It has not been a fun year to play offensive tackle against the Harvard football team. Nor quarterback, for that matter. Nor running back, either.
Thanks to a front four that has swarmed opposing offenses all season long, the Crimson leads the nation in sacks and is second in rush defense, just one yard per game behind North Dakota State.
A large part of that dominance can be attributed to the breakout seasons of defensive ends John Lyon and Zach Hodges, a fifth-year senior and sophomore, respectively. Hodges’ nine sacks place him fifth in the FCS, while Lyon ranks 12th with 7.5.
“It’s certainly a luxury that very few teams [get], to have two bookends,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy says. “They’re silent but deadly. They’re really humble, classy, sincere kids off the field, but on the field you just see a different side of them that seems to manifest itself in those extremely physical, competitive situations that football can present.”
Few would have expected the Crimson to be able to rush the passer as well as it has this season, especially after the graduation of Josue Ortiz ’11, who had a team-high 10 sacks last year. Lyon and Hodges were tied for second on last season’s team in sacks with three each.
But 2012 has been an entirely different story, as the duo has established itself as the best pass-rushing ends in the Ancient Eight.
Lyon—who missed all of 2010 due to injury—has been waiting for his breakout season for a long time.
“I really had a desire to [be a better pass-rusher],” he says. “I’m glad and thank God that I was able to put it together this year.”
That was not something that had to happen. After winning his first Ivy title last season, Lyon could have decided to begin pursuing a career in the medical field, which the psychology concentrator plans to do in the future. But he instead chose to come back and play another year—a decision that for him was an easy one.
“I’ve been playing football since I was in the fourth or fifth grade,” Lyon says. “I’ve had my ups and downs with it. But since I’ve been in college, talking to my friends who went into the real world, I really understand [that] I have the rest of my life to work, but while I’m young and have energy, I really think it doesn’t get much better than getting the chance to play football. I’m just taking advantage of that opportunity while I still have it. Work and career can come later.”
Hodges’ road to Harvard, meanwhile, was exceptionally challenging. The sophomore’s father passed away when he was six, leaving him and his mother to move from place to place—at times even battling homelessness. Then, when Hodges was a junior in high school, his mother suffered a fatal stroke.
“I wouldn’t say I had the easiest of childhoods, but I definitely didn’t have the worst,” Hodges says. “I’m very fortunate and blessed that God has placed me in the condition that I currently am in.... My goal is just to try to be appreciative of that every day and make the most of it.”
Hodges’ religion, in addition to helping him overcome life’s challenges, has also brought him close to Lyon, his roommate on the road.
“First and foremost, the biggest connection between me and John is our faith,” Hodges says. “He leads our Bible studies that we do every Sunday and on Friday nights before away games. We pray a lot together. He’s a great guy, and I think his work ethic and his faith in God is a foundation for my own.”
Hodges met Lyon on his official visit to Harvard, and since then the pair has developed a strong friendship that extends off the field.