This week has been one of reflection.
The last walk to practice, the cleats clicking along the paved walkway from Dillon Fieldhouse to the massive concrete edifice, the echoes of 10,000 Men of Harvard circling through the cool, crisp fall air, ricocheting off the walls of the surrounding brick buildings: the Murr Center, Bright Arena, and the Gordon indoor track facility.
The last lap as seniors around Harvard Stadium, the lights dimmed to darkness, with the Crimson underclassmen taking mental notes from the end line.
And then Saturday’s finale at noon, stepping onto the shiny turf in front of a sold-out crowd of 30,000-plus at the Stadium for the 129th edition of Harvard-Yale.
“All important traditions,” John Collins emphasized earlier this week, his massive 6-foot-4-inch, 305-pound frame taking up a large chunk of a black leather couch in the coaches’ lounge inside Dillon.
The senior offensive lineman has soaked it in, grateful for what has been an opportunity of a lifetime, his dedicated, working-class parents, Walter and Jean, deeming it essential that their strapping son, with gifts on and off the field, receive the best education possible.
“I always wanted to go to Harvard, but it seemed impossible,” Collins said.
His father, a North Quincy High grad who owns three restaurants on the South Shore and sped to his fifth world title in offshore powerboat racing off West Palm Beach, Fla., in October, was an outside linebacker for Dick MacPherson at UMass in the mid-1970s.
The ticket for his son to Mather House, Academic All-District 1 honors (government major), and potentially a professional career for the product of Scituate Youth Football was the Roxbury Latin School. As a freshman, Collins lined up alongside a pair of Harvard-bound seniors, James Williams and Mike Lawler, who would become his teammates for one more season when he landed in Cambridge.
On the lacrosse field, Collins was an imposing defensive attack. On the wrestling mat, he placed third in the prep nationals at 285 pounds.
“Roxbury Latin, that’s where Harvard became a reality,” he said.
When coach Tim Murphy presented an offer to suit up for the Crimson, “I was trying to play it cool, but my mother was in tears,” said Collins, who credits Ken Conn, his revered line coach at Latin, along with former head coach Michael Turner, for instilling the fundamentals and work ethic that allowed him to develop into a fixture at guard, but with the athleticism and smarts to seamlessly shift to tackle or center.
“I know every parent says it,” said the elder Collins, as proud as a father could be, “but he is a great kid. Harvard has been absolutely fantastic for him, we could have not asked for anything more.”
Collins’s versatility has been in dire need this year, with the Crimson dealing with season-ending injuries to right tackles Will Whitman and Cole Toner, and center Jack Holuba being hobbled (although he has insisted he will play against Yale).
“He has been the glue, the one to hold it all together,” Murphy said of Collins. “The only guy that can play every position. Our most consistent lineman.”
Collins said Murphy “really preaches the whole idea of overcoming adversity and embracing the opportunity. As much as we hate to see our friends go down, it is a chance for younger guys to step up.
“Obviously, continuity is important and nice. But it’s like a luxury. Last year was very rare [Whitman, for instance, took every snap at tackle as a freshman]. I think that this is more emblematic of what an offensive line goes through. We’ll put our best five out there, and we’ll do all right. It’s all about toughness.”
Collins considers Holuba a “great player,” but he has complete faith in junior Dave Leopard at center, and Parker Sebastian at right tackle.
“It may not be pretty, but we’ll get it done,” he said.
Harvard (7-2, 4-2 Ivy League) has taken a “back-to-basics” approach in practice this week after a Crimson attack that had been humming along at 40-plus points per game was corralled at Penn in a 30-21 loss, the first game since the opener against San Diego that the Colton Chapple-directed offense failed to score 30 points.
Yale (2-7, 1-5) has dealt with its share of injury issues, primarily at quarterback, where five players have taken snaps. Former receiver Henry Furman made his first start last week against Princeton and senior linebacker Scott Williams is listed second on the depth chart.
But the Bulldogs have remain dogged under first-year coach Tony Reno, who spent his previous three seasons as Murphy’s special teams/secondary coach. and start eight seniors on defense.
“All I have to tell our guys is that they beat Penn [27-13 in Week 6],” said Murphy. “Tough, resilient, there is a strong, mutual respect between the two programs.”
Reno lured three of Murphy’s assistants to New Haven — Joe Conlin (offensive line), Dwayne Wilmot (defensive line), and Kris Barber (tight ends) — and added two former Crimson staffers — Steve Vashel (defensive backs) and Wellesley native Drew Petzing (outside linebackers).
“They know how to get here, and they know pretty much everything else about the program,” said Murphy with a chuckle. “You never want to be too paranoid, but . . . ”
Undoubtedly, the Crimson changed a few play calls this week.
Will that intel pay off for a Yale program that has dropped 10 of the last 11 meetings in the series, including last year in New Haven, when the Crimson ran off 45 unanswered points in a 45-7 shellacking?
Reno points out that each staff “has seen 700 plays of the other from game film from the first nine weeks, and that’s what matters.
“Harvard is a great football team, they have no weaknesses, great special teams, the best punter [Jacob Dombrowski] and kicker [David Mothander] in the league. We need to do the little things and take care of the football.”
Reno said he would not know his quarterback until “11:50 on Saturday,” though Murphy expects freshman Eric Williams, the most consistent starter this season, to see playing time.
The focus for a Harvard defensive front gouged last week at Franklin Field is sophomore transfer Tyler Varga, a 5-11, 220-pound load who paces the Ivy in rushing (119.9 yards per game) and the Championship Subdivision in all-purpose yards (199.4 per game) while operating Yale’s no-huddle attack out of the Wildcat.
“A horse,” summed up Murphy.
Which puts the onus on the Crimson to get stops and place the ball in the hands of Collins and his mates.
“There’s always extra motivation,” said Collins. “I have never lost to Yale, and I want to keep it that way. Obviously, my former coach [Conlin] is there, and I have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder to prove something to him. Definitely a lot of motivation for this game.”
“I feel very lucky, that given that we lost to Penn, I still have the opportunity to go out and win, and play in a big game.”
And if the Crimson receive a little help in Ithaca, N.Y., from Cornell against Penn, the defending Ivy champs might be able to walk off the field with at least a share of the title.