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FOOTBALL 06: A Long, Dark Journey to the Fall

Five months of controversy end with the arrival of the 2006 season

Former team captain Matt Thomas faces three charges stemming from a June 5 incident in Currier House. The jury phase of his trial will begin on Sept. 29.
Former team captain Matt Thomas faces three charges stemming from a June 5 incident in Currier House. The jury phase of his trial will begin on Sept. 29.
By Brad Hinshelwood, Crimson Staff Writer

With one final plunge into the darkness on the left side, Clifton Dawson simultaneously pushed Yale and the 2005 Harvard football season into history. The Nov. 19 triple-overtime victory on the Crimson’s greatest stage was an emphatic conclusion to a late-season surge through injuries and turnovers that helped Harvard finish second to surprise league champion Brown.

Just three days later, as has long been the custom for the Crimson’s squad, it was announced at the team’s end-of-season banquet that linebacker Matt Thomas had won a close election for captain of the 2006 unit, replacing the graduating Erik Grimm ‘05.

But from that point, from an exhilarating win and well-deserved celebration to last Saturday’s 31-14 home victory against Holy Cross, few positive things happened for fair Harvard’s football team. A rash of suspensions and dismissals struck the group in the offseason, creating new layers of difficulty for a team that was already breaking in five new coaches. How the squad responds to the suspensions, and how untested replacements perform, will determine how successful the Crimson is in the early part of the season.

***

Athletes in sport, no matter the playing field, constantly toil under the microscope. Perhaps this was never more the case than in the run-up to Harvard’s spring practices. On March 13, a mother of two and student at North Carolina Central reported to police that she had been raped by several Duke men’s lacrosse players after being hired as a stripper at a team party. The story filled national news broadcasts and occasioned protests in Durham, igniting friction between Duke and its surrounding community. In the wake of the allegations, the school fired its coach, Mike Pressler, and suspended the rest of the season. Three players currently await trial in the case.

It was in the aftermath of the highly-charged and much-publicized Duke fiasco that Harvard ran through spring drills and, soon after, was involved in two minor incidents of its own. After the team’s spring game, on April 29, members converged on the Currier House courtyard for a barbeque to celebrate the end of spring practices. It was there that Harvard’s offseason took its first unpleasant turn.

After the end of the barbeque, players moved toward university shuttles to return to the main part of campus. As some members of the team attempted to board a shuttle with a table, the driver of one of the shuttles, Jack M. Garvey, 47, confronted junior cornerback James Velissaris. Velissaris told The Crimson afterward that Garvey punched him in the chin before junior Dan Lane came over and shoved Garvey to the ground.

Garvey was dismissed from his job, and later filed suit against the University. He told The Crimson that he had only pushed Velissaris, but did not deny starting a physical confrontation, saying he feared Velissaris was going to hit him with the table. A pre-existing medical condition, Garvey said, would have made an injury particularly harmful.

After the incident, Harvard coach Tim Murphy suspended Velissaris and Lane for the 2006 home opener against Holy Cross for exercising “poor judgment.” The night of the altercation, another Harvard football player was arrested in a separate incident. Sophomore Tom Rodger, an offensive lineman, was charged with intent to commit a felony and disorderly conduct when he allegedly reached into an unoccupied ambulance parked outside of Currier House. While the EMTs aided a sick student, Rodger allegedly stole a pair of rubber gloves. When a police officer and an EMT reemerged from Currier, Rodger withdrew from the ambulance and appeared to hide something in his back pocket. He admitted to taking the gloves, and by the time he spoke to The Crimson two days later, the police had dropped charges.

“The whole thing was blown out of proportion,” he said at the time. “And the actions were the result of the tenseness of the situation.”

***

Both incidents were overshadowed by the arrest of Thomas on June 5. The night of the Senior Soiree, Thomas broke down the door of his ex-girlfriend’s dorm in Currier before falling asleep on the floor. Witnesses say that senior fullback Mike Lucas told them that Thomas was “quite drunk and needed to sleep it off.” When the woman returned to her room, she awoke Thomas and an altercation followed. According to the police report, witnesses told police they saw Thomas “strangling [the victim] with one hand” on the bed. After the witnesses yelled for him to stop, Thomas let her fall to the floor and began to walk away before “he suddenly lifted her and drove his knee into her chest.” The victim was taken to the hospital with bruises, and Thomas was arrested on charges of breaking and entering, assault and battery, and destruction of property.

Murphy suspended Thomas indefinitely on June 8, saying that if proven guilty, Thomas would be dismissed from the team, but also stating that he was withholding judgment on the case and waiting for due process before making any decisions.

But at Ivy League Media Day on Aug. 2, Murphy announced that Thomas was off the team for good, with charges still pending.

“I came to the conclusion about mid-July that even if Matt Thomas was proven innocent,” Murphy said, “that the way this has been portrayed and played out in the media, it would probably be impossible for him to function as a Harvard football player.”

In the “fishbowl environment” of Harvard, he concluded, “if he was proven innocent, if the charges were dropped—all those things—most people wouldn’t realize it and they would assume the worst. They would assume the worst about Matt, [and] they would assume the worst about the program.”

Murphy pointed out that the incident would at least be a “huge distraction for the team and could hurt us.”

And with that, Thomas was gone, closing an embarrassing chapter in the Harvard offseason.

Although the Boston Globe reported on Aug. 18 that the victim had told the Middlesex district attorney in an interview that she “wished this whole case was dropped,” charges are still pending.

Regardless of the outcome, Thomas will not suit up for the Crimson again.

“His official status with the team is that he will not play this season,” Murphy said.

Also at Media Day, Murphy announced that rising junior Liam O’Hagan, the projected starting quarterback, had been suspended for the first five games of the 2006 season for violation of team rules. He was to be replaced by classmate Chris Pizzotti.

While refusing to comment on specifics, Murphy took pains to point out “it’s not a legal issue, it’s not a public issue, so in that case it’s a private team matter.”

Pizzotti started the season opener against Holy Cross and was lifted for No. 3 quarterback Jeff Witt, a sophomore, when a defender leveled a debilitating sideline hit that hyperextended his knee.

The most recent suspension concerned senior Keegan Toci. Last week, Murphy told The Crimson that the former wide receiver had been dismissed from the team indefinitely because of an undisclosed “team matter.”

Just a few more blows to the Harvard squad, bringing the total of players dismissed to two and suspended to three since the jubilation in the New Haven dusk just nine months before.

***

The eventual impact of the tumultuous offseason will be easy to measure on the field. Will the linebacking corps, which once looked like a strength of the team, bounce back from the loss of an experienced First-Team All-Ivy standout? With Pizzotti now out for three to five weeks, can Witt carry the load in Murphy’s pass-happy offense until O’Hagan or Pizzotti return? And will the team as a whole put the distractions behind it and deliver the championship team that many (including the Ivy League media, which made Harvard the preseason favorite even after the Thomas suspension) expected them to be?

In last week’s solid win over Holy Cross, the linebackers played solid football, Witt held in the pocket with ease and the team coasted to victory, giving an indication of the team’s potential without its missing players.

Off the field, the effects will be much more difficult to gauge. Murphy has taken great pains to point out that this is very much an unusual problem for Harvard football.

“I think historically our kids have had a remarkable record of citizenship on campus,” Murphy said.

“If you look at the kids we’ve had in our program, at least during the time I’ve been here—almost 13 years—98 or 99 percent of them are world class kids,” he said. “To have gone this long without any problems at all, I think hopefully that means this is more of an aberration than anything.”

But, as Murphy himself recognized when deciding to dismiss Thomas, the bad inevitably receives far more attention. No articles are written about players staying out of trouble, and players are not lauded for simply behaving themselves. And, as Murphy admitted, the atmosphere of college athletics breeds far more attention.

“With the Duke thing or the Northwestern women’s soccer team,” he said, referencing another highly publicized incident from the spring, “I think right now athletes have to understand they are going to be held to a higher standard than regular students. We constantly educate our kids [that] you’re not representing yourself, you’re representing the university, you’re representing the football program. And therefore you have to understand that there’s going to be greater scrutiny, that you will be held to a higher standard, and if you do not accept that, you should not play.”

***

For Harvard, now is finally time for a different kind of scrutiny, the kind involving thousands of spectators on New England Saturday afternoons. If nothing else, it’s clear that the offseason has created an intense desire to return to the field.

“You work out 365 days either practicing or training for only ten games,” Murphy said, adding that “those games are really precious.”

“I could see that up at the Columbia scrimmage,” he said. “Guys were just so excited to play. Part of it is you get so familiar with yourself that you tend to plateau at how much you can get out of a practice.”

The rest of the team’s natural yearning for the return of football has undoubtedly been augmented by questions: questions about dealing with controversy. Only games will answer those questions.

“We’re going into this week, the game week, with a lot of excitement,” Dawson said last week before the Holy Cross opener. “There’s a lot of confidence, quiet confidence in the capabilities of our team.”

Whether that excitement and confidence translates into sustained success remains to be seen. But the time for answers has finally come.

—Staff writer Brad Hinshelwood can be reached at bhinshel@fas.harvard.edu.

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