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Ortiz connects on many levels

Interests go far beyond the field

Harvard senior defensive tackle Josue Ortiz led the Ivy League in both sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (13.5) last season. Harvard senior defensive tackle Josue Ortiz led the Ivy League in both sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (13.5) last season. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Nicole Auerbach
Globe Correspondent / September 2, 2011

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Josue Ortiz became a football player by default.

That’s a funny thing to say about Harvard’s preseason all-Ivy League senior defensive tackle.

It all started when he was about 10 years old. At the time, he was being home-schooled, and his parents thought he and one of his brothers should get involved in sports to make friends.

Ortiz picked basketball, and his brother chose baseball. But the family’s rural location prevented Ortiz’s parents from finding an organized basketball league. So football it was.

A few years later, Ortiz’s mother started working, and Ortiz returned to public school.

“My parents - when they came over to America from Puerto Rico - my father became a Christian and got baptized. So did my mother,’’ Ortiz said. “[Home-schooling] was kind of a religious thing to get away from the secular school system. We eventually got put back in eighth grade because it opened more doors for us.’’

Doors flew open for Ortiz in athletics and academics. He ran track, wrestled, and played football at Avon Park (Fla.) High School, where he was valedictorian.

Entering his freshman year at Harvard, Ortiz entertained the idea of playing football and wrestling.

But a broken wrist caused Ortiz to miss almost all of his freshman football season and give up his wrestling plans. He underwent surgery and was granted an extra year of eligibility because of a medical hardship. So football it would be.

Ortiz didn’t get much playing time as a sophomore, prompting a serious discussion with Harvard coach Tim Murphy and a 15-pound weight gain. That did the trick.

Despite not starting his junior year, the 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pound Ortiz led Harvard with nine tackles for a loss and earned second-team All-Ivy honors.

Last season, he led the league in both sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (13.5), earning him first-team All-Ivy and Associated Press third-team All-America honors.

“He’s developed tremendously,’’ Murphy said. “He came in what we call very raw. He was a pretty big kid, 6-4, kind of lean as a freshman. He wasn’t smooth. He wasn’t one of those kids who was really accomplished as a football player. He was more of an athlete.

“The way he can now utilize his ability to read defenses, read blocks, size, strength, the physical maturity is so much different than it was when he was a freshman. He’s about as good as we’re going to get at this level.’’

Ivy League offenses realized that last year, too, often double-teaming Ortiz. It didn’t prevent him from getting after quarterbacks.

“I’m not sure we can expect him to play any better than he played the last half of last season,’’ Murphy said. “We couldn’t block him in practice. They couldn’t block him in games.’’

Interestingly enough, part of that elusiveness comes from Ortiz’s wrestling background. Murphy said football coaches love getting former wrestlers as linemen because they have good balance and use their hands well.

Ortiz agreed.

“Quick hands and quick feet are very important to football and wrestling,’’ Ortiz said. “It’s all based on an aggressive mentality when you want to attack people at all times. It teaches you a lot about leverage and how to work your hands to get by your opponent and get your opponent to do what you want them to do.’’

Or, as Murphy phrased it, “Josue is one of those guys you have to account for on every snap.’’

Despite his dominance in the Ivy League, Ortiz’s football career beyond college is unclear. If he puts up the kind of staggering numbers he has in recent years, he could have a shot at the NFL.

Ortiz said he’d like to continue playing football if possible.

“I would love to take a shot at the next level,’’ Ortiz said. “If not, I’m a Christian and a believer, so I believe that whatever God has planned for me, it will happen. If I go to the NFL, so be it. If not, I have other options.’’

Law school is one of those options.

Ortiz spent this past spring and summer interning at Cetrulo & Capone LLP in Boston, trying to figure out whether or not he saw himself as a lawyer. He said he’s come to the conclusion that he’s more interested in academia and teaching. That plan would still include law school.

For some athletes, it’s hard to reconcile outside interests and sports. Ortiz doesn’t worry about that. He believes a strong work ethic and his faith will help him get to where he needs to be. Whether that’s in a law school classroom or on a football field, well, that remains to be seen.

Until then, Harvard can’t wait to unleash its talented defensive tackle on the Ivy League.

“Nobody is held with any more respect defensively on our team and in our league,’’ Murphy said. “But Josue is a quiet guy. He’s a spiritual guy. The person you see on the field is different from the person you see off the field.

“On the football field, like a lot of guys, he gets to really express himself.’’