Harvard's Zavala Goes From Walk-On to Rhodes Scholar

The Rhode Ahead
Courtesy of Tommy Miller

Senior Zar Zavala, a wide receiver on the football team, was informed after Harvard-Yale that he had been selected as a Rhodes Scholar. A native of El Paso, Texas, Zavala is a joint concentrator in engineering and neurobiology and saw playing time this season for the first time in his career.

Any athlete will always remember the last game they played, and for a Harvard football player, going out with The Game provides a particularly memorable backdrop.

For senior Zar Zavala, it would have been hard to top his first three Harvard-Yale weekends, all of which involved rings—championship rings in his freshman and sophomore seasons, and an engagement ring for his now-fiancée, Melanie, last year.

There was no ring to be won this fall. But on top of his class’ perfect 4-0 record against the Bulldogs, Zavala earned a different kind of prize: a Rhodes Scholarship.

“I’m walking down the field, searching for my family,” Zavala says of the moments after the Nov. 20 win. “I’m finding everyone I’ve known for the past four years except for my fiancée. I finally find her, she hands me my phone...and there was a text: ‘Congratulations, you’re a Rhodes Scholar.’”

“The whole team was around me—they were more anxious than I was,” he continues. “I told them yes, and pandemonium broke out. It was insane.”

For the El Paso, Texas native, winning the Rhodes Scholarship represented the culmination of four years of hard work in the classroom.

Zavala is pursuing a joint concentration in engineering and neurobiology and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society earlier this month.

But the accomplishment is even more impressive when you consider the work that Zavala—a wideout who walked onto the team—put in on the gridiron.

During his senior year at Eastwood High School, Zavala endured a pair of surgeries that left him wondering whether it was worth trying to walk on to an Ivy League team, a goal he’d had since middle school.

“I was talking to my mom, and she was like, ‘What do you mean you’re not going to play football anymore? You love football,’” Zavala recalls. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I know, but it will be really hard.’ And she [said], ‘That is not a good enough reason,’...So I started training that summer and slowly got back into shape and then walked on, but it was tough.”

The wideout earned a place on the team as a freshman and will graduate as one of two walk-ons to make it through four years on the team, along with his roommate, defensive tackle Dan Driscoll.

“I think we both agree that the reason that we’re still on the team, and the reason we were able to finish, is because we had each other,” Driscoll says. “It’s a very unique experience to walk on a team, and I’m very grateful to Zar for all the support he’s given me for the last four years. It’s really bonded us.”

Zavala made an immediate impression on the coaching staff for his attitude and work ethic.

“[Right away], you realize just from a character standpoint how tremendous he is,” says wide receiver coach Evan Loring, who has worked with Zavala for the last two seasons. “I didn’t know how good of a football player he was yet at that point, but from the first time I met Zar, I saw something special in the kid.”

Though the senior never found glory on the field with the varsity team—he saw playing time in three games this season, his first varsity appearances—his role in the wide receiving corps, where he spent most of his time on the scout team, was still invaluable.

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