February 10, 2021

Filling Void Left by Cancellation of Fall Season, Ivy League Products Enjoyed Banner Season in NFL

CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT: Members of the Princeton University football team celebrate with the Ivy League championship trophy after beating Penn 42-14 in the 2018 season finale to cap a perfect 10-0 season. While the Ivy League football season this past fall was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of former Ivy products enjoyed a banner season in the NFL. A quartet of Princeton alums, Stephen Carlson ’19, John Lovett ’19, Seth DeValve ’16, and Caraun Reid ’14, saw action this fall for NFL teams. On Sunday, Harvard alum Cameron Brate and former Penn standout Justin Watson helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV.  (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Last Sunday evening, tight end Cameron Brate made three receptions for 26 yards to help the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prevail in Super Bowl LV.

While Brate’s output will stand as a mere footnote in Tampa Bay’s 31-9 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs and the hoopla surrounding legendary quarterback Tom Brady earning his seventh Super Bowl title, the Harvard alum’s performance culminated a banner season for a number of Ivy League products competing and coaching in the NFL.

Although COVID-19 concerns resulted in the cancellation of the 2020 Ivy sports season, players and coaches with ties to the league gave its fans plenty of highlights to savor.

Stephen Carlson ’19 led the Princeton NFL contingent, seeing action in 18 games at tight end and on special teams for the Cleveland Browns as they made the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2002. Carlson made two key clutch plays down the stretch, recovering an onside kick in the waning moments of a 24-22 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers which clinched the playoff berth and then gathering in an onside kick to end a Pittsburgh rally when the teams met a week later in an AFC Wild Card contest. Over the course of the season, Carlson made one reception for 11 yards and had seven tackles on special teams.

John Lovett ’19, for his part, made the Green Bay Packer practice squad as a fullback and ended up being promoted to the active roster, getting into eight games and making three carries for six yards before seeing his season end due to a knee injury. Seth DeValve ’16 was picked up by the Arizona Cardinals, getting into four games and making a tackle on special teams. Defensive lineman Caraun Reid ’14 caught on with the Jackson Jaguars practice squad and got elevated to the active roster late in the season. He ended up playing in seven games and making five tackles.

As for the coaching ranks, legendary Tiger quarterback Jason Garrett ‘89 landed on his feet after being fired as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, getting hired as the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants. In upstate New York, former Princeton assistant coach and defensive coordinator Jim Salgado served as a defensive assistant for the Buffalo Bills, helping them win their first AFC East title since 1995 and advance to conference title game for the first time since 1994.

Not having a 2020 season, Princeton head coach Bob Surace filled some of that time by following members of the Tiger football family competing in the NFL.

“I usually never get to watch Sunday football or Saturday football because we are coaching,” said Surace.

“I am watching all of our players play and our coaches coach because we are able to do it this year. In this profession you root for your friends. When I was a kid, I was a diehard Eagles fan. As I have gone into coaching, I root for the people I am close to. So if Jason Garrett is coaching against the Eagles, I am rooting for the Giants. You root for Jimmy to have a good game when the Bills are playing. There are a lot of Princeton alums who aren’t Giants fans but everybody is rooting for Jason Garrett. There are not a lot of Browns fans but everybody is rooting for Stephen Carlson.”

Ivy fans had other reasons to root for the Giants as Yale alum Patrick Graham earned high marks as defensive coordinator while former Dartmouth standout Niko Lalos got called up to the active roster for the Giants at defensive end and made some big plays as he played in five games and made an interception and had six tackles.

Ivy brains played a key role in the renaissance of the Browns. Former Harvard standout Andrew Berry arrived in late January, 2020 and helped put the squad together as the GM. Weeks earlier, former Penn star defensive back Kevin Stefanski was brought in as head coach. Last Saturday, Stefanski was named as the NFL Coach of the Year after guiding the Browns to an 11-5 regular season record and a spot on the AFC Divisional Round. In addition to Carlson, another Ivy Leaguer, Cornel alum J.C. Tretter, made a big contribution on the field for the Browns, solidifying his status as a stalwart on the club’s offensive line.

Brate wasn’t the only Ivy Leaguer who got into the playoffs. Former Penn star Justin Watson joined Brate on the Buccaneers in earning a ring, playing as a reserve wide receiver. With Brate and Watson getting their crown, Ivy football has now produced 13 Super Bowl champions since 2008. Former Harvard star Anthony Firkser starred at tight end for the Tennessee Titans, making two catches for 44 years as the Titans fell to the Ravens in an AFC Wild Card contest

While the 2021 Pro Bowl was contested virtually, two former Ivy stars, Harvard alums Kyle Juszczyk and Tyler Ott, made the NFC squad. Juszczyk is a star fullback for the San Francisco 49er while Ott is the long snapper for the Seattle Seahawks. The NFC posted a 32-12 victory in the event which was contested virtually within the Madden NFL 21 video game on January 31.

Former Dartmouth quality coach Jennifer King made history, getting named as the assistant running backs coach for the Washington Football Team, becoming the first full-time Black female coach in the NFL.

And then there is former Harvard quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the lushly-bearded journeyman who conjured up some more FitzMagic this fall for the Miami Dolphins. Having started for eight teams during his 16-season career, Fitzpatrick produced some big games for the Miami Dolphins before giving way to highly-touted rookie Tua Tagovailoa, a former Alabama standout. Fitzpatrick completed 183-of-267 passes for 2,091 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2020. He has now passed for 34,977 yards and 223 touchdowns in his roller-coaster NFL career.

After he was benched in favor of Tagovailoa, Fitzpatrick didn’t hide his disappointment.

“Obviously, we’ve talked in the past about how I’m the placeholder, and this eventually was going to happen,” said Fitzpatrick, 38, as quoted on Miami media outlets.

“It was just a matter of when, not if. It still just broke my heart yesterday and it’s a tough thing for me to hear and to have to deal with. And I’m going to do my best with it.”

As for followers of Ivy football, while the cancellation of the 2020 season was tough to deal with, the exploits of league products in the NFL were heartening.