-by Martin Kessler
Perhaps the most surprising part about the biggest play of Harvard running back Gino Gordon’s football career is that it should have never even happened.
Trailing by 10 and facing a fourth and four at the Harvard 30-yard line with 6:46 left in the 126th annual playing of The Game, the Crimson were in something of a pickle.
Looking to extend the drive—and the team’s hopes of a come-from-behind victory—Harvard coach Tim Murphy called for a passing play and sent four Crimson wide receivers onto the field.
But before Harvard quarterback Collier Winters snapped the football, the first-year starter decided to make a change to a running play.
“I was actually checking my [pass] protection when Collier…audibled into a draw,” Gordon said. “To tell you the truth, I was surprised. I actually said ‘what’ out loud but he didn’t hear me.”
But before Gordon could think about it much longer, the ball was
in his hands.
Gordon didn’t just pick up the four yards the Crimson needed for a first down—he picked up 15.
But that’s not to say it came easily.
Before Gordon could move the chains, he had to use a highlight-reel spin move to evade a defender that never should have been in his way.
Playing in front of a roaring crowd of 64,246 people at the sold-out Yale Bowl, one player did not hear the signal change from Winters. Instead of blocking for Gordon—or at least getting out of his way—wide receiver Matt Luft ran a drag rout over the middle, bringing his defender—safety Adam Money—in Gordon’s path.
Gordon met the defender three yards short of the first down, and, without hesitation, spun around him, then raced down the sideline before being tackled at Harvard’s 44–keeping the Crimson’s chances alive.
Harvard capitalized on its newfound hope. Two plays later, Winters met up with Luft in the end zone and then, on the following drive, found receiver Chris Lorditch for the score to give the Crimson the 14-10 victory.
But while the fact that Winters deferred to Gordon on the most important play of the game, or the fact that Gordon had to spin his way out of unnecessary trouble, may be surprising, what may be even more surprising is that Gordon was standing on a football field in a Crimson uniform in the first place.
Unlike most NCAA football players, Gordon was born in Japan—a country that produces more professional sumo wrestlers than football players.
Born to a Japanese mother and an American father, Gordon spent the first four and a half years of his life in Sasebo, Nagasaki, a coastal city that served historically as a Japanese naval port.
Gordon’s parents met more than 25 years ago when his father was stationed in Japan with the United States Military.
“It was a regular ‘GI meeting foreign lady’ kind of thing,” Gordon said.
The two got married and had Taka, their first child, and then
Gino three years later.
Before Gino turned five, the family left their home in Japan and moved to San Diego where they lived in military housing.
But despite moving to America and living in a home provided by the U.S. Army, Gino and Taka were still raised with a traditional Japanese background.
“Since my dad was gone for a good amount of time, my mom ran the house like a Japanese house,” Gordon said. “We always ate with chopsticks, and we took our shoes off inside. Many of the things that I thought were normal in an American household were not necessarily American. I didn’t realize that until I started going to other people’s houses.”
One thing Gordon did not learn much about during his Japanese upbringing was American football, a sport he knew his father loved but that he had never even seen on television while growing up in Japan.
But that changed soon enough when Taka brought home a flyer from school about Pop Warner football and said he wanted to start playing.
“I wanted to do exactly what he was doing,” Gordon said.
For Gordon, doing exactly what Taka was doing meant playing with the older kids, something he was not afraid of.
So at the age of seven or eight, Gordon first suited up his pads.
“It grew on me,” Gordon said. “I wasn’t really aware of the physicality of the sport when I first played… It took a little bit of getting used to.”
The sport also took a little bit of getting used to for Gordon’s mother, Fujiko, who had had very little exposure to the rough sport that was becoming such a big part of her children’s lives.
“I’m sure she didn’t like it because who likes to see their kids get beat up?” Gordon said. “She learned the game football as I did. There’s a stark contrast today. My mom now is an avid fan. She’s one of the loudest fans.”
While Gordon always enjoyed the sport, he didn’t realize how bright his future could be in it until he reached high school and made the varsity squad as a freshman.
Another thing that helped propel his love for the sport was a change in position. When Gordon first started playing football, he had always been on the defensive side of the ball, playing defensive back.
“Defense is kind of where my mentality came from as far as being physical,” Gordon said. “I like being able to hit people, I like tackling so that’s the one thing I kind of miss about being a defensive back.”
But in eighth grade, Gordon began playing running back, a position he instantly took a liking to.
“After I started playing running back, I loved it,” Gordon said. “I felt like it was perfect for me.”
When Gordon reached high school, he played on both sides of the ball. By the time he reached his senior year at Francis Parker High School, Gordon was a standout at both positions. In his final season, Gordon accumulated 1,224 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns on offense while adding 50 tackles and five interceptions on defense.
But standing at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Gordon was considered too small by many top college programs to receive an offer to play running back, so many schools made offers to him to just play defense.
For Gordon, who had come to love his new position, getting a chance to run the football was a major factor in his choice of colleges.
Harvard was one place he knew he could go and make an impact on
Luckily for the Crimson, Gordon turned down Stanford and other offers to join the backfield in Cambridge.
The relationship has worked out well for both parties, as Gordon has accumulated 1,584 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. More importantly, Harvard has won two Ivy League championships.
“Gino has been a very tough, consistent and productive player since the day he arrived,” said Tim Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Head Coach for Harvard Football. “He has developed into one of our strong leaders in the senior class who leads by example and is not afraid to hold other players to his high standards.”
While the Crimson came up short of a championship last season,
finishing 6-1 in conference play, Gordon and his teammates are
making sure the team carries its momentum from its final game and
doesn’t fall off course this year.
“[Last season] was a really big disappointment for us because I was looking forward to having four rings,” Gordon said. “We have to prove ourselves. We have to make sure everyone knows we’re the best team in the Ivy League.”