Every Play Breaks a Record

Running back Clifton Dawson '07 owns the record books. Now he's rewriting them.

Watch him this fall, if you can: football players of Clifton Dawson’s caliber don’t show up very often in Harvard Stadium. The record books, in fact, have never seen his equal: Dawson has already set every single-season and career rushing record that Harvard keeps, with his senior year still to play. His Harvard marks include career rushing yards (3,628), career touchdowns (44), single-season rushing yards (1,302), and touchdowns (18). Dawson begins the season only 1,008 yards shy of the Ivy League’s all-time career rushing record (held by Ed Marinaro of Cornell since 1971). He could be the greatest running back the Ivies have ever seen.

Sometimes called "Threes" for his uniform number, senior running back Clifton Dawson might be the best running back in Ivy League history.
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Dawson transferred to Harvard from Northwestern, where he was red-shirted during his freshman year. (That’s the practice, common in large football colleges, of holding a player out of intercollegiate games to preserve his four years of eligibility while he develops for another year.) “I wasn’t playing any football,” he says. “There was talk of my switching to cornerback—but I had never played defense.” Though Northwestern is an NCAA Division I-A college and Harvard is I-AA, Dawson says he is “very happy with the level of play” in the Ivy League, which now regularly sends alumni to the National Football League (NFL).

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Dawson had a second freshman year at Harvard, where he quickly established that running the ball, not tackling, was what he was meant to do. “We knew from the first practice that we had something special,” says head football coach Tim Murphy. “He did things you can’t teach: speed, hitting holes, and his ability to slip tackles.” Against Lafayette, Dawson exploded for 218 yards (the fifth-highest single-game mark in Crimson history) and four touchdowns. He went on to set the Ivy League’s freshman record (1,187 yards) and became the first freshman offensive player ever to make the all-Ivy first team.

As a sophomore, he joined the company of some Harvard legends. His 108 points scored surpassed the Crimson season record of 94 points that Charlie Brickley ’15 established in 1912. Dawson also garnered first team all-America status, becoming the first Harvard offensive back to do so since Barry Wood ’32 in 1931. Last fall, minor injuries slowed Dawson down a bit, but not enough to keep him from running for 1,139 yards, or being a unanimous first team all-Ivy selection for the third consecutive year, or catching 10 passes as well as scoring the game-winning touchdown in the third overtime period of Harvard’s 30-24 triumph over Yale.

At a muscular 5 feet, 10 inches and 210 pounds, Dawson is built to run, and does so in the aggressive style of the late Walter Payton, who was happy not only to dodge tacklers but to knock them for a loop. “I’m not a guy who steps out of bounds,” is how Dawson puts it. “I am more than willing to run through them.” Murphy says Dawson’s very physical style of play makes him, “for a true running back, the best blocker I’ve ever seen.” Dawson says, “I really enjoy blocking—it’s a close second to running the ball. Blocking is an individual battle. Very satisfying to control a guy who outweighs you by 50 pounds.” During his red-shirted year at Northwestern, Dawson went up against Big Ten linebackers in practice every day. “You had to quickly get the fear out of you,” he recalls. “I came to Harvard pretty confident.” As a Crimson frosh, he soon practiced against the likes of linebacker Dante Balestracci ’04, the first player ever to achieve all-Ivy first-team status four years running (Dawson could become the second).

Born to Jamaican parents in Scarborough, Ontario, outside Toronto, Dawson grew up the youngest of six in an athletic family: all his siblings,male and female, excelled in track and field, especially sprints. Dawson himself was fast enough to win Toronto championships in the 100 meters in the ninth and tenth grades.

His speed, strength, and endurance helped him excel immediately during summer seasons with the Toronto Thunder club team of the Ontario Varsity Football League. Sprinting requires explosion out of the starting blocks and quick acceleration, skills that transfer nicely to getting through a hole in the scrimmage line. Agility is another huge factor, because in football, unlike track, he says, “You never, ever have a straight-line run.”

An economics concentrator, Dawson may eventually work in finance; he enjoyed an internship at a hedge fund in 2005. He can also imagine coaching football one day. But for now he wants to play it. His hometown Toronto Argonauts chose him in the sixth round of the 2006 Canadian Football League draft; don’t be surprised if an NFL team picks him in their draft next April. But this fall, you can see him in the Ivy League, where every yard he gains sets a new record.           

~Craig Lambert

Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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