St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati may be a Jesuit school, but on Friday nights, football reigns supreme.
Depending on the opponent, depending on the weather, up to 6,000 spectators pack into Ballaban Field—so named after a long-time coach—to watch their Bombers play. Blue-and-white battalions flash prepaid tickets, browse the in-stadium souvenir shop, juggle hot concessions, and finally settle in to root for a program that has captured two state titles in the last 11 years.
On the field, illuminated by enormous stadium lights, nearly 400 kids from St. Xavier shiver and sweat. They shoulder an enormous legacy, one that has produced at least 13 NFL players, including three-time Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers.
Here in southwest Ohio, football isn’t life-or-death. But it can be your life.
Sean Ahern, the 143rd captain of Harvard football, understands this fact. Put more simply: “Football is a big deal where I come from.”
Over the last two years, however, the converse has proven equally true—that where Sean Ahern comes from is a big deal for football. After all, it was Ballaban Field that shaped Ahern into who he is today, meaning a shutdown cornerback, a first-team All-Ivy selection for two straight years, and the bedrock of the Crimson’s defense.
“[I want to be] a high-energy guy,” Ahern said. “Someone who brings it every day. Someone who, once game day rolls around, is super-focused and locked in.”
Many of those ambitions took root at St. Xavier, a 184-year-old private school whose football program has enjoyed national prominence since the mid-2000s. In 2005, when the program claimed its first state championship, the city of Cincinnati established “St. Xavier High School Day.”
Part of St. Xavier’s success on the gridiron relates to pure size. Roughly a quarter of the 1,600-person, all-male student body joins the football team. About 120 players stick around as upperclassmen, making the high school squad one of the largest in the country.
Even before Ahern reached ninth grade, odds were that he’d join this army. His father played defensive back at Brown, coincidentally joining the Bears around the same time as Tim Murphy. Back then Murphy worked as a part-time assistant; now he’s the Harvard head coach.
College football left a real impact on Ahern’s father and, in turn, shaped his son.
“We bonded through [the sport] for many years,” Ahern said. “Still do. He’s definitely my number one fan.”
Despite his athletic lineage, however, Ahern didn’t think seriously about college football until recruiters started to call. The Crimson entered the fray during his junior year.
At that point, Ahern’s father adopted a new role. Previously a third-grade coach, constantly an enthusiastic supporter, he then evolved into a chief consultant.
“He’s been there throughout the whole process,” Ahern said. “He made me realize that there was a door out there to play football and get a good education.”