THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Zavala a study in role playing

Rhodes hopeful walked in step with Crimson mates

By Craig Larson
Globe Staff / November 20, 2010

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His early-morning flight from Houston is scheduled to touch down at Logan Airport at 12:23 this afternoon. Zar Zavala will then jump into a friend’s car, zip across the city, run a quick post route to Dillon Field House, pull on his No. 41 Crimson jersey and gold pants, and make a quick dash through the black, wrought iron gate and onto the shiny, green turf at Harvard Stadium.

And then the precocious boy who dared to dream, the proud product of a single-parent home in El Paso, will soak in the moment, along with a sellout crowd, for the 127th edition of Harvard-Yale.

This afternoon marks the final chapter of what has been a challenging, exhausting, sometimes painful, and yet rewarding journey to play Division 1 college football.

“I’m hoping to get there sometime in the second quarter. Hopefully, with the introductions of the seniors and their parents, the game will start a little late,’’ said Zavala, who will not be present for the pregame walk to the 50-yard line with his mother, Patricia, who will be in the stands with Zavala’s fiancee, Melanie Johns.

They will understand. So, too, will his teammates. The family of senior defensive tackle David Sklar made Zavala feel right at home the past two days in Houston while he interviewed for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

Zavala and his roommate, defensive tackle Dan Driscoll, are the only two seniors to make the team each of the last four years as a walk-on.

“I’m pretty sure neither one of us would have made it if it wasn’t for each other, we keep each other going,’’ said Zavala, a 6-foot-1-inch, 185-pound wide receiver who, by his count, has played a total of four series in three games this season. He has seen significant playing time with the junior varsity, and made a leaping reception to seal a win over the Yale JV last November in New Haven.

“I wanted to play football as long as I could. It wasn’t really about getting on the field, it was about running routes, catching balls, the competition, and hitting people,’’ said Zavala, who made his varsity debut in this year’s opener against Holy Cross. “And to do it at Harvard, which has been playing the game for 150 years, not many people can say that they have done that.’’

When Zavala returned to El Paso after his freshman year, in which the Crimson ran the table in the Ivy League, he was a huge hit with his former teammates at Eastwood High.

“It was like my entire senior class got [a championship] ring, everyone was like, ‘Oh, we did it,’ ’’ said Zavala, the only player from his high school team to play at the next level.

A neurobiology and engineering major with a 3.934 GPA, Zavala has not earned the notoriety of teammates such as 1,000-yard back Gino Gordon, elusive quarterback Collier Winters, or defensive terror Josue Ortiz. But he has certainly earned their respect, and played a much appreciated role on a Harvard team (6-3, 4-2) determined to win its fourth straight against its archrival, and deny Yale (7-2, 5-1) any shot of sharing the league crown with Penn.

“The walk-ons don’t get much glory, but they come in and work hard, and really are an inspiration to the rest of the team,’’ said captain Collin Zych, who leads the Crimson in tackles (73) from his safety position and often goes head-to-head with Zavala in practice. “We hope he makes it back in time, because he deserves to go out on top with the rest of us.’’

Harvard coach Tim Murphy, who carries eight to 10 walk-ons on his 100-plus-player roster each season, said that “if you survive as a walk-on at the Division 1 level, and at a D1 academic school, it says that you have tremendous persistence, the ability to deal with adversity, and because of those unique qualities, those kids add a tough-to-quantify intangible to the team. Not many of them are playing on Saturday. And they are really revered and admired by their teammates . . . It’s just extraordinary, and really inspiring.’’

“Harvard really emphasizes that everyone has a role on the team,’’ said Zavala.

Zavala thought his playing days ended in El Paso, especially after he underwent two surgeries (hernia, broken left wrist) after his senior season, and he dropped to 165 pounds. “But I thought I might as well go for it, and if I don’t make it, at least I know that I tried,’’ he said.

He does not have Division 1 speed — “I’m slower than everyone else,’’ he said — but his work ethic is off the charts, on and off the field. Frustrated during workouts between his freshman and sophomore seasons because his times would not make the cut for Harvard’s conditioning test, he took the advice of the team’s strength coach and started performing the drills three times a week.

His times were still lagging. “But when I ran it here, I absolutely crushed it,’’ recalled Zavala. “I realized I had been training on grass at home, and not turf. And the other sophomores who had not worked hard that summer were falling from exhaustion.

“I walked into the locker room and our new Nike jerseys were hanging there. I grabbed mine and held it up knowing that I had finally earned my spot on the team.’’

And he has proudly worn that jersey since, managing a extremely demanding schedule that includes football, several hours in the lab (studying neuron communication), and his coursework each week. He spent the summer after his sophomore year in China, studying the effects of antihistamines on neurons. He has taken three trips to the Dominican Republic with Engineers Without Borders, teaching the natives how to purify their water.

Zavala was asked in the Rhodes application why he chose to play college football. He explained that the experience has provided him with tangible skills that are useful off the field. “When other students are complaining about a 9 o’clock class, I can just smile knowing that I have been up since 6 a.m., when I crossed the river in zero-degree weather to work out for two hours,’’ said Zavala, who wants to be a neurosurgeon.

A few hours after he walks off the field this afternoon, Zavala will learn his fate with the Rhodes. Either way, he is headed to the United Kingdom for two years, because he has already earned a Marshall Scholarship, which divides a two-year course study between Oxford and another university in England.

First, though, he is determined to get on the field one final time. “We need to beat Yale, and I want to get in the game,’’ he said. “I couldn’t write it any other way.’’

Craig Larson can be reached at clarson@globe.com.

Yale at Harvard
Today, noon (Versus)