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If the maxim—that “one can’t always tell a Harvard football player just by looking at him”—does not exist, then maybe it should.
Case study number one: Harvard senior free safety Chris Raftery, whose scorching speed and penchant for making bone-crushing hits aren’t altogether obvious at first sight. Raftery is not a big guy—he’s generously listed at 6’0” and 180 pounds—and his politeness and articulacy are more likely characteristics of a lawyer than a defensive back.
But Raftery’s defining trait, a messy mop of vintage Pacific coast blond hair, makes him look more like a surfer dude than anything else.
“It’s not serious,” he says of his hairstyle. “But when I’m older I’m probably going to have to be clean cut.”
To conform to such a standard would be out of character for the 22-year old from Bellevue, Wash., who is constantly defying expectations and refusing to fit into a preconceived mold.
A Seattle Times All-Area running back after his senior year of high school, moving full-time to cornerback in college? Check.
An Honorable Mention All-Ivy right cornerback in 2002, moving to free safety for his senior season? Check.
A top college safety planning on moving on after graduation…to be a lawyer? No problem.
“Eventually, I want to go to law school,” Raftery says. “I do know I want to take two years off. Get a job, get experience, make some money, travel.”
At the moment, Raftery’s aspirations do not seem so far out of reach.
“Chris definitely has the SoCal surfer look happening right now,” says linebacker and Mather house blockmate Juano Queen, “but underneath that shaggy mop of his, there are some brains too.”
It’s the way Raftery’s smarts have translated onto the football field that has been critical to the Harvard defense this season.
Along with being expected to make tackles (Raftery’s fourth on the team, with 63) and break up passing plays (he has four interceptions and nine break-ups), the free safety is expected to “quarterback” the defense and get the players in front of him to adjust positioning. In addition, Raftery has been forced to lead by example a secondary that has been banged-up and, as a result, lacking experience in recent days.
“It’s been tough,” says Raftery, whose experience at cornerback has precipitated some recent playing time at his former position after injuries to junior Gary Sonkur and senior Benny Butler. “We’ve been shifting the field around…The tough part about being a defensive back is that if the ball gets behind the defensive linemen and linebackers, it’s not a big deal. When the ball gets behind us, it’s over. You can lose your confidence very easily.”
And that’s when leadership from seniors like Raftery, Butler and Mante Dzakuma comes in handy.
“That’s very important, especially with the younger players,” says Raftery. “When a big play happens to any player on the secondary, you’ve got to keep them focused and confident.”
Raftery’s rise to prominence in the Harvard secondary was an unlikely one. Starring at Sammamish High School in Bellevue, he was All-King County at running back from his sophomore through senior years.
During his senior season, Raftery captained his team to the Washington state championship game, where Sammamish was downed by Prosser High School on a touchdown with 17 seconds left, 42-38.
The result was not a complete disappointment for Raftery. The Sammamish captain rushed for five touchdowns in the game, which remains a Washington state championship game record.
“It was a nice way to go out that way as a running back,” says Raftery. “When I played as a kid, I played running back. When I played high school, I was a running back...Even here I was recruited as a running back.”
Though Harvard head coach Tim Murphy acknowledges that he recruited Raftery as a tailback out of high school—“He was an outstanding high school running back,” he says—he also maintains that it is a prerogative of many college coaches to focus on top offensive players when recruiting for defense.
“When the ball’s in his hands all the time it’s a lot easier to judge a potential defensive athlete than it is with someone who’s just playing defense,” Murphy says. “Certainly we recruited him as a tailback, but like every secondary in America, most of them are ex-tailbacks. You recruit as many good tailbacks as you can and try to get them on the field.”
Altogether, such unorthodoxy fits Chris Raftery like a glove. The wannabe-lawyer from Washington State with a surfer dude haircut is all about breaking molds.
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