Don’t choose a college based solely on its sports teams, he told me—a seemingly ridiculous suggestion given the magnanimity of my decision.
But my dad had ample reason to be skeptical. Tucked away with information about Harvard were pamphlets from Duke, Stanford, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Oklahoma, the other schools to which I sent applications.
His daughter, who had filled out March Madness brackets long before she knew how to spell “Mississippi” or “Valparaiso” (but who picked Valpo over Ole Miss in a 13-over-4 stunner in 1998) was prepared to call another upset: Oklahoma or Duke over Harvard, all in the name of mayhem at Memorial Stadium and Cameron Indoor.
I thought longingly of packed crowds at the Big House and the Tobacco Road rivalry, Stanford’s all-around athletic dominance, and the “Boomer Sooner” cheer I’d internalized as a heavenly chant.
Somewhere along the way, Harvard fell away from the pack. My father was the first to remind me that I was choosing a university, not a national championship contender.
Four years later, I have to thank my dad, both for knowing me so well and for encouraging me to go to Harvard. Without his prodding, I might have witnessed Michigan’s historic loss to Appalachian State wearing maize and blue or endured Oklahoma’s heartbreaking BCS disappointments as a student rather than as a distanced fan. (Thanks, dad, for your clairvoyance).
Instead, I became a reporter at a place known far more for its Marshall Scholars (lots) than its Heisman winners (zero). I covered Harvard-Yale instead of OU-Texas, national rowing championships instead of national basketball championships.
I’ve continually marveled at the accessibility of Harvard’s athletes to the student body. We eat breakfast with elite athletes and live next door to future Olympians. One of my blockmates won a national title with the fencing team in 2006. Earlier this spring, I rowed for Eliot’s house crew (which one all four races by open water, by the way—but who’s bragging?) and sat right behind a girl who plays for the one-time No. 1 Harvard women’s hockey team.
You’d be hard-pressed to find that environment at many other schools. Athletes at big universities often move off campus early, live in special dorms, and enjoy a strange celebrity status that transcends the chummy camaraderie (and equality) of undergraduate life.
At Harvard, athletes run House Committees and captain IM sports teams. It’s no surprise that one of my most frequent interviewees—Lindsay Hallion, the heart and soul of the Crimson basketball team—was running the show for Leverett House at the Senior Olympics.
This winter, when the women’s hockey team soared to No. 1, Eliot’s housemaster, Lino Pertile, inspired a regular army of housemates to cheer on the team’s large Eliot contingent. We had towels made with a crimson “Domus” on them, and Lino and his wife Anna and dozens of Eliot residents made the trek to the Bright Hockey Center to cheer on our housemates.
That sense of community with athletes—of support, shared accomplishment, and collective enthusiasm—is unique to Harvard.
At no other school where I applied would I have rubbed elbows (and shared a toaster) with a school’s greatest athletes.
We often overlook this element of our good fortune at Harvard, so accustomed to excellence that we criticize athletes where we should congratulate them.
I admittedly gave Harvard athletes little credit before my father talked some sense in to me.
But I’ve been nothing but impressed by the contribution student athletes make to the Harvard community, especially when compared with the isolationist mentality of thousands of college athletes nationwide.
People like Lindsay Hallion—All-Ivy guard and Leverett HoCo All-Star—are the best representatives that Harvard can hope for.
And so I think it best to thank all of Harvard’s athletes in my final column—a group I doubted in 2004, as I thought longingly of Adrian Peterson’s brilliant touchdown runs in the late Oklahoma summer.
I’ll always chant Boomer Sooner (even after the last two Fiesta Bowls), but another group of Crimson-clad athletes has earned my respect, fanship, and friendship. Congratulations on a job splendidly done, on the field and off of it.
—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.