Male Rookie of the Year: Clifton Dawson

David E. Stein

Clifton Dawson

Clifton Dawson was never a rookie according to Ivy League rules. Funny, then, that he never played like one either.

Dawson, whose redshirt season at Northwestern and subsequent transfer to Harvard disqualified him from Ivy Rookie of the Year balloting, baffled opposing defenses with his unrivaled combination of power and speed, exploding through holes of his own design and finding open space ever so easily.

“We knew he had a lot of talent when he got here,” said quarterback and incoming captain Ryan Fitzpatrick. “We could tell from the way he carried himself, his body, his speed, his work ethic. We knew he would be the player of the league.”

That he would even approach that level in his first season, however, caught nearly everyone off-guard.

Rushing for an Ivy-freshman record 1,187 yards and 12 touchdowns—both good enough for second in Harvard history behind the sophomore totals of Chris Mennick ’00—Dawson provided a much-needed offensive crutch, particularly after Fitzpatrick fell victim to injuries four games into the season. The record-setting effort also helped Dawson become just the second freshman ever to receive first team All-Ivy honors.

Despite his obvious talent, Harvard coach Tim Murphy had reservations about bringing Dawson into the program without the leverage of a scholarship, for fear that he would use his football skills for admission but never play a down on the field.

“I’m just wary of transfers,” Murphy said. “[Dawson] said, ‘Coach, I want to win and I want to get the best education possible,’ and that was fine. But I’m just not a guy who believes in transfers.”

Despite Murphy’s skepticism, the Scarborough, Ontario native’s intentions proved genuine. And while Murphy worried about the potential pitfalls of taking Dawson on, his future tailback’s stock continued to rise courtesy of the work he put in at Northwestern.

After completing an accelerated courseload, Dawson had graduated high school a semester early and matriculated in the spring, providing him with a much-needed opportunity to cultivate poise reflecting his talent.

“I was a little intimidated, a little scared,” Dawson said. “But I really felt that experience provided me with the mental toughness that allowed me to make the transition with confidence.”

That attitude translated into greater faith in his own natural ability, specifically his capacity to challenge and punish linebackers successfully.

“I definitely did do a lot of those things in high school,” Dawson said. “[But] that aspect of my running style evolved at Northwestern.”

Far from a neophyte when he arrived in Cambridge, Dawson’s expectations echoed those of Fitzpatrick and many of his teammates. Few, though, expected such offensive output in such a short time for the freshman.

Dawson did.

“My expectations were to come in and contribute immediately,” Dawson said. “I know that’s not the typical response from a freshman, but given my experience at Northwestern, I thought I’d be able to come right in and contribute.”

Despite splitting snaps with sophomore Ryan Tyler in three of the season’s first four games—Dawson was suspended from the Brown contest for an unspecified violation of team rules—he showed flashes of brilliance, twice rushing for at least 69 yards on 17 carries. But the best was clearly yet to come.