The Amazing Voyage of Cheng Ho

Jessica E. Zbikowski

CORRECTION APPENDED

Dealing with tragedy at a young age can be devastating.

This story of overcoming obstacles is one you would not wish upon anyone. But for freshman running back Cheng Ho, it has been the story of his life.

When his father died over six years ago, and his mother became ill and died just months later, Ho and his sister were left as orphans in their native Taiwan. Alone in the country, it was the saving graces of an aunt and uncle in Martinez, Ga. that brought the two to the United States, and eventually brought Ho to where he is today.

“If you know the whole story, it’s incredibly inspirational,” Crimson coach Tim Murphy said. “It’s a great country when a kid can go from practically an orphan, can’t speak English, never played football, to Harvard, in six or seven years. It’s amazing.”

Coming to a new country at age 12, learning a foreign language, Ho found himself at a disadvantage in academics and social life. With so much on his mind, the 5’10, 190-pound tailback found both refuge and opportunity in sports. Having played basketball back in Taiwan, Ho immediately found comfort in the familiar setting.

It was on the hardwood that his rushing talent was first suspected, when the coach pushed him to try out for the football squad. Ho had never even heard of the sport before entering the eighth grade, but the youngster tried out nonetheless.

Becoming a three-sport athlete in high school, track, basketball, and football became a social outlet for Ho, a way to find friends and organize his life.

“I used sports as a way to gain confidence and socialize with friends and to manage school work,” he said. “I think that taught me a lot of life lessons like courage, perseverance, and overcoming obstacles.”

The game of football became more than just an avenue for his feelings when junior year, Ho decided to play college ball. With numerous universities as suitors, he made the decision to attend Harvard, even doing a postgraduate year at Avon Old Farms to increase his academic abilities and prepare him for the rigor of Crimson life.

“Harvard decided I would be better off academically,” Ho said. “I would probably have struggled more last year in terms of managing my time and academic workload. I feel more comfortable now.”

Ho has seen only limited minutes this season, as he backs up senior All-American tailback Clifton Dawson during his push to break the all-time Ivy League rushing record. Ho has 18 carries for 103 yards and one reception for 13 yards in four games.

In the Week 3 victory over Lehigh, Ho began returning kickoffs, a return to one of his high school roles that only helped him adjust to the college game more. So far he has five returns for 97 yards.

His first touches on offense came in the season-opener, establishing that Ho would be the threat with Dawson off the field. In the Ivy opener against Brown a week later, the back provided an unexpected spark that would seal the victory. He rushed nine times for 56 yards and notched his first career touchdown with 40 seconds remaining.

“I was laying on the grass really happy, it was just an amazing feeling,” Ho said. “I just lay there until three of my linemen picked me up and started celebrating. It was just a tremendous experience.”

Yet with three years to go, playing time has become less vital to the young back, as he maintains his role as backup and student of the game. When Dawson leaves after this season there will be big shoes to fill, and the position will be wide open for anyone to fill.

“Ultimately, he’ll have to be bigger, stronger, faster, to be a guy who can carry the ball 20 times a game,”Murphy said of Ho. “But I think he has a legitimate future as a I-AA running back.”

And so it is up to Ho to make the adjustments and learn how to make an impact. To begin with, he has sought instruction from Dawson, and he plans to move forward from there.

“I feel like I’m trying to catch up to feel comfortable at the college level,” Ho said. “But I’m still working hard to get there, and Clifton has been a huge part of that. He’s been teaching me about all aspects of the game.”

The journey continues, but Ho has come so far already.

—Staff writer Madeleine I. Shapiro can be reached at mshapiro@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION

An Oct. 12 Sports article incorrectly described the football team's Cheng Ho '10 and his sister as orphans. In fact, Ho's mother is alive; his father died more than six years ago.

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