You can talk about the accolades. How he was named unanimous Ivy League Player of the Year, unanimous first team All-Ivy, and a unanimous All-New England pick. How his sheer offensive potential put him on the Walter Payton Award list before the season started, and kept him there until midway through the season, when his statistics dropped off from 2003’s gaudy highs.
And, oh yes, you can talk about statistics. Even as sophomore Clifton Dawson’s exceptional abilities changed the composition of an already-explosive Harvard offense, even when Fitzpatrick let the nearly uncontainable running back take over some of the offensive duties, the numbers that the 131st Crimson captain put up were nothing shabby. He led the Ivy League in total offense with 243.4 yards per game and a 128.9 pass efficiency rating. He was among the top 25 offensive performers in the nation, averaging almost 200 passing and nearly 50 rushing yards per game. He scored 18 touchdowns—13 passing, five rushing—for the league’s best offense.
You can talk about the pros. How Fitzpatrick became the first Ivy quarterback to be drafted since 1984, taken in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. You can talk about how notoriously testy St. Louis coach Mike Martz—“we hit it off, he’s a great guy,” says Fitzpatrick—already waxes rhapsodic about his bright young prospect.
You can talk about the records. He has a resume about as long as his brawny 6’3 frame is tall. There are the records that he inked this year. He owns the most total career offensive yards of any player in Crimson history—6,721 over four years. He has participated in more plays during his tenure—1,006—than any other Harvard quarterback. He possesses five of the 10 best single-game performances in school history, four of the best single-game passing performances, and is second all-time in career touchdown passes (39), career completions (384), and completion percentage (59.9). Or you can talk about the records he already held coming into this season—like his 471 yards of passing and scrambling against Holy Cross in 2003, Harvard’s best single-game total offensive performance in history.
You can talk about the performances that numbers don’t quite capture. His line of 18 of 25 completions for 263 yards and a score don’t paint an accurate portrait of what happened in Providence on Sept. 25, when Fitzpatrick rallied the Crimson from a 21-point third-quarter hole to sink Brown 35-34 and keep the young perfect season on track. The feat tied the school record for greatest deficit surmounted. The man who orchestrated the first legendary comeback, against Dartmouth in 2001? Fitzpatrick, of course, in the first start of his career.
You can talk to the coaches of Harvard opponents—they won’t spout statistics, only lavish praise you’d think would be reserved for their own players rather than for the guy who just picked apart their defense.
“We were one athlete away and that was Fitzpatrick,” explained Cornell coach Jim Knowles after No. 14 passed for 317 yards and ran for 102 more in a 34-24 win Oct. 9. “They were better than us by Fitzpatrick.”
You can talk to his own coach, Tim Murphy, the man who plucked Fitzpatrick out of Gilbert, Ariz., and watched the kid with only one I-AA scholarship offer blossom over the next four years into a Harvard opponent’s worst nightmare. Murphy will tell you about Fitzpatrick’s “intangibles”: his mental and physical toughness, the way he thrives on pressure and competition, and the unquantifiable effect Fitzpatrick has on those around him.
“He was one of those guys that just, by his presence, made everybody around him better,” Murphy says. “Part of it was his ability, part of it his personality, and part of it was what you could only call his charisma.”
You will talk, you have to talk, about the perfect seasons. Fitzpatrick has had two, starting with the 2001 edition when he was just a wide-eyed freshman filling in for ailing Neil Rose ’02-’03, but it’s the legendary 2004 season that was really his. The 10-0 Crimson had the best Harvard football season since the 1901 squad went 12-0, finishing as Ivy champions and the only undefeated team in Division I-AA.
And as you talk, looking back, about the perfect season, you can finally get past the bewildering haze of statistics and honors to see that those things don’t quite reveal what makes Ryan Fitzpatrick a great player, or a special player, or a valuable player. They help to explain it, sure. But you can get a better sense of it when you stop talking and just listen to the man himself.
Listen, instead, to Fitzpatrick explaining the drive to make the dream of an undefeated season of his own a reality, and how his favorite moment of the season was not the 35-3 win over Yale, or the 31-10 clincher over Penn, or even the moment that 21-point deficit against the Bears was erased.
Listen to him describe the deep collective inhalation at halftime against the Bears, when Fitzpatrick looked around at his teammates and decided that it was too early in the season to give up on that dream of perfection.
“We wanted our legacy left behind to be that we went out undefeated as well,” he says. “And really the best memory I have, that all the guys on the team will have—not only just the teammates, the togetherness, the closeness of everybody—but the teammates in the locker room at halftime in the Brown game.
“It was probably my best sports moment of all time,” he continues, “the feeling that, with all the seniors in there, pouring their hearts out to each other, and trying to get everybody fired up. Just the team coming together at that point. Just a great feeling, and we sort of had that feeling coming out on the field, that we were invincible.”
Fitzpatrick stops talking, and you are left with a hint of that feeling. And the knowledge that there is really nothing more that you, or anyone, need say.
—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.