By Jon Lemons
In the summer of 2011, a short kid from Louisiana wandered onto a practice field in Cambridge, Massachusetts during an invitation-only football camp Harvard University runs to evaluate high school recruits.
"No one there knew who I was," the boy says.
But when the short boy who wasn't invited to the camp ran the fastest 40-yard dash of anyone there - a blistering 4.4 seconds – he quickly made a name for himself.
Four years later, Paul Stanton has the fourth-most rushing touchdowns in Harvard's history. A first team All-Ivy selection as a junior, he ranked second in the league in rushing despite missing two and a half games with a high ankle sprain.
"Paul is one of the best and most explosive running backs to ever play for Harvard," says head coach Tim Murphy. "He also gets the tough yards and because of his character and humility is highly respected by everyone in the program."
And yet, but for fortuitous timing and a persistent father, he may have never made it to Cambridge at all.
Stanton started playing football at five years old, and grew up with the dream of playing football in college. But the Kenner, Louisiana native says his main focus was either LSU or Tulane, "and it was only a dream," he says. "I never really thought it would happen, that I'd actually be playing college football."
He hadn't given much thought to other colleges until a few Ivy League schools came down to watch him practice.
"(Until then,) Harvard didn't even seem real to me. I saw it in a few movies but I never thought I'd actually get the chance to go there," he explains. "After junior year of high school, Brown and Cornell came to practice to watch me and another guy on my team … and I thought wow, that'd be a really good opportunity to go to a better school.
With some coaxing from his father, the two took a trip to the northeast to see Cornell, Princeton, then Brown.
With a terrific performance at Cornell's camp, Stanton said he almost committed to four years in Ithaca.
"But when we were at the Brown camp, my dad was talking to some other parents who mentioned that Harvard was having their football camp that same weekend," says Stanton.
When the elder Stanton told his son about the Harvard camp, the exhausted teen said no. After three camps back-to-back, Stanton was ready to head home. "I was pretty tired and sore. I just wanted to go back home – it was my first time up in the Northeast," he explains.
Besides, Harvard wasn't even recruiting him, he told his dad. "Why would I go there? They're not interested."
Stanton said his dad implored him to give it a shot. "'What do you have to lose?' he asked me," Stanton recalls. "Then he just said, 'we're going'."
So without telling anyone he was coming, Stanton arrived in Cambridge to work out with 1,000 players from all over the country whom Harvard had invited.
"All of a sudden, he runs a 4.40," recalled Murphy.
Thinking maybe he had started the stopwatch late, Murphy made Stanton run it again.
And again, the clock read 4.4.
So he made him run it a third time.
"Those guys don't grow on trees," Murphy said.
Stanton returned home and proceeded to lead his high school team to an undefeated season while averaging a ridiculous 10+ yards per carry. When Murphy reached back out and Stanton took his official visit, Stanton says he immediately knew it was where he wanted to go.
"I went on my official visit and loved it … It just became my No. 1 choice. When they offered me, I jumped on the opportunity," he says.
Opportunity is something Stanton's had a lot of at Harvard.
"My recruiting coach, Coach (Michael) Horan called me in February or March (of senior year) and said 'the running back situation is looking pretty good for you. If you gain some weight and work really hard in the offseason, I think you have a chance to play this year," Stanton recalls. "So after that I got really excited and worked really hard to get stronger."
He came into camp as a freshman and quickly earned the starting kick return job and before long had vaulted up the depth chart to become second-string running back behind senior Treavor Scales '13.
"I knew I wasn't going to pass Treavor. Treavor's an unbelievable back and a great mentor, but getting that second spot I was able to play a little bit, get some experience," Stanton says.
In his first game, Stanton took the opening kickoff back 42 yards and finished the night with 118 all-purpose yards, including 76 rushing yards on just eight carries (9.5 ypc). He appeared in eight games as a freshman, finishing the season with 28 rushes for 171 yards and a touchdown along with 456 return yards.
The following season, with Scales' graduating, Stanton took over as the team's starting running back and exploded for 17 touchdowns. His 15 rushing touchdowns were the third most in a single season in school history. Stanton played in all 10 games, racking up 936 yards on the ground – good for third in the Ivy League, and had the fourth-most all-purpose yards, with 1,098. His performance earned him second team All-Ivy honors.
As a junior, a preseason high ankle sprain forced Stanton to miss the entire first and third games of the season, as well as the first half of the fourth and the pain lingered for the whole year. Still, Stanton rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in just seven and a half games en route to a first team All-Ivy selection, and some high praise from his teammates.
"Paul is by far the best running back I've ever played with. He's a guy we could not block for him and he'd still get three yards a play," says right tackle and fellow senior Cole Toner.
Stanton isn't satisfied, though, and has more to prove during his senior season.
"My first goal is to do better than I did last year, especially staying healthy. I believe if I stay healthy and am smart about taking care of my body, I can have a lot better of a year than I did last year," he explains.
The second all-time leader at Harvard in rushing touchdowns has just one more goal, and at the midway point of the season, he is halfway there: to go 10-0 and win the Ivy League championship.