McBurney, who hails from Alexander City, Ala., is a Southern country boy completely at ease with his Ivy League surroundings. He smoothly navigates his way to the cold cuts, pours himself some fruit juice from the drink machine and clears a space at the end of the lunch table.
Only when talk begins of last Saturday’s game, a monumental 28-20 win over No. 10 Northeastern, does the observer catch a glimpse of what drives McBurney on Saturday afternoons: that Alabama-bred, crazy-about-football passion.
“In the South,” he says, taking a voracious bite out of his hoagie, “you live and breathe football. It’s been no different for me since I was little.”
McBurney, nicknamed “Bama” by his teammates, was one of the main ingredients in the defense that shut down the Huskies’ highly-touted rushing attack last week, holding star running back Tim Gale to only 46 yards on 14 carries and sacking quarterback Shawn Brady seven times.
The effort helped the Crimson (3-0, 1-0 Ivy League) crack the top 25 for the first time this year. Harvard is ranked No. 24 in the ESPN/USA Today Division I-AA poll.
McBurney took an unlikely route to playing for Division I-AA prominence in the Ivy League. At the age of five, he moved from Clemson, S.C., to Alexander City, a mid-sized town of about 15,000.
Growing up on Lake Martin, McBurney began water-skiing at a young age. When he visits home, he still slaloms behind his old Stingray—though, he says, he has gotten “a little too heavy” to ski like he used to.
An avid Auburn fan—in Alabama, you must choose between the Tide and Tigers at an early age—McBurney watched the University of Alabama fall to his Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium when he was seven years old for his first live football game.
“It was always my dream to play at Auburn,” he says.
He began playing football in sixth grade and moved on to Benjamin Russell High School, where he became accustomed to success. The Wildcats finished runner-up in the 5A state championship during McBurney’s freshman and senior years.
His senior year state championship game, played at storied Legion Field in Birmingham, was the longest game in Alabama high school football history with five overtimes and one of McBurney’s “worst memories.”
During his senior year, McBurney—whose season did not end until mid-December—was not recruited heavily by Division I schools. He took only one unofficial visit to Auburn and, convinced that he would have to walk on with the Tigers, gave up his aspirations to compete for SEC titles alongside the nation’s best.
He only received a smattering of phone calls from other schools until he made a highlight tape of his greatest plays from high school. After receiving his tape, Harvard and Princeton showed the most interest.
And the rest is history.
Though his teammates went on to play at larger Division I schools, McBurney says he is happy he came to Harvard to play football.
“They play for four or five years,” he says. “What do they have when it’s over?”
McBurney, who is concentrating in economics, spent last summer interning at a Boston law firm.
Still, his passion for football continues to counter a personality that, off the field, is “laid back,” according to senior defensive end Brian Garcia.
“Away from the field, [Matt’s] your typical guy, although not your typical size,” Garcia says.
McBurney also possesses the skill of trash talking, another contradiction of his off-the-field, southern-bred calm. Once he gets on the field, McBurney “flips on the switch.”
“His trash talking does get quite a rise out of the other defensive players,”says Garcia, who normally lines up next to McBurney. “It’s quite funny to listen to with the Alabama accent and all.”
“Yeah, I get fired up,” McBurney says, in his thick Alabama drawl. “I like to talk a little smack.”
McBurney’s play has earned him the right to behave the way he wants despite the disparity between his off- and onfield personas.
“He turns into pretty much an angry guy and takes out his aggression on the player lined up against him,” Garcia says.
Defensive line coach Eric Westerfield agrees.
“His motor never stops,” says Westerfield. “His intensity and effort on the field really elevate the level of everyone’s play.”