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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

JONNIE ON THE SPOT

For Crimson Captain Balestracci, Football is Simply All in the Family

By Jon PAUL Morosi, Crimson Staff Writer

“DAAANNNNTE!” came the inebriated cry, in canon, from several undergraduates in Section 33 at Harvard Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Dante Guido Balestracci had just tripped up Brown running back Nick Hartigan at the Harvard 15 to turn the ball over on downs late in the third quarter. It wasn’t a particularly crushing hit, and with the Crimson already leading by 31 in a 52-14 thumping of its Ivy rival, it wasn’t a game-saving tackle, either.

Section 33 didn’t care.

“DAAANNNNTE!”

The name is one of the best-known at Harvard, a rarity considering athletes aren’t usually revered here. He’s our own slice of a Boston sports culture that includes several first-name-only stars (see Larry Legend, Manny, Nomar and Pedro). And depending on his NFL fortunes, “Dante” might rival “Yo Yo” and “Conan” as the most famous first names to graduate from Harvard in the last 30 years.

“DAAANNNNTE!”

As they yelled, a wide smile broke over the sharp-jawed face of a man sitting five rows off the field, in the kindlier, gentler region of Section 33.

“Does it feel good to hear that?” he was asked.

“It does,” he said with a quiet voice, almost as if admitting guilt, “no question about it.”

It was, after all, his name.

But Dante Nelson Balestracci, the 50-year-old father of one of the greatest football players in Harvard history, knew the calls weren’t for him. They were for his son, the 6’2, 235-pound middle linebacker who has changed the way teams play against Harvard since first stepping on the Stadium grass three autumns ago.

On Saturday, Balestracci had a team-high nine tackles (no surprise), 1 and a half sacks, and a crowd-pleasing pancake block on unsuspecting Brown lineman Will Burroughs to insure Chris Raftery’s safe passage on an interception runback.

And as usual, Balestracci supplied several quarterback hurries, knockdowns and cage-rattles. He is, after all, Dante. These things are expected.

“Typical Dante game,” nodded Dante’s youngest brother, Thomas.

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

That is, a “typical Dante game” in every way but one: for the second straight week, Dante looked across the field and saw one of his brothers wearing the other team’s uniform. The first time it was Mark, a sophomore defensive back for Holy Cross. Saturday, it was Thomas, a freshman receiver for Brown.

To put this in perspective, think of how many football players you knew from high school who went on to play Division I football. Now ask yourself if that person had a brother, and if that brother also played Division I football. And do that again.

On top of that, imagine them playing against one another—in consecutive weeks.

This is, to say the least, uncommon.

With all three Balestracci children playing Division I football in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, you might call their home in New Bedford, Mass., the Cradle of New England Football. And though their father won’t gloat over it, it’s easy to see that he’s bursting with pride.

“We’re really fortunate,” said Dad Dante, himself a 1975 Brown graduate. “They’re great kids, and it’s easy to be a parent when you have great kids.”

The elder Dante—named after his father, Guido Dante, who went by Dante—is a humble man and raised his three boys the same way. But he had to smile when two of his college buddies, Nino Moscardi and Dave Duhaine, found him at the Stadium and began the refrain, “Man, this is every dad’s dream.”

“It’s amazing,” said Moscardi, a former Brown quarterback. “He has to be one of the few dads in America like that.”

The Balestraccis plan to follow the Crimson, home and away, for most of the season. It is, after all, Dante’s last year. He is Harvard’s captain, has a good chance to become the first player in Ivy League history to be a first-team all-conference pick for four straight seasons, and is on the watch list for the Buchanan Award as the nation’s top defensive player.

So most of the 25 members of the Balestracci/New Bedford following sat in Section 33 on Saturday. Except for Thomas.

“It was weird at first,” he admitted. “The past three years, I’ve been coming here, rooting for him, rooting Harvard on, and now I’m on the other side of the field, wanting to beat them more than anything.”

Thomas didn’t play in the game, though he would have if Harvard hadn’t eaten up more than seven minutes of the fourth quarter with an 11-play drive that killed the clock.

“It was nice to see him after the game, but it would’ve been even nicer if he would’ve gotten on the field,” his brother Dante said. “But the goal for him is to make the travel squad as a freshman, and that’s what he’s done.”

Still, the Balestraccis reflected on what would’ve happened if Thomas had gotten in and, say, ran a slant route in front of his big brother.

Their father shuddered at the parental equivalent of matter meeting anti-matter. “My heart would stop,” he said.

And yet, the brothers said that if any collision were to take place, it would be a big one.

“We know we’re brothers,” Thomas said, “but we don’t play like it.”

Said Dad Dante, “If Thomas was blocking Dante, he’d block him as hard as possible, and if Dante was tackling Thomas, he’d tackle him as hard as possible.”

That is, after all, the Balestracci way and has been for years. Their competitiveness in backyard games as children was a big reason each became a three-sport star at New Bedford High School.

Of the three, Dante was the biggest, Mark the fastest and Thomas the ’tweener, bigger than Mark though not as fleet of foot. They were good at all their sports—Dante, a two-time USA Today Honorable Mention All-American in basketball, and Mark, a New England champ in track—but football was the house favorite.

Now, the Balestracci household claims three of four current Division I players to graduate from New Bedford High. The fourth, Lafayette tight end Tim Walsh, is Dante’s best friend.

“I asked Dante and Judy, ‘Do we have any other Balestraccis coming up?’” said New Bedford athletic director Michael Correia, who attended Saturday’s game with his son. “Unfortunately it doesn’t sound like there are.

“They’re the cream of the crop. They don’t get any better than that. These three kids raised the bar for our program. The Balestracci name is alive and well, even though they’re gone. There’s a certain legacy behind them, and kids try to emulate all three of them.”

The Humble Hero

The Balestraccis are truly an All-American bunch. They set up a tailgate south of the Stadium that is open after the game to Harvard players, friends, and seemingly anyone else who wants a Cape Cod Delite hot dog, made by family friend Jimmy Davidson.

Among the clan on Saturday was Dante’s cousin, Sarah Hehn, the former Boston College basketball star, and Dante’s girlfriend—his high school sweetheart, Kelley—who attends every game she can.

And everyone, not just the Section 33 rowdies, loves Dante. After he walked to the tailgate from Dillon Field House—one of the last ones out after the game, as usual—he was swarmed by family and friends, all congratulating him. About the only people who weren’t there were Mark and Thomas.

“They’ve come to a lot of my games, even back through high school,” Dante said, looking at the crowd. “The support is great. It’s great to come out here after the games, especially if we win.”

Stories about Dante flow easily, like about the time he hit a home run at Fenway Park—yes, over the Monster—in the 1998 Division I state championship game, or the 2000 game against Dartmouth in which he set a school record with two interception returns for touchdowns.

“His legend,” said Correia, “just keeps getting bigger.”

He is a larger-than-life football player with a larger-than-life name. But when asked what he makes of his notoriety, Dante shrugged.

“Helps to have that first name that everyone can remember,” he said.

That has something to do with it, yes, but the 264 career tackles don’t exactly hurt his cause. The NFL seems like a realistic goal, but he won’t go into it too much if you ask him. Neither will his dad.

“I raised my kids to be humble, to let their actions speak for them,” the elder Dante said. “If accolades come, that’s good, but if not, you have the peace of mind that you gave it the effort.”

Now, Dante’s focus is on what he hopes will be his second Ivy title. The same goes for the couple dozen people who come out every weekend to hug their son/cousin/nephew/friend/hero after he pounds on the opposition.

“It’s awesome,” he said, surveying the crowd and shaking hands, “and normal.”

—Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reached at morosi@fas.harvard.edu.

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