A No. 88 Harvard football jersey hangs alone in the home locker room at Dillon Field House, a subtle tribute to a former Crimson left end.
The honored player is not listed among Harvard’s all-time statistical leaders. While he had a few truly notable moments on the field throughout a solid career, he was by no means a star for the Crimson. But it may be shortsighted to quantify the significance of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56 to Harvard football—and the significance of Harvard football to Kennedy—strictly based on his on-field accomplishments in two seasons with the varsity squad.
Kennedy—who passed away on Aug. 25—is best remembered for what he became after college: the last surviving brother in a generation of an iconic American political family; a polarizing figure struck by tragedy and plagued by self-inflicted controversy; the “Lion of the Senate,” an avowed liberal who reached across the aisle in the name of getting things done for the causes he believed in.
And the Harvard football team—deeply conscious of its own history—views Kennedy’s legacy as a part of its own.
“We take great pride in the fact that [Kennedy] was a Harvard football player, from the standpoint that obviously he was one of the great legislators of all time,” Crimson coach Tim Murphy says. “The reason we champion Ted Kennedy so much, is that what he accomplished is legendary in the Senate, and who he accomplished it for, I think is just as important.”
Murphy blurs the distinction between what Kennedy achieved on the gridiron and on the Senate floor, and perhaps he’s not unreasonable in doing so, as Kennedy’s personal development through success and failure as a Harvard football player was manifest in his approach to his political career.
DETERMINATION IN THE WRONG DIRECTION
Just as he would eventually follow them into politics, Kennedy followed his brothers John ’40 and Robert ’48 into Crimson football when he arrived at Harvard, successfully trying out for the freshman squad.
“Making cleat marks and crashing into other solid bodies on the same field where my brothers had played,” Ted Kennedy writes in “True Compass,” his recently-released memoir, “it didn’t seem that life could hold anything better than that.”
It was during his rookie season that Kennedy began what would become lifelong friendships with several of his teammates, including Richard J. Clasby ’54, William A. Frate ’54, and John C. Culver ’54. Culver—Kennedy’s first legislative aide in the Senate, who eventually became a Senator himself—recalls Kennedy displaying the same qualities as a teammate that he later embodied as acolleague.
“He wasn’t possessed of all the ideal attributes,” Culver says. “He just compensated for everything by such determination and will. He was strong and very courageous. Having served in the Congress [with him], the one thing that was so distinctive about Ted Kennedy was he never quit. “
But Kennedy allowed his passion for football and his friends to obscure his commitment to his coursework, and in the spring semester of his freshman year he feared that if he didn’t do well on his final Spanish exam, he would not be eligible to play for the Crimson again in the fall.
In what he calls an “immature, spontaneous, extremely poor and wrong decision” in his memoir, Kennedy arranged to have Frate take the test for him. They were caught, and the two young men were expelled from Harvard and told they could reapply in a year or two, “if they behaved themselves,” political reporter Adam Clymer ’58 writes in his 1999 biography of Kennedy.
While Frate attended another school for a year before returning to Harvard, Kennedy enlisted in the Army. After two years in the service, spent mostly as a military police officer in Paris, Kennedy was readmitted to Harvard and resumed his status as a full-time student in the fall of 1953.
A FRESH START
In his second tour at Harvard, a more mature Kennedy proved himself a diligent student and began to fully realize his political aspirations, excelling in government and public speaking courses. His love for football never wavered, and after a year of probation in which he occupied himself playing for the Winthrop House team, Kennedy was eligible to try out for varsity.
“I think he was more serious about his work,” Culver, a Harvard Football Hall of Famer, says. “He was determined to succeed when he came back.”
Kennedy’s trademark determination served him well in the 1954 season, which he began on the varsity’s eighth and lowest squad. While other, more naturally gifted players dropped off the depth chart because of injuries or left the team for personal or academic reasons, Kennedy kept plugging away until he was finally rewarded with playing time in a game against Bucknell.
“I was so excited to be in the game that I didn’t notice when I got a tooth knocked out,” he writes.
In 1955, Harvard sputtered to a 2-7 record, but Kennedy experienced his greatest success on the football field, starting for the Crimson and playing on both sides of the ball. His signature moment came in the Harvard-Yale Game, the last of his career. With the Bulldogs up, 14-0, in the third quarter, Kennedy caught a deflected pass off the hands of Dexter S. Lewis ’56 in the endzone for the Crimson’s only score of the game. Yale would go on to win, 21-7, but Kennedy celebrated his touchdown with his family and secured a triumphant end to his days as a football player.
After graduation, Kennedy received a letter inviting him to try out for the Green Bay Packers (“He used that letter whenever he campaigned in Wisconsin,” Clymer, a former Crimson president, recalls in an interview). But as the story goes, Kennedy famously turned down the offer in favor of “another contact sport—politics.”
With that, a chapter in Kennedy’s life was over, and his football career was tucked away in his legacy as little more than a footnote, useful for an amusing anecdote or two. But Kennedy’s days with the Crimson reveal much about the figure America would come to know so well in the following decades, and with every election he won, every speech he delivered, every piece of legislation he passed, Kennedy continued to contribute to Harvard football’s sense of its own history and identity.
“I remember waking up that morning and hearing that Ted Kennedy had died,” Crimson captain Carl Ehrlich says. “I went to the stadium and the flag was flying at half-mast and I got goosebumps to be associated with the program.
“[Kennedy] was the quintessential statesmen,” Ehrlich continues. “There could not be a better person to represent Harvard football.”
—Staff writer Loren Amor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.