Three Former Harvard Football Stars Featured in NFL Playoffs

A trio of Crimson tight ends have a shot to reach the Super Bowl.

Cameron Brate’14
Cameron Brate 14Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Per Ivy League rules, Harvard’s football team can’t participate in postseason play. But this weekend, three former Crimson tight ends—Kyle Juszczyk 13 of the San Francisco 49ers (who these days is a fullback), Cameron Brate 14 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Anthony Firkser 17 of the Tennessee Titans—will make up for that lost opportunity as significant members of their teams during the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.

Their prominence in football’s showcase event is no mere coincidence. In Cambridge, tight end has become a signature position, so recognized throughout the sport: Penn State is known as Linebacker U, Southern Cal is Tailback U, and Harvard is Tight End U. There is a fourth former Crimson tight end in the league, Tyler Ott ’14 of the Seahawks, who is almost exclusively a long snapper. Last season there was a fifth, Ben Braunecker ’16 of the Chicago Bears. But Braunecker has forsaken football for…medical school. (Where, we ask, are the priorities?)

Anthony Firkser 17
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

That there are so many former Crimson tight ends in the NFL is no accident. In Cambridge, their position coach was also the head coach: Tim Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football. Clearly Murphy is an adept teacher, but he insists that the credit belongs to the players. “Those guys make you a good coach,” he says. 

Nevertheless, in molding his tight ends, he has developed several requirements. “To play the position in our offense you have to be a Navy SEAL, exhibiting the combination of work ethic, toughness, grit, and versatility that SEALs have,” he says. “All our tight ends have to play both tight end and H-back”—meaning a player who lines up slightly back from the line of scrimmage. “What does that mean? That means what the 49ers do with Kyle is everything he did here. He lines up a great deal of time as a fullback, but he also lines up as a tight end, a slot receiver, and even as a wide receiver. All of our guys have to be able to do that. It prepares them very well for the NFL model.”

Kyle Juszczyk 13
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Ready as they were, of the three Harvard playoff participants, only Juszczyk was drafted, in the fourth round by the Baltimore Ravens. Murphy is not surprised by the way each has established himself. “They all had great intangibles,” he says. “Whatever we gave them, whatever we challenged them with, they responded. They were tough, they were resilient, and by the time they were seniors, they all felt they had at least a chance in the NFL.’

In the regular season the threesome’s vital contributions belied their modest statistics. Juszczyk’s primary job is blocking but opponents ignore him as a receiver at their peril; he nabbed 30 receptions for 296 yards and a touchdown. It is almost comical when TV broadcasters treat a catch by “Juice” as something of a miracle; if they did a little research, they would see that he is seventh on the Harvard career reception list, with 125 catches, and against Princeton in 2012 he had 15 receptions. (Firkser, with 99 catches, is twelfth in the career standings, and Brate, with 91, is sixteenth.) Further flashing those good hands, Juszczyk also is the 49ers’ backup holder on field goals and points-after-touchdown attempts.

Brate, who plays behind future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski, nevertheless has emerged as a go-to target for quarterback Tom Brady, especially in the red zone. He snagged 30 passes for 245 yards and scored four touchdowns. Notes Murphy, “You can see that Brady feels comfortable throwing to either guy, which is quite a compliment to Cam.” For Tennessee, Firkser had 34 receptions for 291 yards and two touchdowns. He has become a valuable “possession receiver,” whose ability to get open and make tough catches allows the Titans to pick up first downs. He is aided by one of the most gripping pair of mitts in Harvard football history. “I always said, ‘That kid could catch BBs at midnight,’” says Murphy.

Juszczyk, who played four seasons with Baltimore before moving to San Francisco, is by far the most decorated of the three. Recently he was named to his sixth straight Pro Bowl, indicating that he is considered the best fullback in the National Football Conference. However, Brate has something the other two covet: a Super Bowl ring, earned last season when the Bucs defeated the Kansas City Chiefs to win the title. In that 31-9 victory, Brate made three receptions for 26 yards. (Juszczyk did make a 15-yard touchdown reception in the previous year’s Super Bowl, which the 49ers lost to the Chiefs 31-20.)

This year’s playoffs are considered the most wide open in recent memory, so picking the eventual champion is a challenging proposition. But no matter the outcome, Harvard’s tight ends will be very well positioned.

Read more articles by: Dick Friedman

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