On the smoothest of days, when cars sail up I-93 North beneath a cloudless sky, it takes about 40 minutes to travel from the black gates of Harvard University to the red wooden sign that demarcates the Harvard Polo and Equestrian Center.
Beyond the sign, there are fields. Beyond the fields, there is a stable, filled with 29 stalls.
Four days a week, the Harvard Polo Club makes this trek from the loud urbanity of Cambridge proper to the relatively sleepy suburbanity of South Hamilton, Mass. From crowds to open space: even at its namesake home, the Harvard Polo Club remains hidden from the casual view.
This lack of recognition belies one of the most incredible backstories of any sport at Harvard, which is no small claim. Boasting a nation-leading 42 varsity sports, Harvard has witnessed an impressive amount of athletic history, ranging from the first instance of intercollegiate competition to the invention of the catcher’s mask and the forward pass.
Still, the basic narrative of Harvard Polo—why it exists, how it operates, and what it stands for—is too unusual and often too bizarre not to stand out from the pack.
It is a story about Tommy Lee Jones ’69, the Hollywood actor and leading Harvard Polo benefactor, who discovered polo and fame at roughly the same time. It is a story about a family of polo lovers: five sons overall, three professional players, and one father-guru who currently coaches Harvard’s team.
The story involves training in Texas and competition in China, lifelong cowboys and trained jumpers, torn jeans and white britches. But most simply, Harvard Polo is the collective tale of the roughly 30 students who participate in the program.
Some of these players commit up to six hours a day, four days a week, but in return, they receive an athletic experience quite unlike anything else that Harvard has to offer.
BACK IN FAVOR
When the Harvard Polo Team was founded in 1883, it was the first collegiate program in the country. Newly imported from England, the sport meshed well with the affluence of the student body and blossomed in the 1920s.
As polo fell out of favor across the country, however, it also fell out of favor at Harvard. For several decades, Harvard Polo had an unstable existence, intermittently folding and restarting depending on the commitment level of interested players.
This past decade has provided some stability, largely thanks to a steady stream of financial backing from Jones and others. The team has purchased the Harvard Polo and Equestrian Center and expanded to include men’s, women’s, and junior-varsity teams.
United by a love of horses, Harvard’s players hail from a diversity of geographical backgrounds and boast varying levels of polo experience.
Men’s captain Neil Purdy occupies one extreme of ability. Purdy grew up in Minnesota, “on the line where it turns from suburban homes to cornfields,” and about a quarter of a mile down the road from the Twin City Polo Club. Along with a group of friends, Purdy hung around the club for hours at a time, and the current sophomore recalls learning how to wield a mallet through trial and error.
By the time he applied to college, polo had assumed such a large role in his life that he made sure to investigate the programs of different schools.
“When I came to Harvard, I knew polo was something I wanted to do,” Purdy said. “I was really happy that they had a polo program and that I could join it when I got in as a freshman.”
But the polo team has been a draw even for those without prior experience.
Freshman Luke Murnane grew up around Choteau, Mont., population less than 2,000. Although he came from a rodeo background, he had never played polo prior to his arrival in Cambridge.
“Since Harvard didn’t have a rodeo team, I thought that this was the next best thing,” he said. “That was one of the key things that led me to come here—the fact that I was able to get out, ride horses, and connect with something that’s been a big part of my life.”
Not everyone has the riding experience that Purdy and Murnane do, but familiarity with horses is not a prerequisite for involvement.
Team sports often pave the way into the world of polo. Many current members of the team played soccer, lacrosse, or hockey in high school, which women’s captain Aemilia Phillips, an inactive Crimson editor, cites as a significant benefit.
“People are drawn to the combination of horse sports and the team aspect of it,” said Phillips, who is a former soccer player. “Having athletic experience...is a huge plus for joining the team. People tend to pick [polo] up faster and are better with the hand-eye coordination required by a mallet.”
The embrace of multi-sport athletes alongside lifelong polo enthusiasts has aided the growth of the club and, to a certain degree, ensured the future stability of the program. But just a decade ago, that future did not exist. Neither, for that matter, did the Harvard Polo Club.
KEEPING UP WITH JONES
In some ways, the creation story of Harvard Polo took place several decades ago, in a dusty ranch community just outside of Hollywood.
The creator? Tommy Lee Jones ’69.
“He certainly was instrumental,” Harvard coach Crocker Snow ’61 said. “Harvard is very important to him, and polo and horses are very important to him.”
But years before involving himself with the team, Jones was just a recent Harvard graduate trying to make it big in Hollywood.
In those early days, Jones, who grew up riding horses in San Saba, Texas, earned additional income by working as a ranch hand. It was during this period that Jones first encountered polo.
At Harvard, Jones played varsity football, competing in the famous 1968 Harvard-Yale contest that ended in a 29-29 tie, but polo captured his imagination and soon became a constant passion.
Mallet by mallet, horse by horse, and then ranch by ranch, Jones moved progressively deeper into the world of the sport. To this day, the right conditions can coax Jones into a friendly contest, often alongside his wife, Dawn, who boasts a professional ranking in the sport.
Midway through the 2000s, Jones found a way to integrate his appreciation of Harvard and polo into a new project: the Harvard Polo Club.
“One-hundred percent, it would not have been financially possible without Tommy Lee Jones,” Purdy said. “Not just his finances. Once he heard this renewal was underway, he was fully onboard and wanted to help out however he could.”
Jones’s commitment has remained steady over the years as the actor buys ponies for the program, funds financial aid, and even hosts the team on regular visits to his ranches in Texas and Argentina.
On these occasions, team players have a chance to hobnob with a celebrity over casual meals, but at least according to Crocker, the charge of meeting someone famous fades fairly quickly.
“I think [Jones] enjoys our dinners,” Crocker said. “He doesn’t think that Harvard students or undergrads or faculty would be star-struck in general…. Their parents are probably more star-struck than they are.”
A FAMILY LEGACY
If Jones forms one half of the soul of the Harvard Polo Club, then the Snow family, Crocker included, constitutes the other.
The group’s involvement with polo stretches back decades before Jones had even picked up a mallet. Crocker’s father played, Crocker played, and now Crocker’s sons play, creating a multi-generational chain that spans much of the past century and is intricately connected to the Harvard Polo narrative.
“The simple answer is yes, we’ve got a lot of connections with the game of polo,” Snow said.
The more complicated answer has to do with a Harvard hockey player who, for some reason, got extra kicks out of riding a horse.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Crocker Snow competed on the varsity ice hockey team but also pursued a semi-secretive passion for polo.
When Crocker arrived on campus, he discovered a group of experienced polo players that travelled from college to college, bartering games whenever possible.
Crocker got his start during the summer, but play soon spilled over into the school year, which meant integrating his newfound passion into a demanding hockey schedule. The balance was not always simple, and Crocker occasionally had to hide his polo commitment while in-season for hockey.
“I did it once or twice on the sly,” Crocker said. “We were playing down at Yale, and I snuck out afterwards to play polo against Yale. It was sort of ad hoc.”
Crocker graduated from the College in 1961, but his polo obsession persisted. Despite taking on a time-consuming journalism career, Crocker made room for polo matches every once in a while.
This lifestyle meant that when Snow raised his five sons, the kids grew up not only on a small farm just north of Boston but also in a polo-rich environment.
Two generations removed from his introduction to polo at Harvard, Crocker now stands atop a formidable lineage of polo players—a family tree that includes some of the brightest lights on the American stage in the past 25 years.
Adam, the eldest son, reached the highest levels of excellence in the sport. After starring at Yale as a hockey captain and lacrosse player, he took the world of polo by storm, becoming a 10-goal player, the highest rank in the sport. He was the last American to achieve this feat.
Crocker’s next son, Andrew, followed a similar path: college ice hockey and lacrosse at Middlebury and then a professional polo career, culminating in a six-goal ranking.
For the purposes of Harvard Polo, however, the most important of the Snow brothers was the second-youngest. As a sophomore at Harvard, Nick Snow ’09 dropped his spot on the varsity hockey team in order to focus on reviving the polo program at the college.
Crocker and Nick teamed up to bring back the program, with the elder Snow providing coaching and administrative support.
Looking back, Crocker does not remember whether he contacted Jones first or vice versa, but once finalized, this connection proved essential for the program.
Jones purchased a trio of horses within a couple of years, the Athletic Department pitched in some grant money, and the Harvard Polo Club rose out of the past once more, this time manned by a unique father-son combination.
“Harvard Polo would not exist without [Crocker],” Phillips said. “He knows the game better than anyone, but he’ll give it to you straight.”
Crocker still controls the reins, bringing a unique quality—players call it “charisma”—to each session. In tense moments on the sideline, he stamps his feet and sometimes curses. Team members know him as “Crocker;” they only use “Coach” in a kidding, half-satirical sort of way.
“He’s a character,” Purdy said. “He’ll let you know that you played terribly, but then he’ll make some funny comment.”
A DIRTY JOB
A Hollywood darling and a Hollywood-esque family of professional polo players might seem like an appropriately glamorous origin for a sport such as polo.
In some ways, this perception of the sport as a luxurious activity hits the mark. Brand names including Ralph Lauren and Ferrari have emphasized the high-class appeal of polo, and such advertising images dovetail with the reality of certain white britches, champagne celebrations, and professional-caliber competitions.
Yet members of Harvard Polo report a wildly different experience.
“Most people that know little or nothing about polo think about it as a very elite sport,” Crocker said. “That is part of the image that polo has marketed, so it’s not surprising that people think that. But that is not the reality of the sport, and it is absolutely not the reality of college polo.”
Each practice, for example, team members spend more time doing horse-related chores than actually playing polo. They currycomb hair; they pick hooves and adjust saddles.
And then there is mucking—that gloriously onomatopoeic activity that involves pitchforks, wheelbarrows, and lots of horse poop. Depending on the number of helpers, mucking can take between an hour or two every day.
These tasks are not luxurious—not by any stretch of the imagination—but after enough familiarity, neither are they worthless.
“You can’t shovel poop with people without getting really close to them,” Phillips said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
If players are covered with dirt off the field, then they are covered with sweat on it.
As a multi-sport athlete in high school, Purdy has a special ability to judge the intensity of polo against other activities. But rather than downplaying the difficulty of the sport, Purdy’s athletic background has led him to emphasize the challenges of swinging a mallet on horseback.
“It can be one of the most tiring physical experiences that I’ve found, way more so than playing a full game of lacrosse or running for 90 minutes in a soccer game,” Purdy said.
A SPORT WITH PRIVILEGES
As messy and exhausting as Harvard Polo can be at times, playing on the team does confer certain privileges.
For more common sports, such as baseball and basketball, pre-collegiate participation on travel teams can carry the chance to travel across the country to play, but the worldwide popularity of polo means an opportunity to compete internationally.
Last summer, the team flew to Tianjin, China to represent Harvard at the Metropolitan Intervarsity Polo Tournament.
Sponsored by the Tianjin Golden Metropolitan Polo Club, the event was intended to raise awareness of polo, both in China and worldwide. Along with Harvard, teams from schools such as Stanford, Yale, Cambridge, and Oxford came to compete in the all-expenses-paid tournament.
“Being able to play twice a day for 10 days straight makes a huge difference,” Phillips said. “It’s a really great opportunity.”
But the most consistent benefit of team participation relates to Jones’s largesse as the actor hosts the team on near-annual trips to his ranches in San Saba, Texas, and Lobos, Argentina. The players provide their own airfare, but the actor foots other expenses.
Usually lasting about 10 days, the trips provide some opportunity for relaxation. Last time in San Saba, players hiked across the empty landscape; in Lobos, players took a day off to explore Buenos Aires.
But make no mistake, the trips are not vacations. The team rises early to care for the horses, plays through two-a-day practices, and labors under the guidance of an on-site professional coach.
“Every morning in Argentina, we’d be waking up, looking at what’s wrong with our bodies,” Phillips recalls. “It’s kind of a mutual strength thing where you know that everyone else is hurting [too].”
In the end, even these so-called privileges can boil down to more hard work.
ON THE RISE
The intensity of these training sessions has not stymied student interest in the program as Harvard Polo has experienced modest increases in popularity over the past several years. Purdy estimates that at the fall activities fair, 80 people signed up, 40 showed up for tryouts, and 20 eventually made the cut.
“I think the team is growing in recognition,” Phillips said. “I think more people are familiar with it now than even three years ago.”
Growing interest presents a novel sort of problem, as the team can only take as many players as there are available horses. Beyond resource difficulties, the revived program remains young, which puts Harvard at a recruiting disadvantage to top competitors like Cornell, Virginia, and Texas A&M.
Still, members of Harvard Polo laud the experience of team participation. For Purdy, polo continues to function as a “great escape” from daily concerns; for Phillips, the sport has been the “best part” of her undergraduate experience.
And for Crocker, who is nearing six decades of involvement with the Harvard program, polo has maintained that blood-rushing, adrenaline-pumping quality that first invigorated him as a college student, when he snuck out of a hockey rink in pursuit of a polo match.
“Polo is a very narcotic sport,” Crocker said. “If you like competitive sports, if you like contact sports, and if you like animals, there’s nothing that gets close to it. Once you’ve played a little...then chances are you’re going to get hooked.”
—Staff writer Justin C. Wong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at email@example.com.