single-season tackle record with 108. He beat that total this year in resetting the record and was rewarded as a unanimous First-Team Ivy selection.
Kacyvenski consistently positions himself on the field to make plays. He is a complete player, with five interceptions this past year and 11 for his career. He has a habit of being around the ball, with two fumble recoveries this year to give him eight for his career.
Offenses quickly realized that they had to find out where Kacyvenski was for any play to be successful. Meanwhile, Harvard designed its defense around him, with the players in front of him taking on blockers so he could make plays. More often than not, he did, and this year, pro scouts were constantly watching Crimson games.
Still, the year was a disappointing one for Kacyvenski, as the Crimson lost five games. The offense continued to put the defense in bad field positions and forced the defense to play a lot of minutes. However, the defense would often be stout for the entire game and then show cracks at the very end.
"I don't like to separate offense and defense, we won as a team and lost as a team," Kacyvenski said. "It obviously was frustrating. We had so much talent; it was a little frustrating to lose those close games when we should have won. I honestly believe we should have gone 10-0 without a doubt, but it didn't happen that way. It was unbelievable, after every game, I was wondering how we lost it."
Kacyvenski's path from child to Harvard graduate, Ivy star and NFL draftee is the stuff of legend. In fact, he said, the Seattle media have already picked up on it and written a couple of stories about him.
"Life was rather disastrous with the alcohol, so there was no marriage," Dave Kacyvenski said. "I was a weekend father, and I came to pick up the children after the divorce, and I overheard him say to his mother at 9 years old, 'Mom, how am I gonna afford to go to college?'"
At Union Endicott, though, Kacyvenski once had 31 tackles in a single game and was the school record-holder for single-season and career tackles--seemingly a theme in his football career.
"At 11, he said at his brother's graduation, 'I'll go to college by means of a football scholarship,'" Dave Kacyvenski recounted. "The only reason that Harvard looked at him was because of football, but he had great grades, a 98.6 his senior year."
"When he left for Harvard, when he was 18, I repeated the stories to him," Dave Kacyvenski added. "He said, 'Dad, I knew we were poor; I didn't want to be, and I knew the only way I wouldn't be was to get an education.' That's pretty far-sighted for a 9-year old.
"I said, 'Isaiah, I feel sorry you knew you were poor.' He said, 'Dad, don't worry. Without that, I may never have had any drive or incentive to do what I've done.' He took lemon and made lemonade out of it."
At Harvard, Kacyvenski concentrated in Environmental Science and Public Policy and took pre-med classes. Not many NFL players have experience working in a medical school lab, where Kacyvenski worked last summer.
For now, however, he is totally dedicated to fulfilling his dream of playing in the NFL--something in his mind ever since the 1986 Super Bowl between the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots.
He is currently at minicamp and is encouraging his former teammates who are also trying to make it in the NFL, Chris Eitzmann (Patriots) and Mike Sands (Steelers). Kacyvenski has the best shot of the three to make the roster because he was drafted, rather than signed as a free agent after the draft. His contract has not been worked out yet but should be in order by the beginning of July.
"I haven't talked to Seattle about my role yet," he said. "I'm just going to be excited with anything I do, and I'm not above anything. I'll be excited to do anything. To run down the field and crush someone, that's what I'll be excited to do."
Choosing Kacyvenski as the Male Athlete of the Year was an easy decision. Based purely on his on-field accomplishments, he shone as the best defensive player in the Ivy this year and demonstrated improvement in all four seasons. His hard work enabled him to develop an NFL body, and Kacyvenski was on the minds of every offensive coordinator and running back Harvard played.
However, to judge Kacyvenski solely by what he does between the stripes is to ignore the incredible discipline and foresight he showed from a very early age to get to this point. He is a success as much for his personal story as for his football exploits. Now, he has a very good chance to become the second active Harvard NFL player, along with Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Matt Birk '98.
"This is what I want to do," Kacyvenski said. "This is what I've wanted to do my whole life. Right now, this is it."