Life of Brian: Confessions of a Would-Be Harvard Man

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.”

—Benjamin Franklin

Four years ago, this was my high school yearbook quote and basically my strategy for conquering Harvard.

One Crimson career later, I may or may not have written anything worth reading, but I definitely never got around to the second part. My name has never appeared in any newspaper except as a byline.

This is a big disappointment. I came to Harvard wanting to make news, not report it. The last month of my senior year of high school, one of the assistant librarians there, after hearing where I was going to college, offered his congratulations and a photocopy of the cover to Richard Bissell’s book, You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man. I tacked it on my wall. I never read it, but I was in love with the idea behind the title: by the time I was done at Harvard, people would be able to tell who I was. I would be known.

And now? Maybe my columnist mug shot introduced me to some of the campus, but for the most part, the only immortality I’ve won has been on behalf of the people I wrote about, not me. I recorded a bit of history, but didn’t make any.

Four years ago, this would not have been enough for me. That was then.

* * *

The good guys had won. Did anyone care?

In 1989, Harvard men’s hockey coach Billy Cleary hoisted the NCAA championship trophy over his head, his team having earned arguably the greatest victory in Harvard athletic history. Did anyone care?

Cleary thought so. “This isn’t just for the hockey team,” he said at the time, “this is for every Harvard alumnus in the country … in the world.”

Maybe Cleary was right. Maybe, in one fleeting moment of validation, Harvard sports did matter to people. But what about the other 364 days of that year? And every day since? Did anyone care then?

The answer is, yes, people care. The good guys care. Even if no one else does, they do.

And that’s enough. Success in the world of Harvard athletics can’t be measured in conventional terms like NCAA tournament appearances lest too many athletes who come through here be considered failures. There is pride enough in a job well done and in having no regrets and in sometimes valuing the game well played over the game favorably decided.

Yes, different things matter here. More important things.

* * *

Fooled ’em again.

That is how John Veneziano accepts compliments. During four years of working under him in Harvard’s sports information office, I relayed others’ kind words about him maybe half a dozen times. Even complimented him a few times myself. “Fooled ’em again” was always the response.

Call it whatever you want, John treats the least important people like they matter the most. Maybe he’s only fooling them; I just think he’s a nice guy. In a line of work that consistently tries one’s patience and one’s good mood, Veneziano retains both on a regular basis. He quietly continues to be the best at what he does, even if he’ll never garner a fraction of the attention Harvard’s athletes receive from him.

When a color story on Carl Morris or Jen Botterill appears in the Boston Globe, no one thinks about the work Johnny V and his understaffed, overworked office did to make it happen. No one considers the work involved in trying to sell the countless, untold feel-good stories—the ones usually deemed uninteresting—and in fending off the media hordes that swarm when something goes wrong.

I had a part in one of those kinds of stories this winter when I wrote about academic problems ending a men’s basketball player’s season early. John could not have been more professional and understanding when I told him I was going ahead with the story, even though it meant him spending the next several days minimizing the fallout from a story he’d rather have seen buried.

It wasn’t the first time Johnny V had gone to the mat to protect Harvard’s athletes. It won’t be the last time, either. But it was then that I realized that JV had fooled me more than anyone because there are few people I admire more.

* * *

Joe Walsh is not a Harvard person and that is one of the best things about him.

More than once during interviews the past four years, Marty Bell or somebody would throw out an intelligent-sounding word, the kind of word that wins you instant credibility in Gov section, and Walsh would wince. One time “tangential” made an appearance in one of Marty’s questions, and I knew exactly what was coming next.

“Whoa, whoa,” Walsh teased. “I’m not a Harvard guy.”

Which was ironic considering that postgame interviews with Walsh were the closest I ever came to student-faculty interaction in college. As a sophomore, when I mentioned how lefty Kenon Ronz had a contract to play on the Cape later that summer, Walsh gave me a verbal pat-on-the-head: “You’ve done your homework.” (Too bad it came at the expense of actual homework.)

There is a joy and sincerity about Walsh that is refreshing. This is a guy who told Bill Cleary “You just made my life” when he was hired and who, ever since, has been brave enough to dream of being more than just competitive, of being the “last team standing.”

“You don’t always get it, but that’s the expectation level,” Walsh once said. “I think it would be one of the greatest accomplishments in college baseball—in a sport that is so dominated by scholarships—that we could get there someday. … I think it would be a great story, seeing a school like Harvard, a Northeast school, all the things stacked against you …”

I covered Walsh’s team for four years because I believed someday, against all odds, Walsh’s faith would be rewarded and I didn’t want to miss it. I drove all over New England to watch his throwback brand of hardball because I wanted to be a part of something that special, if only from the press box.

* * *

Martin Bell is universally acknowledged as The Nicest Guy at The Crimson. Sometimes, I have thought more than once, too nice.

Sometimes Martin seemed just a bit too happy, a little too in love with the time he’s devoted to the Crimson—time that, in my case, I wouldn’t mind getting back.

I told him as much once. We had our moments, he said. And then he reminded me of a bunch of times that I thought were all well and good, but certainly not the things I would remember for the rest of my life. To me, they were throwaway moments.

Not to Martin. He talked about how he couldn’t help but feel attached to, and proud of, something he’d invested so much in. How he insisted on taking it all in and refused miss a moment.

“I’m thinking that the very next second could be the funniest moment of my life, and my eyes are like saucers,” he said then. “I’m deathly afraid of missing it.”

It was right about then that I realized I had spent the last four years in denial, pretending there was no reward where there was no glory. Marty steered me out of, in his words, a culture of disappointment to the culture of what’s next. For that badly needed perspective, I can’t say thank you enough.

* * *

I’ve been around athletes who’ve confessed to playing not for the ‘H’ on their sweater but for their own pride and for the guy next to them. Gradually, this has become my approach, too. Life on the Cambridge side of the river humbled me more times than I would care to admit, but my time on the other side offered nothing but affirmation.

There, the people were real. There, you didn’t need to keep your distance for fear of rejection or, worse, disappointment that the more you got to know someone, the less interesting they’d become. There, I learned that the most meaningful successes in life are won amid the most raw, most private moments. When I leave here, I won’t miss Harvard all that much, just a few certain people it introduced me to. And I don’t care about being seen as a Harvard man anymore, just a good one.

I identified with the athletes here because, for the longest time, I was right there with them, plugging away in anonymity and searching for meaning when there was no recognition to be had. I hope they felt some satisfaction when we covered them, but more than that, I hope they felt some satisfaction when we didn’t. During my term at the helm of this section, I never believed that all 41 sports merited equal coverage. But I’d hope the athletes on those teams never let that fact demean the dignity of their endeavor. There is excellence in the pursuit, regardless of the publicity it generates.

Some things are worth neither the reading nor the writing but are still worth remembering.

—Staff writer Brian E. Fallon can be reached at bfallon@post.harvard.edu