Player Feature: Harvard Football's Matthew Hanson

Matthew Hanson in action during a 31-3 non-conference win at Lafayette on Oct. 1, 2011 Buy Now
Matthew Hanson in action during a 31-3 non-conference win at Lafayette on Oct. 1, 2011

Tim Murphy on Matt Hanson: "Matt has as much experience as any defensive back in the Ivy League. With the size, speed and instincts he is capable of being a dominant corner in 2011."


To meet Matthew Hanson is to understand he is a special person.

If the first time you saw him was on a football field, you'd see a fiercely aggressive player - an in-your-face cornerback who plays physically, constantly jamming receivers at the line; a cornerback with a chip on his shoulder.

If you saw him "across the river" (Crimson football-speak for day-to-day life on the Cambridge side of the Charles), the first thing you'd see would probably be his smile. Hanson, an organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator, carries himself around the Cambridge streets with a completely unassuming demeanor. He's friendly. He's polite. He's, well…nothing like he is on the field.

Reconciling the two Matt Hansons can be tough. How can such an aggressive, physical player on the field conduct himself with such a pleasant disposition off of it? Certainly, football players are much more than just athletes and are not resigned to living their lives as hostile brutes, but Hanson seems to have transcended the football persona in a way few are able.

To understand how he's come to embody such a multitude of attributes, you have to go to the source. Or, sources. Hanson has looked to a lot of different people for guidance in his life.

"I am big on looking outside of yourself," Hanson explained. "I've always worked on identifying qualities you respect in others and building on them."

The first  lessons he built upon were his mother's. Spending much of his childhood in a single-parent household, Hanson says he remembers how hard his mother worked to provide for the family and how positive she was throughout the process. 

"Life was rough for us from time to time, but regardless she kept a positive mental attitude and never looked back. She never backed down from the challenge. I try and place that same effort into everything I do."

Armed with these lessons and the supporting cast of his Nana, his Uncle James and, in later years, his step-father, Hanson became a multi-sport star in his hometown of Lafayette, Colo. Despite a difficult upbringing, it surprised few who knew him that he was off to Harvard.

Upon arriving in Cambridge, Hanson was thrown right into the fire. After a stellar pre-season camp, Hanson earned a starting job. It wasn't until after week two, though, that he really understood what was expected of him. After that week's loss to Brown, B.J. Merriweather, a senior at the time, took it upon himself to "welcome" Hanson to college football.

"B.J. took it to me," Hanson remembers with a smile. "That whole week, no matter what drill it was, B.J. substituted himself in and went against me. I'd never seen someone play so hard, so intense. It was a tough learning experience, but I look at it as a major turning point in my education here."

His freshman year was also the year he met Harvard legend Andrew Berry. His time with Berry, looked upon as the quintessential scholar-athlete, probably explains a lot about the dichotomy of Hanson's success. Berry taught Hanson "to have ambitions and to work hard towards each one. He taught me that hard work not only pays off, it pays well."

And in his freshman campaign, it did pay well. Hanson settled into the Ivy League champion defense nicely, playing lock-down defense and making a series of big plays. Hanson's play earned him Ivy League Rookie-of-the-Year honors.

His sophomore season didn't go as well. While Hanson continued to develop as a student and a young professional under the tutelage of cornerback Derrick Barker—the next in the long line of influences on Hanson— he felt as though his football career stagnated. It was a year Hanson describes as "disappointing," especially considering the expectations that came with Rookie of the Year. 

After the season, Hanson did some soul searching and realized he was relying too heavily on another one of his influences—God. While he's always been active in the Catholic Church (it was between his sophomore and junior seasons that Hanson traveled to New Orleans to perform medical work with a church group), Hanson realized he was under-confident in his own abilities and over-reliant on God.

"In my first two seasons, I was incredibly nervous before football games. I used to question my abilities. Question myself. I would pray to God every play to help me out."

"There was a transition before my junior year. I looked up and realized God was not going to help me over any other person. I still pray before games, but all I pray for is people's safety. That was a huge transition point for my confidence. I didn't look to anyone else to help me play better. I looked towards myself."

As it turns out, this was exactly the boost he needed. With a newfound confidence and two seasons of football under his belt, Hanson played more like the player he knew he could be. His performance earned him second-team All-Ivy honors, although arguments could certainly be made that he put in a first-team performance. One could see how his in-your-face style of play might not win over opposing hearts. Or votes.

Now in his senior year at Harvard, Hanson is very much the sum of his parts. Some of those parts come from his early childhood. Some were learned early on in his Harvard career. Some—like former Captain Colin Zych's lesson in leadership –are still being refined today as he becomes what defensive backs Coach Tony Reno describes as, "the unquestioned leader of the secondary."

That being the case, the underclassmen couldn't have asked for a better leader.

Hopefully they're watching how he plays; a player who is tireless in his quest to prove he's the top cornerback in the league. Hopefully they're watching how he approaches class; a student who isn't afraid to take on challenging course work and push himself academically. Hopefully they're watching the way he's prepared for life after football; locking down a top-level consulting job after he graduates.

Hopefully they're watching the path of successful people who have come before them, studying their formulas for success and recreating them in their own life. 

Matthew Hanson did and it certainly seems to be working for him.