It doesn’t take a detective to figure out what has made Neil Sherlock so important to the Harvard football team, but it might take one to figure out where he’s playing on the field.
A modern day renaissance man, the senior from Park Ridge, Ill. has done it all. Recruited as a running back, he moved to defense at the end of his freshman year, switched to running back his junior year and is now alternating between offensive and defensive positions on special teams.
Now, entering the final ‘Game’ of his career, he’ll get the bulk of his reps at wide receiver and kick returner, though that could change at any minute.
“It depends on when you ask me,” Sherlock says of his position on the field. “I’m all over the place. I easily adapt to situations, so I guess if they need someone to play something random, I’m the guy to do it.”
Because he has played on both sides of the ball, Sherlock has a comprehensive understanding of offensive and defensive strategy, easily able to read and prepare for the opponents at every position.
“We keep saying we’re double majoring at Harvard—football and economics,” Sherlock says. “Seriously, we know so much more about football coming here playing four years on both sides of the ball. I have a hard time watching football with people who don’t know what they’re talking about now.”
Sherlock’s dedication to the game as well as his energy and intensity on the field has made him a standout player for Harvard.
“Pound for pound, he’s maybe the toughest kid on our team,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy says. “He may be the best special teams player in the Ivy League. We know he runs back kicks and does a real good job with that, but he’s an impact player on every special team.”
According to Murphy, Sherlock’s impact extends far past the confines of his four years in Crimson.
“Arguably, [he’s] the best special teams player we’ve had here in my 13 years,” he says.
Sherlock’s football career has been a long time in the making. Picking up the game in second grade, he played Pop Warner football with his older brother, who later played fullback for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Once he reached high school, Sherlock switched from trading blocks with his brother to trading them with some of Maine’s top football prospects at Maine Township South High School, where he played no fewer than four positions.
“My QB rating in high school must’ve been off the charts because every time I threw, it was like a 60-yard touchdown or something,” Sherlock says. “They never expect the half-back pass or the double-pass, especially in high school.”
As a result of his high school fame, the Crimson recruited Sherlock as a running back, but competition for the positions he played as well as numerous position changes severely reduced his time on the field.
“It’s probably been really unfair to the kid,” Murphy says. “He’s been moved around so many times. But each time we moved him, we thought we were doing it with an opportunity to get him on the field. He hasn’t played that much, obviously, on offense or defense…but we consider special teams first team every bit as legitimate as a defensive first teamer or an offensive first teamer.”
Although depth at many positions hasn’t allowed Sherlock to see as much playing time, his contribution to the Crimson does not go unnoticed by his teammates.
“He really has been a jack of all trades,” senior tailback Clifton Dawson says. “I can’t think of another player on special teams who does more for that unit. The way he covers kicks, he returns kicks, he does a fantastic job. I don’t think we would have had as much success as a team without him.”
Even injury can’t stop Sherlock, as he nonchalantly lists the concussions and muscle tears he’s suffered in his athletic career.
Learning to bounce back early, he vividly remembers an eighth-grade torpedo-tackle that dislocated his shoulder, which he quickly popped in before continuing playing game.
“My dad was right there on the sidelines, and he said I jumped right up immediately, looked down, and all the color just drained out of my face,” Sherlock says. “And then I kind of jumped up and popped it in myself.”
Those early injuries prepared him for some tougher ones in college, as Sherlock suffered a large gash on his head in the 2005 season opener at Holy Cross. As he was blindsided on a kickoff return, Sherlock made head to head contact with a Crusader, which knocked off his helmet and gave him a head injury. Yet fittingly, he was back on the field for the second half.
“I always joke around about that saying, yeah, my head exploded and everything,” Sherlock laughs.
Donning eye black and sock spats for the games, Sherlock’s lighthearted attitude makes it easy for his teammates to get pumped up before taking the field.
“I change it up every week,” Sherlock says of his eye black styles. “Sometimes I’ll do it over my nose, sometimes I’ll do the ultimate warrior style, but I’ve got the original. It’s spreading, too. The guys are really getting into it.”
His football career is likely to end after The Game, as he plans to explore various business ventures instead of athletics. But it’s no mystery that football will remain a large part of his life, even if it is only to cheer on his beloved Chicago Bears.