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Medicine ball

Future doctors on Harvard roster ready to operate on Yale

Harvard linebacker Conor Murphy will deal out the punishment for the final time tomorrow. Harvard linebacker Conor Murphy will deal out the punishment for the final time tomorrow. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / November 20, 2009

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Bubbly tailgaters will be navigating through the pregame haze into Yale Bowl tomorrow while a big guy in the visitors’ locker room is saying a little prayer.

Conor Murphy, a rugged Harvard linebacker who has hunted big game on the African plains, plans to bow his head before the final game of his football career - the biggest game of Harvard’s season - and ask for divine mercy.

Not for Harvard to defeat Yale for a chance to capture a share of the Ivy League title, sweet as that would be for the Crimson. Instead, he will pray for the safety of his teammates and foes.

After spending his athletic life trafficking in pain - inflicting it and absorbing it - Murphy plans to dedicate the rest of his life to healing it. The future physician, a senior majoring in a little something called human evolutionary biology, has his heart set on going from knocking down Yalies to using a surgeon’s skills to help shorten the time athletes are sidelined by injuries.

In an era when big-time college football too often is tarnished by tales of disrepute - Tennessee this week dismissed two players charged with attempted armed robbery - Murphy and seven Harvard teammates who are bound for medical school represent not only the glory of The Game but the spirit of amateur football as the Ivy League has played it for more than a century.

“Sometimes there’s a myth that you can’t compete in Division 1 football and aspire to things like medical school,’’ Crimson coach Tim Murphy said as he prepared for the 126th Harvard-Yale spectacle. “We’re very fortunate to have a bunch of kids doing it. It’s a great tradition.’’

Almost everywhere a Yale player turns tomorrow, he will find an opponent who plans to trade his shoulder pads for a stethoscope. If the Elis run right, they will meet Harvard defensive end Ryan Burkhead, a Texan who aspires to a career in sports medicine. Run left, and they encounter defensive end John Lyon, a former North Carolina high school valedictorian and future medical researcher.

Crashing Yale’s line from the corner will be Harvard’s Matthew Hanson, a Colorado native and 2008 Ivy League Rookie of the Year sprinting toward a career in medicine.

Then there’s Conor Murphy’s roommate, Ben Sessions, a 275-pound offensive lineman from Arkansas who has tackled enough science courses - hello, biochemistry - that he is poised to enter medical school next year. Murphy and Sessions have spent countless hours together cramming for science and math classes. They spent one summer with several teammates lifting weights in the morning and deconstructing organic chemistry the rest of the day.

“Summers like those build a lot of camaraderie among the med school kids,’’ coach Murphy said.

The premed crew includes punter Thomas Hull, whose father Mike won a national title with Southern Cal (and O.J. Simpson) in 1967 and was a member of the Washington Redskins team that went to the Super Bowl in 1973. Hull is one of six Harvard seniors on the doctor track who serve as role models for the underclassmen bound for medical school, including sophomore offensive lineman Nima Khavanin, a prospective heart surgeon.

Harvard’s future doctors honor a longstanding tradition of Ivy League football players becoming healers. Yale itself has at least six regulars this year headed for medical school, and although its captain, senior linebacker Paul Rice, is majoring in political science, his father Louis played football for Harvard in the 1970s and is a prominent Cleveland physician.

As for Conor Murphy, his calling to medicine sprang from football’s gravest health problem: concussions. He suffered three playing high school football and one as a Harvard freshman.

“I spent a lot of time with sports medicine doctors,’’ Murphy said. “Their ability to get players back on the field as fast as possible is what sparked my interest in a medical career.’’

The son of a petroleum engineer who has drilled wells from Texas to Kazakhstan, Murphy starred in football, wrestling, and baseball at Cascia Hall Prep in Tulsa, where he was an Eagle Scout. He spent a semester in high school shadowing two orthopedic surgeons from their rounds to the operating room. Then he spent the summer after his freshman year at Harvard as a surgeon’s orderly, transporting patients to the OR and cleaning the room after surgeries.

“I realized that if I couldn’t play in the NFL, medicine would definitely be a way I could stay connected to the sport I love through a profession I would love,’’ Murphy said. “But the main motivation is an opportunity to serve other people.’’

He already has trained well at that. Twice in high school, Murphy spent summers in Central America on aid missions. First, he built houses for the destitute in Juarez, Mexico. Then he constructed a drainage system at a massive dump in Guatemala City to prevent the runoff from countless rainy seasons washing through shanties occupied by residents who scavenge the dump to survive.

Next summer, he plans to visit an orphanage in Zambia where children with AIDS are cared for by older women forced out of their tribal villages because they no longer are able to produce children.

Until then, Murphy prays for the needy, as he does for his teammates and rivals, even Yalies.

“It doesn’t matter who it is,’’ he said. “You never like to see a kid go down.’’

With an eye toward helping future athletes through his current studies, Murphy tracks the groundbreaking work of two Harvard professors in particular: Richard Wrangham, who examines diet and nutrition in teaching biological anthropology; and Daniel Lieberman, who teaches human evolutionary biology and has delved into the possible benefits of athletes training barefoot.

Murphy has applied to 18 medical schools from North Carolina to the Pacific Northwest. And one day, like other Harvard football alumni, he said, he would love to form a medical practice with his former teammates.

But now he has one last game to play. Murphy said the Kenny Loggins song, “This Is It,’’ keeps spinning in his head.

“The culmination of 11 years of my life in football has boiled down to one Saturday,’’ he said.

One Saturday in New Haven, followed by a lifetime of serving others.

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.