WHAT A'BOUT' ROB?: Former Football Players Reflect on Experience

Junior Mike Duda has a lot in common with Harvard captain Ryan Fitzpatrick. Both of them were incredible high school quarterbacks, both bypassed possible scholarship offers from Division I schools, and both came into Harvard with huge expectations for what they could possibly accomplish.

“I was an All-State quarterback right outside of Chicago, Illinois,” Duda says. “Northwestern really wanted me to punt more than play quarterback so it made the decision to come to Harvard pretty easy.”

Whereas Fitzpatrick has never looked back—running off staggering statistics in his four seasons since joining Tim Murphy’s Crimson squad from Arizona—Duda quit football after his freshman season and makes up a proud segment of the population who call themselves ex-footballers.

“I injured my throwing shoulder during my freshman year and as a result decided together with the coaches to stop playing,” Duda says.

Whether due to injury, exhaustion, or their interests in other academic or extracurricular pursuits, quite a few of the guys who sit next to you in Bio-Anthro lecture, in the dining hall, and in yes, the library, used to play Harvard football. I only talked to three of them in particular for this article, yet I believe they encompass a wide range of the ex-footballers on campus.

“It’s too bad that that particular part of my life is over since it’s something that I really enjoyed,” junior Ferdinand Carmine Martignetti says. “I was recruited as a cornerback after playing mostly corner and special teams in high school but was almost immediately converted to strong safety after my arrival. Shortly thereafter—thanks to a massive muscle gain—I was moved to middle linebacker.”

Well, in the immortal words of Jake Taylor in Major League—you may be a couple of ‘has-beens’ guys—but at least it’s better than being a ‘never will be’ on the sports field, like yours truly. Few members of the population realize that the Kirkland resident—affectionately known to his friends as ‘Freddie’—used to be a beast of a man who trudged across the river during his freshman year to bench and squat as much as was humanly possible. Though the outgoing ‘Italian Stallion’ grin has never left his face, Martignetti’s beastly 200-plus pound frame has been reduced to a timid 165 pounds.

“I never really wanted to change positions but I was always happy to do whatever the coaches asked of me,” Martignetti says. He admits though that he “was always much happier playing football when [he] was playing in the secondary.”

And playing in the secondary has never been difficult for Martignetti. During his prolific high school career at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., the Chestnut Hill resident racked up impressive numbers in three seasons, despite playing with a vast number of students taking post-graduate seasons. In the final game of his career against PA’s archrival—Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire—Martignetti dominated, picking off two passes on his way to leading Phillips Andover to victory in the oldest high school football rivalry in the nation.

As Martignetti realized that the opportunity to play in the secondary was slipping away during his freshman year, he found that “his skills at linebacker were not as strong.”

“It became apparent that football would no longer be a positive aspect of my Harvard experience,” Martignetti says.

“Having left the football team, a whole new world of academic opportunity and different parts of the Harvard experience which were previously unavailable to me have opened up.”

Whether it was injuries, the grind of almost nonstop lifting in the mornings during the winter and spring, or simply exhaustion, many a player on coach Tim Murphy’s squad finds that out at some point during his Harvard career. By my count, about half of the players in my class —the class of 2006—have now quit the football team. And while many of them and players in other classes joke about regrets, most of them still really love and follow the Crimson football team.

“I don’t know about most of the other guys you are going to talk to, but I didn’t leave the team because I was bitter or fed up with the program,” senior Jayson Vittori says.

Vittori echoes Martignetti in his thoughts about the importance of other aspects of the Harvard experience.

“Football was a huge part of my life for a long period of time,” Vittori says. “It just got to the point where I thought my time would be more valuably spent doing a number of other things that playing football here would not allow me to do.”

In the interest of full disclosure and with the necessary pre-requisites about apologizing for shameless self-promotion, I must admit that Vittori is my co-host on the halftime show on 95.3 FM WHRB. I’m your typical media idiot—I did play football in high school, albeit unsuccessfully—so Jayson offers an invaluable perspective of the Harvard team that I simply do not have.

With Harvard’s record right now standing at 8-0 and Murphy’s squad primed for a Herculean match-up of Ivy League undefeateds this week with the University of Pennsylvania, Vittori—who has only missed one game this season, when the Crimson was at Lafayette in faraway Easton, Pa.—waits with eager anticipation for the weekend.

“I’m in a unique situation because I live with five guys on the team,” Vittori says, referring to his blockmates Brian Edwards, Ricky Williamson, James Harvey, Max McKibben, and Garrett Schires. “Nothing makes me happier than to go to a game and see them play well. This run right now is amazing, and it seems to be something possibly even more special than when we went undefeated in 2001.

“Four years ago my roommates and I got a championship ring for simply being on the roster,” Vittori says. “Now, they are truly earning it, and I couldn’t be more supportive.”

In the end, all three of the ex-footballers say that they don’t regret leaving for a second. Yet, that doesn’t in any way cheapen what their roommates and classmates are doing on the field. It also doesn’t in any way mean that their classmates shouldn’t have an opportunity to compete for a Division I-AA National Championship like nearly every other Division I-AA football player in the country besides those in the Ivy League can.

“I’d be lying if I told you that picking one off and taking it to the house against Yale like my buddy Gary Sonkur did last year doesn’t still give me goosebumps,” Martignetti says. “But I’m very happy and comfortable with my decision to leave football in my past.”

And God knows I am too, for all three of these guys, because I might not know them each as well as I do.

But in the interest of full disclosure one more time, I have to admit that I’m particularly thrilled with Freddie’s decision to quit because he’s become one of my best friends in the time since that day during his freshman spring. At the end of this summer when he could have been back at camp practicing with his fellow teammates in preparation for the possibility of an Ivy League Championship, instead Freddie and I were catching bluefish, going tubing, and attending Patriots games day after day. And if Freddie was still beholden to Murphy and his coaching staff, my Harvard experience wouldn’t even compare.

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