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It starts with the name. Russ Savage. Ferocious. Russ Savage. Eat 'em up alive. Russ Savage.
You can't help but think of the Bubba Smith commercial. Bubba, not a bad defensive end himself a few years back, now sells Lite beer from Miller. "When I used to play," Bubba says, "I'd tackle the entire backfield and throw out the guys I didn't need." Now Bubba doesn't need calories, hence the Lite beer.
Russ Savage has never tackled an entire backfield. In his two years and two games on the Crimson varsity, though, he has made his share of stops. Enough to earn him second-team All-Ivy honors a year ago, and enough to get the publicity this time around--finally, after playing for two years in relative obscurity.
Now it's not that easy for someone who stands over six feet tall and weighs over 200 pounds to remain obscure for that long. Unless, of course, you perform on a line whose other members include two All-Ivies and the team captain.
Steve Kaseta is the captain. He's big, he's a local yokel, and this year he's playing as his title would lead one to expect.
Charlie Kaye is an All-Ivy tackle. He's not big, he's massive. Two seasons back he sat out the year with mononucleosis; his return to action didn't go unnoticed.
Bob Baggott, the weakside end to Savage's strongside, is also All-Ivy. Last year Baggot recovered seven fumbles and made two interceptions. As Savage says, "Baggott's in a better position to make a big play. He gets to run around more than I do. I run, tackle and hit people--after two years, you kind of get used to it."
What Savage didn't get used to was the lack of recognition he received. In part, it came with his position, a knock-heads spot where the chief responsibility is to be good, not fancy.
In part, it came from Savage himself. Savage is quiet. He doesn't have much to say, at least not to outsiders, and as he admits, "I don't bitch about things.
"The truth is, though," he said between bites of a grinder yesterday, "it (the lack of recognition) has bothered me a little. I like the game, but I just like to get some credit for it. It's hard knowing you're a good player and you're not getting any credit."
At Cardinal Spellman High School in New York, the step on Savage's education ladder that preceded Harvard, obscurity was never a problem for the Mather history major. Like everyone else who plays college ball, Savage was a high school captain. Like everyone else, he was All-City and played more than one position. Defensive end, offensive guard, offensive tackle, punter. That's four. And, like at least a few, Savage chose Harvard over some of the big-name football factories.
"In high school," he recalls, "I had dreams of going to a football school. Notre Dame contacted me, but they said I was too small. Besides, they had Ross Browner and a few others that year, so they didn't need a defensive end."
Savage knew, however, that at the Notre Dames of the world football would have been knocked into his head. He would have to play or leave, which wasn't his ballgame. Academics was, and so was the influence of his high school coach. "I eventually turned to academics from sports," he said. "My coach looked out for me."
At Harvard, that turn has assumed a wider sweep. There are classes to attend. There's that 10-hour a week job driving a Harvard-Radcliffe shuttle bus. There's WHRB. There's also the fact that the football program here has turned him off.
Granted, Savage chose his present situation. He didn't want a factory. But three years have shown him that even within its given sphere, Harvard football is not all it could be.
For one thing, there's the fact that, as Savage says, "other factors besides ability determine who plays here." Favoritism is one of them. Savage didn't say so but he didn't have to. "It has definitely dampened my enthusiasm toward the sport," is what he did say.
There's also the realization that in seven weeks, his football career will be a memory. "I know it's going to be over for me then, and I'm kind of looking forward to it, but I know I'm going to miss it."
"I've thought of quitting a lot," he continues, "but it's like being a concert pianist. Even if someone says you can't play, you do it anyway."
So casting his dampened enthusiasm aside, Savage continues to play, and play well. The program has turned him off, the lack of publicity has bothered him and he has felt at times as though he wasn't getting anything out of football. Yet he still plays.
In last year's Yale game, Harvard had one bright moment. Savage's 74-yd interception and touchdown return of a screen pass provided it.
"I was dead after the run," Savage said at the time, "but I had to make the best of it. I don't get much chance to do the intercepting."
Nor to get the publicity. It's not that Savage has been dying to get the clippings, you see, just recognition for the job he's done. That job has been immense.
Of course, with a name like Savage what did you expect him to do? Tackle the entire backfield?
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