Harvard football holds a special place in my heart. My father played cornerback for the Crimson. A decade later, when I was young, my uncle was an all-conference linebacker at Harvard. Pictures of my father and uncle, broad-shouldered and lean, their shadowy faces set back deep inside their helmets, hang throughout my grandparents' home.
"It's certainly not the SEC, but it's still some good football to watch in a really fun and historic stadium."
Most of the stories they told me, when I was growing up, about their stints on the Crimson were rather tame. Their ready-made anecdotes described a world of excellence, on the field and off. After reading Eric Kester's That Book about Harvard: Surviving the World's Most Famous University, One Embarrassment at a Time, I'm beginning to suspect my father and uncle may have conveniently left out a few of the juicier details. Kester, on the other hand, did no such thing. Every unsavory anecdote from his embarrassment-filled stint in Cambridge, Massachusettssave onemade it into his book. Exposed testicles and steroid tests, not tweed and T.S. Eliot, give Kester's Harvard its texture.In this interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for length and clarity, Kester talks about when he first had the idea to write the book, a somewhat colorful conditioning coach who is the source of much of the book's humor, and whether my uncle's days playing linebacker at Harvard are as legendary as he makes them out to be.
Gelf Magazine: When did you first think that your experience at Harvard would make a good subject for a book?
Eric Kester: As I was prolifically embarrassing myself freshmen year, I never thought I would write about my experiences. But as my freshman year ended, I realized that the only way for me to survive such a serious school was for me to take myself less seriously. So after some time quietly brooding about these embarrassments in a cave of Ramen Noodles and depression, I decided to take the opposite approach. I began writing a column about my embarrassments in the student newspaper, the Crimson, poking fun at my incompetence and my inability to live up to Harvard. A surprising number of students at Harvard and beyond seemed to relate to these feelings of embarrassment and shame. I realized that all college freshmen, even the cool ones, have these feelings of seclusion, and it was refreshing for us to laugh at it rather than suppress it. This allowed my column to gain some momentum, so I thought I'd try using it as the basis for a college humor memoir.Gelf Magazine: A lot of pretty incredible stories made into this book. It doesn't seem like you left much out. But I have to ask: Is there anything that was just a little too racy for your editors? Was there an anecdote that ended up on the cutting-room floor?
Eric Kester: My editors at Sourcebooks were great because they didn't ask me to cut out anything, no matter how racy or controversial. There was one story I removed because I couldn't naturally fit it into the narrative arc, but in retrospect I wish I found a way to sneak it in. The story involved Coach Mac, a shirtless football weigh-in, and nipple hickeys. That's all I'll say.
Gelf Magazine: Speaking of Coach Macis he still employed by Harvard University? I thought the scene in which he exposed his genitalia in front of not only the football team but the women's volleyball team might have been a career-ender. Were his testicles as large as he repeatedly claimed?Eric Kester: Since the characters in my book are based off of real people, I try to keep their names, locations, and actual ball sizes as private as possible. But yeah, Coach Mac's tenure at Harvard was short. His off-the-wall, uncensored personality wasn't the most natural fit for a school that cared way more about Latin than about football. But for all of his antics, Coach Mac was incredibly popular with Harvard athletes. He was funny (intentionally and unintentionally) and he actually cared about the development of everyone he worked with, something that couldn't be said about some Harvard professors. So even though he terrified me, I actually held a lot of respect for Coach Mac, a feeling which I tried to portray by the end of the book. I believe that Harvard could use more people like him.
Gelf Magazine: You said that when younger you dreamed of playing Div. I college football. Are you still a big college-football fan? Do you ever watch Harvard football? Is Harvard football even on TV?
Eric Kester: I love college football and still follow Harvard closely. The games are on local Boston TV, so I'll catch some of those, but I also make it to Harvard Stadium for a couple of games a year. It's certainly not the SEC, but it's still some good football to watch in a really fun and historic stadium. Though I love watching my old team play, it can also be difficult. It makes me miss my old teammates and it makes me miss hitting people. But most of all it makes me feel sad as I wonder if I could have actually been an impact player had I not blown out my knee. The answer is probably "no," since my insecurities prevented me from playing with the confidence needed to excel, which is probably saddest of all.
Gelf Magazine: You mentioned at one point that, while some of the players on the football team would be living with their parents post-graduation, others would be in the NFL. Did you play with anybody who went pro? Any embarrassing stories about their college years that I can toss around liberally in the future?
Eric Kester: Ryan Fitzpatrick was our starting quarterback my freshman year. He was pretty damn good, especially at practice when he was going against scout-team defenses that consisted of linebackers such as me. By far the most embarrassing thing Fitzy ever didand this could end his pro career if it were to be releasedis throw a pass that I picked off in a scrimmage. I ran it back for a touchdown, stopped in front of the NFL scouts there to see Fitzy, spiked the ball, and declared myself eligible for the 2004 draft.
Gelf Magazine: Have you ever heard of a Harvard middle linebacker from the '80s named Joe Gordian, or are my uncle's claims about his importance to the program as spurious as they sound?
Eric Kester: It's hard not to know Joe "Goal-Line Guardian" Gordian when you pass his 60-foot-tall statue on the way to the stadium every day! Jokes aside, the only ex-Harvard player that my coaches really talked about was perennial Pro Bowl center, Matt Birk. According to the coaches, he was better than me.
Gelf Magazine: If you ever have a son who wants to play major college football, what advice will you give him?
Eric Kester: College football is completely different than high-school football. It's like a job, but if it ever feels like a job, stop. Also, keep your head on a swivel.