By Scott Sudikoff
For Harvard senior bioengineering major Jack Stansell, it was an unplanned family trip to a hotel in Houston in 2005 that started his journey in the game of football. Since then football has been one of the biggest facets of his life.
"The earliest memory I recall was living in Saint Charles, Louisiana and we had to evacuate due to Hurricane Rita," Stansell explained. "In the hotel in Houston we were watching Alabama-Florida and I kind of fell in love with the game."
Jack's father, Terry, is a big Alabama football fan, and from there Jack dreamed of being a player for the Crimson Tide. Little did he know he would one day sport a different crimson jersey.
It took a few years for Jack to begin playing the game in an organized fashion, though.
"Middle school football was the earliest I played," said Stansell. "I played some in the backyard, but as a little league guy I was more of a basketball player."
As a 6th grader on the middle school team, Jack of course was one of the youngest players on the team. At the time Jack was playing on the offensive line, but when he and his family moved from Louisiana to Alabama, the game of football really changed for him.
"Once I changed middle schools and moved to Alabama, I had a great coach named Brandon Brown," Stansell explained. "He helped me lose weight and gain speed."
If you read our first senior football feature of the year on Harvard's Tanner Lee, or if you follow football closely enough, you know the importance of high school football in Alabama.
"Alabama high school football has every bit of the passion that a place like Texas has," said Stansell. "On Friday nights, that's where most people are, and for me it was especially true playing rival high schools, we would get somewhere around 8-10,000 fans."
Once Stansell moved on to Dothan High School, he also moved on from the offensive line into becoming a slot receiver and tight end. Positions that he takes the field with for Harvard to this day.
For many kids growing up playing sports, they dream of playing at the highest levels, and for Jack it was no different.
"It was always something I dreamed about (playing in college)," said Stansell. "But I never expected to be a Division I football player early on, but after my sophomore year I decided to stop playing basketball to pursue my college football dream."
During his junior season of football at Dothan High, Jack gained 15 pounds to bulk up to 195 pounds to put himself in a better position to be attractive to college programs. Jack still didn't believe he was ready for the Division I level until a moment during spring practice before his senior year.
"We were at a 5:30 a.m. workout running the University of Alabama's 4th quarter program," explained Stansell. "A drill where you sprint a loop from goal-line to goal-line and then jog another 30 yards…I was beating wide receivers and quarterbacks, and my coach looked at me said 'You'll play Division I football somewhere, I guarantee it!'"
"And that was the first time I believed I would," Stansell added.
From there though Jack thought that the interest would be limited to the in-state program of Troy University, as he never anticipated getting a look from an Ivy League school like Harvard.
"When Harvard came calling, I thought maybe this is the kind of academic challenge that I need," said Stansell. "When I first went to Harvard on a visit I was really impressed with the people I met on the coaching staff as well as individuals on the academic side."
During a meeting with an engineering advisor on the visit to campus, they mapped out an academic plan of study for Jack to be a successful engineering student.
"It calmed my nerves," said Stansell. "I knew I was a hard-worker going into it, and my personal belief is that if you're a hard-enough worker, you can get through a Harvard education."
When Stansell made the decision to come to Cambridge, the first few days on campus did not go as planned.
"About a week in I called my parents and I told them I was ready to come home," explained Stansell. "I was at the bottom of the depth chart, getting no opportunities…I wasn't used to that."
Luckily for Jack and Harvard, his parents reinforced that going to and staying at Harvard was the right decision.
"They said I'm going to get a shot and just be ready for when I get my opportunity."
After a few weeks Stansell was able to catch the eye of Head Coach Tim Murphy, and from that moment on Jack has continued to work his way up the Harvard depth chart.
"Jack is like having a coach on the field," said Murphy. "His dependability, leadership, football IQ and attention to detail allow him to succeed at a high level and to mentor young players at the same time."
"I'm lucky to have Coach Murphy as my position coach," commented Stansell. "Our relationship has really grown since I was a freshman."
It is common when speaking to seniors of the Harvard football team to hear of how the relationships with their coaches and teammates really mold their time in Cambridge. For Stansell, those relationships are what he will remember most.
"I think the championships will be good to look back on," said Stansell. "But it doesn't really mean a whole lot unless you're thinking about who you accomplished it with."
"Personally for me my memories will be most-centered around the guys I live with, Luke [Hutton], Alex [White], Scott [Evans]."
For all of the success that the Harvard football program has had, what are the keys to that success?
"Toughness, grit, hard work and character," said Stansell.
Stansell and Harvard hope that those key ingredients help the Crimson back to the top of the Ivy League mountain in 2017.