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For those who spend most their lives sitting in the bleachers or carting sacrifices to the shrine of Bear Bryant, the term "Harvard athlete" hovers somewhere between oxymoron and punchline.
Yet there can be no doubt that the star athlete can and does exist at Harvard. They've never manufactured jocks at Cambridge, and they're not about to start now. "Athletic scholarship" is not in the vocabulary, "first round draft pick" a rare species.
Larry Brown is the starting quarterback for the Harvard football team. He may also very well be the finest right-handed pitcher ever to play for the Crimson. They'd laugh at his running ability if he tried to operate the Wishbone offense at Oklahoma. They wouldn't laugh at his quick sophisticated humor in Tuscaloosa. He's articulate, open-minded, zany, and dedicated without having to refer every five seconds to "his Maker." Larry Brown is the Harvard athlete.
"When I graduated from high school in Norwood everyone asked me 'Why aren't you going out West or down South to play ball?' I wanted to stay in New England near my family, and I was looking for a balance of serious athletics and quality academics. The Harvard baseball team had just finished its third trip in a row to the College World Series, and Harvard football had all that tradition. There was really no choice after I considered the kind of education that I'd receive."
This philosophy is nothing new, athlete in search of education and fame at Harvard, but only rarely is it achieved. Dedicated athletes tend to get sidetracked once they learn that there's more to life than batting practice or crack-back blocks. They lose their interest, they lose their edge. They're no longer jocks out of the Ron "Goodbye Columbus" Patimkin mold.
Brown did not get sidetracked. He had other moods, other interests, all of which enhanced his dedication to sports as well as his performance on the field.
"My family's place in my life has always been right up top. There are ten of us, counting my parents, and the kids range from 7 to 23. There's always someone in the stands.
"I really can't describe the feeling of having my family sitting in the stands watching me play against Yale last fall. It was just my way of paying them all back, in an intangible way, for all the happiness they've given me."
Perhaps you can attribute Brown's success to the fact that though he respects Harvard, he has never really been in awe of the school, academically or athletically.
"If I ever took this school seriously--saying to myself 'You have to achieve this or you have to achieve that.' --I would have flunked out long ago. My number one goal has always been to enjoy myself. Harvard is an experience that only 1500 people a year get to have. As down as I've been at times I never regret coming here."
If you've ever met Larry Brown it's kind of hard to imagine him "down" at all. If nothing else, Brown has lived up immeasurably to his goal of not taking Harvard seriously. He's a flake. He's weird. He's tapioca. Antics during practice that would be frowned upon most anywhere are not only part of his personality, but necessary ingredients in his talent.
He goes one on one with defensive ends. He runs the bases and dives head first into catchers during baseball season. The day before his first varsity start last fall Brown was running receiver patterns and diving on his shoulder. The left shoulder, thank God.
"Once the serious work has been taken care of, like the period we're in now, practice should be fun. If it's not you shouldn't be there."
Whatever, practice gives Brown the needed tension-cutter in the self-competitive, adrenaline--fueled world of quarterbacking and pitching.
Last May, during exams, the baseball team traveled to Holyoke, Ma. for the opening game of the NCAA District One playoffs against Delaware. After six innings Harvard trailed 1-0 on an unearned run. It had been drizzling for the entire contest and Brown was in danger of losing his first decision of the season. The clouds burst in the seventh, the tarpaulin was brought out, and the Crimson batsmen were brooding in the dugout, on the verge of an opening round loss in a double elimination tourney.
Brown came out on to the field, looked up to the clouds with his hands stretched out, his face drenched. "Hey, it's not rainin' out here", he said.
Well, so much for cutting tension only in practice.
Brown's Harvard athletic career began subtly enough on the freshman football team. "I was about eighth string quarterback and played maybe four plays all year."
While freshman football is rarely satisfying for anyone, Brown was able to put things in perspective. "Sure it's frustrating when you're not heavily recruited and you're on the same field with 80 high school captains. But luckily I avoided injury, kept my self-confidence, and treated the whole thing as a learning experience. I knew my chance would come."
A year later, after a 4-3 pitching record on a sub-.500 varsity baseball squad, Brown was back on the football field. Pictures in the game program and post-game interviews with alumni were put off another year. Patience was not only a virtue, it was a priceless commodity.
"There were times when I'd sit out there on the sidelines, with five guys ahead of me and only practices on the scout squad getting my head beat in to look forward to. You begin to wonder whether it's all worth it.
You finally realize that in Coach Restic's system you have to pay the price. Especially for a quarterback, sophomore year is a building year, a year to learn the system and get yourself straightened out. It's like the last lap of a race, you have to get through the ones before it to know where you're headed."
Brown knew where he was headed, at least in one sport. He went 4-0 for the rejuvenated baseball squad sophomore year and spent his summer as the number one pitcher in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League. A pro baseball career was in his plans, one that didn't necessarily include another gridiron learning experience.
Brown was debating coming back for his junior year on the football team when offensive backfield coach Robert Horan persuaded him to "just go through camp and give it a shot." Brown came into camp as the number five signal caller. His goal was to be the backup quarterback behind Tim Davenport. When camp was over Brown had indeed risen to the number two spot.
Brown's football career continued at its, semi-comical level for one more week("I ran out the clock against Columbia with 18 seconds left."), before Davenport's serious neck injury in the opening game against the Lions thrust Brown into the ambiguous spotlight of Harvard foot ball.
They brag about sellouts at the Beanpot hockey tournament every year and you can count heavyweight crew losses over the last decade on one hand and still have fingers left, but regardless, football reigns supreme at Harvard. The only real arena is Harvard Stadium and the only real gladiators are the starting football players. The best proof of this was last spring, when opposing baseball teams would refer to Brown as "the quarterback," when he had been one of the better pitchers in the Ivies for two years.
Loyal fans at Michigan or Nebraska go out and get drunk after their teams lose. Loyal fans at Harvard go out for a drink, win or lose.
"I'd rather play for our crowd than out there. It's not cut--throat. In the Big Ten the rans root, here they watch. The student bodies and alumni are so different, more like a family That's what makes it the Ivy League. When I graduate and go to a Harvard game I'll probably act the same way."
His destination unique and his route even more so, Brown nevertheless seized the opportunity with talent. After a shabby first two games, Brownie clicked and wound up the season leading the Ivies in both passing and total offense, but surprisingly did not make the All-Ivy squad.
As good as Brown's junior baseball season would be(10-1, 0.95 ERA), his biggest game of the year was the football contest against Penn. Brown had the greatest passing day of any Harvard Q.B. ever, completing 15 of 22 attempts for 349 yards and three touchdowns.
"Though the team didn't have a winning year, this had to be the highlight of the season. For me it was the culmination of all that I had learned during my football career here, especially in the way I was able to read defenses. Coach Restic had a great game plan that day, and that didn't hurt either."
Brown's aforementioned baseball success that spring led Harvard to the District One playoffs and earned him a spot as a third team All-American. It was by far his best season, one which he credits to his football experience of the fall.
"Football taught me to be more concerned with my performance and more aggressive towards my opponent without going crazy."
After his second strong summer in the Cape there were offers to forsake another fall of whatever- it- is- they- do- on- the- football- field and plunge directly into professional baseball. Though "the teams that wanted my knew they'd have to pay me big for missing my senior year," Brown nevertheless put the serious world of pro sports on hold because "deep down inside. I knew I wanted to come back for my final year."
"You come here as a freshman and if you're a football player, most times the first friends you make are with the seniors and upperclass men on the football team. They take you under their wing and are always there. Even before you know who your roommates are. That's the greatest thing I've learned or done here, and there was no way I was going to miss out on it."
Larry Brown got up from the lunch table in the Freshman Union to dump his tray and get ready for afternoon practice. What type of person nowadays pushes money aside and talks of family, about friendship, talks to raindrops, all without reference to "competition" or "All Those Fans", all the while silently confident in his talent?
You'll find him in Cambridge, somewhere between Mem Hall and the Pi Eta Club, most days across the river at Soldiers Field. He's the Harvard athlete; hard to identify, harder to define.
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