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It would be hard to imagine a worse start to the season for Harvard quarterback Collier Winters.
In the final minutes of a season-opening loss to Holy Cross, the fifth-year senior dove into the end zone on a two-point conversion and pulled his hamstring.
“It was a weird injury,” Winters says. “At first, I did not think it would be that much of a problem, and then I got over to the sideline and it got tight. It felt sore, and I couldn’t put a lot of weight on it.”
Winters would finish the game, but the Crimson offense failed to mount a comeback, falling to the Crusaders, 30-22.
“The first game was definitely a tough loss for us, but it also was a reality check for us and made us focus in for the rest of the season,” Winters says.
Despite the injury, Winters hoped to play in the next game, the Ivy League and home opener against Brown.
“I spoke to [Harvard] coach [Tim] Murphy and the trainers throughout the week and tried to convince them that I could play,”
Winters says. “I convinced myself that I could play, but in reality, I don’t think I would have been able to do a lot that game.”
Fearing the injury was more serious than Winters let on, the coaching staff rested the senior in favor of junior Colton Chapple. In three previous starts during his sophomore season, Chapple had gone 2-1, but he had little Ivy League experience.
“With Collier going down, I knew I’d have to step up in a big game,” Chapple says. “I knew I didn’t have to do anything spectacular. I just had to play well enough to win and give our playmakers the ball.”
Amidst the rain that hit Harvard Stadium that night, Chapple stepped up in a big way, throwing for 207 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-7 win over Brown.
With a big Ivy win under his belt, Chapple’s self-confidence grew greatly.
“I knew that I could play starting quarterback in this league and be successful [after the Brown game],” the Alpharetta, Ga. native says. “That gave me a huge boost of confidence.”
From the team’s perspective, the change in quarterback did little to disrupt the overall game plan and team dynamic.
“Both [Winters and Chapple] throw the ball very well, [and] they both run the ball very well,” says junior tight end Kyle Juszczyk. “We all trusted Colton and his preparations. It was a pretty seamless transition between the two of them.”
Despite the strong performance of his understudy, Winters was looking to get back into action as soon as possible.
“Coach Murphy and I butted heads [over my fitness],” Winters admits. “[It was] nothing personal, but he saw it one way, [and] I saw it a different way. We sat down and talked about it, and eventually, I have to go with what he says.”
In hindsight, Winters now sees his coach’s logic and appreciates the way the situation was handled.
“Looking back on it, I think it was the right decision,” Winters says. “[Coach Murphy] did a good job of looking at things outside of the next week [and] looking at the whole picture of the season.”
While Winters focused on his physical rehab, Chapple continued to light up the scoreboard. In his next Ivy League game, the junior threw for four touchdowns and 414 yards against Cornell, defeating the Big Red, 41-31. With his performance, Chapple registered the second-most passing yards in a single game in Harvard history.
Chapple was not to be denied a school record for long. In the next game against Bucknell, the junior threw for 176 yards and five touchdowns in just over one half of play. With the performance, Chapple became the first player in school history to throw four or more touchdowns in consecutive games and only the second player to throw for five touchdowns in a single contest.
With his backup breaking records, Winters knew the pressure was on to perform at the same level to maintain his starting job.
“During those weeks that he was playing and performing well, it made me focus my energy and efforts on my rehab and staying involved in the game plan and film,” Winters says.
After the Bucknell game, with Winters back at full health, the team had little idea who would end up running the offense for the Princeton game the next weekend.
“We weren’t really sure who was going to be our starting quarterback that week until a few days before the game,” Juszczyk says. “But as a team we felt confident with whoever they put in there.”
And, despite Chapple’s record-breaking performance the week before, Murphy and his staff eventually decided to reinsert Winters into the offense against the Tigers.
The decision left Chapple disappointed, but the junior understood his coaches’ choice.
“You have to respect their decision to go with their fifth-year senior,” Chapple says. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be out there and playing, but that’s everyone’s [goal].”
With the pressure of Chapple’s previous performances riding on his back, Winters reminded everyone why he was the first-choice starter. In his first game back in five weeks, Winters threw for 403 yards and became the third Harvard player to throw for five touchdowns, accomplishing what Chapple had done the week before. The Crimson ran out of Harvard Stadium with a 56-39 win over Princeton.
In the next three games, Winters racked up four touchdowns on the ground and four more through the air, marshaling the Crimson attack as the squad topped Dartmouth, Columbia, and finally Penn to claim the Ivy League title outright.
With Winters graduating, Chapple is now next in line to assume control of the Harvard offense. And Juszczyk has no doubt that the junior will pick up where he left off this season.
“Colton is a really good decision-maker,” Juszczyk says. “He never forces the ball into tight spots, but he also has a knack for a big play. He does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield. I’m pumped. I think [next year] is going to be great.”
After his last game in a Harvard uniform on Saturday, Winters believes he is leaving the Crimson football program in strong shape.
“A lot of freshmen stepped up and made plays for us this year,” Winters says. “We got a lot of young talent back [next year].”
“The future is in great hands with Colton,” Winters adds. “He’ll be a great leader, and he’s definitely an experienced guy on the team. ... Hopefully, we’ll be able to return to the same level play we had this year.”
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