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Two minutes into last Friday night’s showdown between Harvard football and Georgetown, halfback Anthony Firkser lined up to the left of the offensive line.
When the ball snapped, the senior shot off, cut to the left, and snatched a bullet from senior quarterback Joe Viviano. Then he turned up field, where a defensive back was waiting.
At this point, Firkser could have sidestepped the tackle and headed out of bounds, picking up a few yards in the process. He could have ducked inside, avoiding the brunt of impact.
Instead, he steamed ahead, sending the would-be tackler reeling. The hit echoed across the field and energized the Crimson sideline. Just as loud was the underlying message: Few people can stop senior halfback Anthony Firkser when he has the ball in his hands.
On Friday night, Firkser only held the pigskin five times, but he made the most of those touches. He racked up 147 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 75-yard dash through the Hoyas defense. Overall he has averaged 21 yards per grab through three contests, which might seem preposterous if not for the fact that he’s averaged 15.2 and 16.9 yards per catch during the last two seasons, respectively.
Firkser’s highlight of the evening came early in the second quarter, with Harvard facing a second-and-nine from its own 25. On a post route, the senior burst past his man and corralled the ball near midfield. At that point, the race was over: the halfback beat everyone to the end zone, giving the Crimson a 21-7 lead.
“When you come up here and play a really good football team at their place, you can’t make the mistakes that we did,” Georgetown coach Rob Sgarlata said. “[That play] was tough.”
Harvard particularly needed this production on a night when star receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley didn’t see game action. In his absence, the Crimson trotted out a three-man receiving corps of sophomore Brian Dunlap, junior Jake Barann, and senior Joseph Foster.
Heading into the contest, these three players had racked up 316 total yards over the course of their careers; by comparison, Shelton-Mosley had racked up 265 yards in the course of two games this year.
“You know you’re going to have adversity,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “We’ve had probably an inordinate amount of adversity so far this year, but we’ve done a good job finding guys that can step up and play.”
If any fears remained, Firkser allayed them in the first half. He finished the first two quarters with four catches, 134 yards, and two touchdowns.
The first of those scores came with just under nine minutes left in the opening quarter. Viviano snapped the ball from the Georgetown 11 and waited behind impervious pass protection until Firkser came free across the back of the end zone. Crimson 14, Hoyas 0.
Yet Firkser’s most athletic feat of the day didn’t go for a touchdown. Late in the first quarter, with Harvard staring down a third-and-long, Viviano opted to loft a 34-yard pass down the sideline, where Firkser and Georgetown captain David Akere were running stride for stride. Both players leapt up, but only Firkser came down with the ball.
That leaping display hinted at the halfback’s versatility. Murphy likes to recruit players that are “slashers”—a mold of both running back and wide receiver. Seitu Smith and Andrew Fischer—the veteran leaders of last season’s receiving corps—both fit this model.
Firkser is a different kind of slasher. At Manalaplan High School in Englishtown, N.J., he played wide receiver, setting school records in every major receiving category. At Harvard, however, he has transitioned to a more physical halfback role.
This position shift creates fits for opposing defenses. As a former wideout, Firkser is too quick for linebackers to cover; as a 230-pound tight end, he’s too strong for cornerbacks to manhandle.
Firkser is no stranger to straddling two different roles. Besides dominating on the gridiron, he also starred at point guard for the Manalapan basketball team, tallying over 1,000 points and twice serving as team captain.
By the time that college came into focus, the operative question was not whether Firkser would play a Division I sport, but rather which sport he would play. Dartmouth and Yale pursued the standout for both basketball and football; Boston College, Connecticut, Colgate, and several others expressed interest for football.
The Crimson took a compromise approach, recruiting Firkser for football but leaving open the possibility of walking onto the basketball team. Eventually that marketing hooked Firkser. And despite persistent thoughts of walking onto the basketball team, the freshman settled on football alone.
Perhaps Firkser still has doubts about that decision. But years later, after 70 receptions and 1,193 receiving yards, Harvard football surely has none.
–Staff writer Sam Danello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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