“I’ve been playing football for so long, I feel like I could write a dissertation on it,” he says.
Rose has certainly earned his summa cum laude in quarterbacking. Directing one of the most complex offenses in college football for three seasons now, he has broken nearly every meaningful passing record in Harvard history and redefined the position in the Crimson offensive scheme. He led Harvard to a perfect Ivy record in 2001 and almost repeated the feat this year. Simply put, Neil Rose turned Harvard football into winning football.
But for Rose, the meaning of Saturday’s Harvard-Yale game has to do with more than football. It’s about the end of a very long journey, one that started in 1998 with him being plucked from the playing fields of his native Hawaii and brisked away to Harvard Stadium—and a journey that, in the past 10 months alone, has tested both his body and mind.
It’s late January, and Rose and some friends are getting ready to leave Las Vegas, their intercession destination. But while the friends get on a place headed back to Boston, Rose is going in the opposite direction—home to Hawaii.
Due to a foot injury sophomore year that prevented him from playing, Rose has been granted a fifth year of eligibility by the Ivy League. But it means that he will have to take the spring semester off so he can qualify academically when he returns. And so it is that Rose—only a few months removed from living the high life of an Ivy champion, sipping champagne from trophies—finds himself living at home with Mom and Dad.
Luckily he had a real job lined up at the time, one that he loved and that kept him out of the house from nine to five. A small investment management firm that Rose had worked with in previous summers offered him a job even before he had made his decision to come back for a fifth season at Harvard. Rose jumped head-on into the work.
“Actually, I got to relax,” Rose says. “I got to do something that wasn’t football-related, not really academic either—just the real world.”
Not the real real world, of course—just the Hawaiian version of it.
“We have a nice small house and friendly neighbors, and the community feel we have back there I doubt anybody else has here,” he explains. “We often eat dinners together, just close off the street and have barbeques together. It’s the way Hawaii is in general.”
Instead of serving up deep balls to defending Ivy Player of the Year Carl Morris, Rose was serving up hot dogs to his neighbors’ children.
As relaxing and low-key as the time at home was, Rose did make one trip back to Cambridge—in June for his graduation as a member of the Class of 2002. (Rose walked with the class but did not get a complete diploma.) While his best friends and blockmates took their degrees and talked about their promising futures, Rose says that when they saw him, those same happy grads seemed slightly envious that he got to return to the football field.
Back on the island, Rose continued his work for the firm, and began to realize that his future lay in the world of finance and economics.
“I was glad more than anything else that I had direction. I knew what I was going to do after football,” he says. “I was really happy for the fact that I was excited about something not football-related. I’ve always been that way—I’m not one of those guys who just always needs football.”
But as the starting quarterback and captain, Harvard football still needed him. From thousands of miles away, Rose kept in touch. He called the coaches and other players and received tapes of spring ball practices in the mail.
“We talked quite a few times during the summer,” Morris says. “We stayed in pretty close contact, and we were always kind of on the same page.”
According to Rose, though, there was still a lingering distaste about being captain in absentia. Spring ball was the first real action for many current sophomores who are now key contributors.
“I was watching all these players develop on tape,” Rose says.
Nobody faulted him for taking the time off, though, and in the end almost everybody agreed it was for the better. He kept in shape, was able to work without distractions and, most of all, he was able to relax.
“It was a unique experience to have your captain not in school leading the team,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy says. “But also, it gave Neil some much-needed and much-deserved time away to reflect on how important football was to him.”
Rose returned to campus in August, ready to lead the team to another Ivy title. Almost immediately, things went drastically wrong.
Fired and Iced
Early in preseason camp, Rose attempted to use Harvard’s new lifting apparatus, the “EZ-Squat.” Having squatted all summer, he felt fine on the new machine until the last rep—when he fell after racking the weight.
As a result of the fall, Rose slipped some of his vertebral discs. He took a few days off to rest the injury, but then realized he could throw a bit and so got back into the swing of things.
However, the first day he ran sprints, the discs ruptured, leaving Rose questionable only a few days before Harvard’s opener against Holy Cross.
Rose recovered somewhat and started against Holy Cross. Miraculously, Rose was tearing up the Crusaders’ defense like never before, completing 86 percent of his passes and throwing three touchdowns. But then it happened—Rose took a blow to the head, and had to sit out the rest of the game.
The following week was the Ivy opener against Brown and Rose—having shaken off the shot to the head—accepted the fact that he could learn to play with ruptured discs.
But while sleeping on the bus ride down to Providence, something happened. And when Rose got off the bus and walked around, he found that he could only limp.
“I like to walk the field before the game, jogging, and all of a sudden my right leg is on fire,” Rose reveals. “I’m really scared—I think it’s over.”
By “it,” Rose means his football career, but Harvard’s trainer was able to pop the aggravated nerve right back into place. Rose started the Brown game and went 5-for-5 before a vicious hit upended him, and the fire returned to his legs.
“That was the worst there ever was,” Rose says about the pain he felt lying on the locker- room table. “There was no position I could get in without being in pain.”
Sophomore Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had taken over for Rose during the 2001 season a few times and also at the end of the Holy Cross game, finished off Brown. Fitzpatrick also played the entire next game against Lehigh while Rose tried to recover from his sciatic nerve condition.
The sophomore backup also got the start against Cornell, even though by that point Rose says he was healthy enough to play. Fitzpatrick masterminded the 52-23 blowout over the Big Red while Rose paced frantically along the sidelines, waiting for a chance to come in.
“Basically three times during the game [Murphy] tells me, ‘No promises you’ll get in, but warm up’,” Rose recalls. “I would’ve taken anything, but in the fourth quarter, Coach looks at me and says, ‘You’re not a mop-up guy.’”
Just the opposite. Murphy awarded Rose the start the next week against nationally-ranked No. 14 Northeastern. It was a disaster from the start. Rose played tentatively and had no time in the pocket to throw, and when Fitzpatrick entered the game in the second quarter and led Harvard to a score, the sophomore remained for the duration of the game.
The captain benched?
“The thought came across my mind [that I wouldn’t get to play again],” Rose says. “I just felt bad for letting the team down, and I was questioning whether or not I’d be able to be productive again.”
Rose from the Ashes
Rose’s wild ride continued the next week at Princeton. Fitzpatrick was given the starting nod, but Rose was promised at least one series in the second quarter. Nothing came of that drive, but Harvard offensive coordinator Jay Mills and Murphy talked it over and decided to keep Rose in anyway. The Crimson eventually won, 24-17, and the fifth-year senior was back in business.
“It was a load off my shoulders,” Rose says of the Princeton game. “The world was right again, from my weird point of view. I knew I could play, I knew we would win. I’ve always expected more out of myself than others have.”
Since the Princeton game, Rose has continued to be one of the league’s best players, dominating Dartmouth and Columbia, though he had a subpar day last weekend against Penn. Even if Harvard is able to clinch a share of the Ivy title against Yale, Rose knows that some of the team’s success has happened without him.
“It’s been very disappointing personally,” he says about his performance over the season. “But it’s not something I dwell on. I came in expecting everything. I was going to come back and be the best quarterback in the country, and Carl Morris was going to be the best receiver in the country.”
But the nagging injuries and subsequent benchings took a toll on Rose beyond just the playing field.
“I felt bad for not being judged the best QB on the team—I thought it was my fault,” he explains. “I think my leadership took a dip—you’re supposed to lead by example.”
Despite the drama on the field, Rose has admirably kept his wits about him. It’s no small task when you consider that his best friends have graduated and moved away, that he spends much of his free time trying to develop the offense and that he spent nearly eight months removed from his current teammates.
Before this fall, for example, Rose’s roommates in Currier were the members of his offensive line, and the group was close. And even though he is friends with many students not in his class, Rose left with the knowledge that, when he returned, there would be serious adjustments to his social life.
“It’s really different this year. If you followed me around on a daily basis, you’d probably think I was the loneliest guy on campus,” Rose jokes.
He wakes up in the morning and heads to Dillon Field House to watch some film on his own, then goes to class, then practice, then dinner.
And after dinner, where would you find a 22-year old senior who already has a job lined up when he leaves?
“I’m in Lamont library three, four hours a night,” Rose admits. “That’s the funny thing—you go out in the real world and all of a sudden you want to learn stuff.”
The financial world excites Rose more than anything else, and when he leaves Cambridge for good on Christmas Eve (lucky exam scheduling on his part), football will be far from his mind. And even though his favorite receiver, Morris, will head for the NFL, the guy who threw him all those balls has no dreams of following.
“I never had NFL expectations myself—the coaches never really talked to me about it,” Rose says. “This may sound funny, but I never saw professional football fulfilling enough as a choice. I feel I’m at the point [where] I understand football, and after a while I think it may not be that engaging. I might get bored with it.”
No Harvard fan has been bored with Rose’s performance. If he leads the Crimson to another victory over Yale, Rose would be well-advised—from a business perspective, of course—to publish that dissertation on football.
It would be a good way to say “Aloha” to Harvard.
—Staff writer Rahul Rohatgi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org