Three former Harvard football stars featured in NFL playoffs

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According to Ivy League rules, the Harvard football team can’t make the playoffs. But this weekend, three former Crimson tight ends—Kyle Juszczyk 13 of the San Francisco 49ers (who is currently running back), Cameron Brate 14 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Anthony Firkser 17 from the Tennessee Titans – will make up for that lost opportunity as important members of their teams in the wildcard round of the NFL playoffs.

Their importance in the showcase event of football is no mere coincidence. In Cambridge, the tight end has become a signature position, so recognized throughout the sport: Penn State is known as Linebacker U, Southern Cal is Tailback U, and Harvard is Tight End U. There is a fourth former Crimson tight end in the league, Tyler Ott ’14 of the Seahawks, who is almost exclusively a long snapper. Last season there was a fifth, Ben Braunecker ’16 from the Chicago Bears. But Braunecker gave up football for…medical school. (Where, we ask, are the priorities?)

Anthony Firkser 17
Photo courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

That there are so many former Crimson tight ends in the NFL is no coincidence. At Cambridge, their coaching position was also head coach: Tim Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson family head coach for Harvard Football. It’s clear that Murphy is a skilled teacher, but he insists the credit belongs to the players. “These guys make you a good coach,” he said.

Nevertheless, while molding his tight ends, he developed several requirements. “To play the role in our attack, you must be a Navy SEAL, exhibiting the combination of work ethic, tenacity, courage and versatility that SEALs have,” he says. “All of our tight ends must play both tight end and H-back” – i.e. a player who lines up slightly back from the line of scrimmage. “What does that mean? It means what the 49ers do with Kyle is all he’s done here. He lines up as a fullback a lot of the time, but he lines up also as a tight end, slot receiver and even as a wide receiver. All of our guys have to be able to do that. It sets them up really well for the NFL model.


Kyle Juszczyk 13
Photo courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Ready as they were, of Harvard’s three playoff entrants, only Juszczyk was drafted, in the fourth round, by the Baltimore Ravens. Murphy isn’t surprised at how each came out on top. “They all had great intangibles,” he says. “Everything we gave them, everything we threw at them, they responded. They were tough, they were resilient, and by the time they were seniors, they all felt they had at least a chance in the NFL.

In the regular season, the trio’s vital contributions belied their modest stats. Juszczyk’s main job is to block, but opponents ignore him as a receiver at their peril; he caught 30 receptions for 296 yards and a touchdown. It’s almost comical when broadcasters treat a take of “Juice” as something of a miracle; if they did a little research they would see that he is seventh on Harvard’s career receptions list, with 125 receptions, and against Princeton in 2012 he had 15 receptions. (Firkser, with 99 catches, is twelfth in career rankings, and Brate, with 91, is sixteenth.) In addition to those good hands, Juszczyk is also the 49ers backup starter in field goals and points after games. touchdown attempts.

Brate, who plays behind future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski, has nevertheless become a prime target for quarterback Tom Brady, especially in the red zone. He had 30 passes for 245 yards and scored four touchdowns. Murphy remarks, “You can see Brady feels comfortable throwing at either guy, which is quite a compliment for Cam.” For Tennessee, Firkser had 34 receptions for 291 yards and two touchdowns. He’s become a valuable “possession receiver,” whose ability to open up and make tough catches helps the Titans land early downs. He’s aided by one of the most striking pairs of mitts in Harvard football history. “I always said, ‘That kid might catch BBs at midnight,'” Murphy explains.

Juszczyk, who played four seasons with Baltimore before moving to San Francisco, is by far the most decorated of the three. Recently, he was named to his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl, indicating that he is considered the best guard in the National Football Conference. However, Brate has something the other two covet: a Super Bowl ring, earned last season when the Bucs beat the Kansas City Chiefs to win the title. In that 31-9 win, Brate had three receptions for 26 yards. (Juszczyk had a 15-yard touchdown reception in the previous year’s Super Bowl, which the 49ers lost to the Chiefs 31-20.)

This year’s playoffs are considered the most open in recent memory, so picking the eventual champion is a tough proposition. But no matter the outcome, Harvard’s tight ends will be very well placed.

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