Harvard Football's Collin Zych Featured In New York Times

Collin Zych, shown here walking to midfield for the captains meeting and coin toss before a game at Lafayette on Oct. 2, 2010. Harvard elects just one captain each season in one of the longest-standing traditions in sports. Buy Now
Collin Zych, shown here walking to midfield for the captains meeting and coin toss before a game at Lafayette on Oct. 2, 2010. Harvard elects just one captain each season in one of the longest-standing traditions in sports.

-Courtesy Dave Caldwell, New York Times

BOSTON, Mass. — Collin Zych, a senior free safety at Harvard, wakes up on a typical autumn Sunday morning feeling the aftershocks of most of the hits he made in the game he played the day before. He carries bumps and bruises, and his shoulders tend to ache for a couple of days.

“Once you get back on field for practice, it all goes away,” he said, sounding almost cheerful about it.

Zych (pronounced ZITCH), from Plano, Tex., is Harvard’s 137th football captain and is considered to be an N.F.L. prospect, but he has come a long way since his senior year in high school, when he and his coach made pitches just to get Harvard to pay attention to him.

It rarely works that way, Harvard Coach Tim Murphy said. To locate candidates who are good players and would meet the university’s academic requirements, Harvard sends 5,000 questionnaires to high school coaches in the United States and Canada.

“We recruit Texas hard,” said Murphy, who has 11 players from the state on his team, including three from Plano, a Dallas suburb. “It’s a big state, or as some people down there say, a big country.”

It was not as if Zych totally eluded Harvard’s dragnet. He had heard from Harvard when he was a junior at Plano East High School, and he was so interested in attending that he took part in a football camp there before his senior year. Then it was as if Zych dropped off the radar.

No one really knows the reason. There were changes on Murphy’s staff, and Zych’s mother, Linda, said that the coaches might have thought that Collin, who has three siblings, might not have wanted to attend a college that does not offer athletic scholarships.

“He really felt pretty strongly,” his mother said. “Harvard was a school he really enjoyed visiting.”

Zych had begun considering other Eastern schools — Columbia, Dartmouth, Holy Cross — but he wanted to give Harvard one more shot. He stopped by the office of Johnny Ringo, his coach at Plano East, and asked Ringo if he would try to nudge Harvard.

Ringo sent new game film of Zych to Harvard. In the meantime, Zych sent an e-mail message to Murphy in which he said he still wanted to play for the Crimson. Once Murphy saw the film, and noticed how ferocious and heady Zych was, Harvard became quite interested.

“I let them know he was a can’t-miss kid,” Ringo said in a telephone interview. “We tried to convince him what kind of a kid he was, what kind of character he had, what kind of academic student he was. Once we did get in touch, they were great about getting him up there.”

Ringo said he was only doing what he would do for other prospects. But Zych said emphatically that he might not have ended up at Harvard without Ringo’s help. Only a couple of players on Harvard’s roster recruited the Crimson, not the other way around.

Zych, who has a concentration in economics, would like to pursue a career in finance when he stops playing football. He is not the first person to say that a Harvard education will probably open many doors. But it is interesting, to him, how far he has come.

“Truthfully, I had no idea Harvard had a legitimate football team,” he said, smiling.

After he enrolled at Harvard as a freshman, he was given a No. 32 jersey — a duplicate number. Because the coaches needed him in case of emergency for varsity games, he did not play a single snap for the junior varsity. But the varsity did not need him, either.

Zych started nine games as a sophomore and led the Crimson in tackles as a junior. At 5 feet 11 inches and 195 pounds, he is not particularly large for a safety, but he hits hard and is considered by his coaches and his teammates to be sound fundamentally.

“He’s just extraordinarily dependable, and in a big way,” Murphy said. “He is always, always, where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.”

Zych is amiable but somewhat stoic, which means he was not an automatic candidate to become Harvard’s captain as a senior. Players elect the captain, and there is only one for the season — and it is Harvard — so the captaincy carries an enormous amount of prestige.

He was named captain after last season, in which Harvard finished 7-3 and lost in a driving rainstorm to Pennsylvania, the eventual Ivy League champion. Zych decided almost right away to take a different approach to being a captain than some of his predecessors.

It is a Harvard tradition that the incoming captain write a letter on Harvard stationery to each player outlining the goals of the season. Depending on the captain’s personality, the tone of these letters runs the gamut.

“It was the most professional, well-done letter since I’ve been here,” Ben Graeff, a junior defensive end, said of Zych’s letter. “There was no real big hoopla — or cursing, which my mom appreciated. It was all business. You felt like he was addressing you personally.”

Rather than, as he said, “trying to pump people up in a very masculine way,” Zych wrote to the players that they should be thoroughly prepared heading into the season opener against Holy Cross (which Harvard won, 34-6). That they should hold one another accountable. That there be no slackers.

Graeff said the team had taken Zych’s lead.

“We’ve had some of the best defensive practices since I’ve been here,” he said. “Collin is one of those players who’s always up for practice.”

After Harvard (2-1) lost to Brown in its Ivy League opener Sept. 25, Zych noticed a change in the way that some players prepared to play the next game, as if they had received a personal wake-up call. They responded with a 35-10 victory against Lafayette, and host Cornell on Saturday.

But Graeff has detected a change in Zych, too, saying, “Maybe he talks a little more on the field.” Graeff laughed, as if that was an accomplishment, but Zych really has come a long way since he walked into Johnny Ringo’s office as a senior and asked for a little push.