Buttonhook and Aloha

Hawaiian quarterback Neil Rose '02 can really heave the pineapple.

Rose tossing the football
Record-breaking passer Rose, going aerial last fall

Photograph courtesy Harvard Sports Information

Talk about spectacular entrances: In his first game of high-school football, second-string quarterback Neil Rose '02 took over with his team trailing and less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Rose's first pass connected for a game-winning 70-yard touchdown. Last fall, he did it again. Making his first Harvard varsity start, Rose's translation from "benchwarmer to record-breaking passer was completed in less than 13 minutes," as this magazine reported. Three long touchdown plays in the fourth quarter overhauled Brown, 42-37, as Rose set a Harvard single-game record with 412 passing yards.

This season, as the Crimson's starting quarterback, Rose intends to finish his college career with another big bang. "We're thinking nothing less than 10-0," he says. "We want to go into the Yale game with an undefeated record and the league title on the line. We've got a great team. There's really good chemistry--it's pretty fluid on the field."

That fluidity includes the sleek combination of Rose and wide receiver Carl Morris '03, who last year set Harvard season records for catches (60) and total yards (920). Such performances helped propel Rose to 10 Harvard records of his own, including game and season marks for completions, yardage, and total offense, as well as touchdown passes in a season (see "Outpointed," January-February, page 82). Morris, who is six feet, three inches and has the team's best vertical leap, is extremely hard to defend against; his long strides shift into another gear once he gets downfield. "Carl is unmatched in this league," says Rose. "No defensive back can jump as high as he can. You don't even have to throw the ball well to him--somehow he'll get his paws on it."

Rose and Morris are two key elements in the Crimson's no-huddle offense, which runs one of the most complex playbooks in college football. Last year, more than once, 10 different Harvard players caught passes in a single game. "There's so much going on," says Rose. "It's a pro-style offense. If you can master it, nothing can stop you because you have an answer for every defense." The backfield has running backs like juniors Nick Palazzo and Matt Leiszler. "They're north-and-south guys [straight-ahead power runners]," says Rose. "They want five yards and they will get it." Harvard's passing game--which often sends four receivers downfield--is willing to throw on early downs ("Most quarterbacks average six to eight yards per attempt," says Rose) to create short-yardage situations for the run.

The six-foot, two-inch, 220-pound Rose runs rather well himself; in fact, in his last year quarterbacking at Pac-Five, a Honolulu team pooled from five high schools, he led the team in rushing. (Rose attended University High School in Honolulu.). His hero was agile Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway. Rose got used to rolling out on every play and throwing 60 passes a game. Playing behind a porous offensive line, he once set a state record when he was sacked 26 times in one game. "That impressed us--because Neil also picked himself up off the ground 26 times and went right back at them," says assistant football coach Jay Mills, Harvard's offensive coordinator, who recruited Rose. "He is tough."

Rose spent much of his childhood playing competitive year-round soccer, but "burned out." In high school he loved both football and basketball, where he was a shooting guard. No drop-back quarterback ("I throw on the run better than in the pocket"), Rose likes plenty of motion: shotgun formations, "speed-option" pitches to tailbacks, lots of receivers running routes. "The worst thing to defend is a quarterback who can run," he says. "It keeps them in check."

If the Crimson defense can keep opp onents in check this fall, Rose's dream of an undefeated season might have a chance. Last year's Harvard offense--most of which remains intact--scored more points (33 per game, on average) than any Crimson eleven in the previous 106 years. The squad lost games on missed field-goal attempts and defensive collapses, as in Cornell's 29 unanswered second-half points that erased a 28-0 Harvard lead. Yet the defense improved over the season, and has a genuine star in sophomore linebacker Dante Balestracci, who led the team with 94 tackles and last year was not only Ivy Rookie of the Year but the first freshman ever named to an all-Ivy first team.


Rose's own freshman year was "the worst time of my life," he recalls. "In high school you practice for two hours. In college you practice for two hours and have meetings and film for six hours. Everything you do is taped and analyzed." With Harvard's complex offense, there was a lot to learn, and playing behind two upperclassmen, Rose didn't have first claim on the coaches' time. "I felt alone--lost and miserable," he says. "It was the first time I ever felt unsure of myself."

Sophomore year was better emotionally but physically worse: Rose broke a foot playing summer basketball and missed the season on crutches. The next summer, while working full-time in Boston, he lifted weights daily and was told the offense. Then he was told that Barry Wahlberg '03 was slated to start at quarterback. "They [the coaches] thought his arm strength would pay off," Rose says, "and Barry does have one of the strongest arms I've ever seen--he can throw a baseball 90 miles an hour. But I was crushed and disappointed to have lost my job."

At the season opener against Holy Cross, Rose began the game on the bench. "All I wanted to do was get in," he recalls. He got his chance. The offense wasn't moving well for Wahlberg, who completed only four of 16 passes, with three interceptions. Late in the third quarter, Rose took over, connected on seven of nine passes, scored a touchdown on a one-yard run, and engineered two good drives in the fourth quarter. Harvard missed a late field goal and lost by two. The next week Rose had his record-shattering 412-yard day against Brown, with Morris ambling for 220 of those yards. At quarterback since then, Rose's only Achilles heel has been interceptions; last year opponents picked off 13 of his tosses--nine of these in the last three games, and four against Yale.

The oldest of three brothers, Rose has been a Hawaiian since age five. Father Keith, a systems analyst, met mother Kiyoka when he was a U.S. Marine stationed in Japan. Rose is the first Hawaiian Harvard quarterback since the all-Ivy Milt Holt '75.

Like Holt, Rose is open and expressive. Last year he wrote an opinion piece for the Crimson arguing that the athletics department ought to liberalize its policies to permit greater corporate sponsorship of Harvard athletics. (Harvard's long-established position has been to minimize corporate and commercial involvements--e.g., accepting brand-name uniforms and equipment in exchange for promotional consideration--with the athletic programs.) "We shouldn't turn down a handout from equipment makers," Rose says. "There are costs to it, but it's a small price to pay for better equipment. It doesn't jeopardize our status as amateurs; we're not even on [athletic] scholarships." He adds, "I feel we're the luckiest people in the world to be playing for Harvard, but we still should always be looking to improve. Corporate sponsorship is worth investigating."

He has his own corporate involvement: Rose has worked the last two summers for the financial house Bear Stearns, perhaps applying some knowledge gained as an economics concentrator. His career ambitions reflect a quarterback's take-charge attitude. "I need to be an entrepreneur," Rose says. "My dream is to start and grow many small companies, be my own boss. I want to be in the driver's seat. In the long run I expect to go home [to Hawaii]. One day I might get into politics, maybe run for the U.S. Senate."

If so, he'll start with a solid base of family support. Last fall, his father attended two football games, his mother one, and at the Princeton game, younger brother Casey, a Lehigh freshman, and an uncle joined Rose's father and grandmother in the stands. They were easy to spot from the field. Rose's dad was the only spectator wearing an aloha shirt.

~Craig Lambert

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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