by Craig Larson
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His final practice in full pads at Harvard ended abruptly, and fittingly, with Jon Takamura intercepting a pass and taking it to the house, triggering a thunderous, helmet-lifting cheer from his teammates on the sideline.
In the evening chill on a grass field alongside Soldiers Field Road, 5,000 miles from his home in Honolulu, Takamura soaked in the significance of the moment.
"Sometimes I can't believe it's the final week [of my career], I've been playing the game since I was 8 years old,'' said Takamura, who in his final season has emerged as both a leader and a playmaker for the Crimson.
"I've tried to focus on playing the game, and treating this as a normal week.''
But the preparation for the 126th renewal of The Game, with today's kickoff in New Haven at noon, is unlike any of the previous nine weeks for any Harvard or Yale senior. Their playing careers, except for a precious few, will come to a close with the setting sun at the Yale Bowl.
Harvard (6-3, 5-1) still hopes to earn a share of its third straight Ivy League title, dependent on an improbable Cornell victory at Penn. Yale (4-5, 2-4) is trying to avoid a losing season under first-year coach Tom Williams, needing just its second win in the last nine meetings against the Crimson to avoid that distinction.
And for a player like Takamura, the finale provides one last opportunity to leave his mark, an exclamation point to a breakout season in which he has risen from reserve linebacker to one worthy of all-league consideration.
"He's probably been our most pleasant surprise,'' said Harvard coach Tim Murphy of the 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pounder, part of an unheralded and cohesive senior unit that includes Sean Hayes, Nick Hasselberg, and Conor Murphy. "And that's not to diminish what we thought his potential was. He's a good blitzer, he's a great cover guy, a great run stopper, and he's very instinctive, always in the right place at the right time.''
The graduation of the Georgia boys, inside linebackers Glenn Dorris and Eric Schultz, left a void in the middle of the Crimson D, but Takamura and Co. have more than delivered with gritty and intelligent play.
In the preseason, the coaches "told us that we had the talent to be just as good, and that really helped our confidence,'' said Takamura.
Takamura was the difference in Harvard's home opener against Brown; his fourth-quarter interception led to the decisive touchdown and he batted down a desperation pass in the end zone to preserve the 24-21 victory. The following week, he capped a 28-14 win at Lehigh with a 60-yard interception return for his first collegiate touchdown. And in each subsequent week, he has continued to make plays.
He leads the Crimson in sacks (four), shares the team lead in interceptions (three) with senior strong safety Ryan Barnes, and ranks third in tackles (38) behind junior free safety Collin Zych and Hayes.
According to Murphy, the coaching staff didn't believe Takamura would develop into such a force. "But he has reached every bit of his potential,'' said the 16-year Harvard coach. "He's very athletic for a big kid. And with the injuries that we've had, he never comes off the field, on all of our special teams, he's invaluable.''
Teammates call him "Tak the Technician,'' according to Hayes, "because he always does the right thing, his feet and his hands are in the right position . . . It's one thing to do it in drills, it's another to carry it over to the game. He knows where he has to be.''
Takamura credits that awareness, and his ball skills, to his days at the Iolani School in Hawaii, where in addition to earning all-state honors at linebacker, he was also the backup quarterback. "I kind of know what the quarterback is reading, what we're showing defensively, and what they may be thinking,'' said Takamura, who considered walking on at Washington or UCLA before he received his acceptance to Harvard.
"Honestly, I made it a goal to get at least one turnover per game.''
Matched up against a struggling Yale offense that may utilize two quarterbacks, Nebraska transfer Patrick Witt (sophomore) and 6-5 lefthander Brook Hart (junior), Takamura said the goal is a shutout, duplicating last year's 10-0 win at the Stadium.
"We don't think that we have reached our potential yet, or played our best game,'' he said. "We know that Yale has a great defense. We want to be the best in the Ivy.''