The fullback meets the opera
For almost 90 years, the post-game celebration after every Harvard football victory has been the same. After shaking hands with opposing players and coaches, it's a rush to the locker room. Not for an inspiration speech from the coach or the awarding of a game ball, but rather to sing. That's right -- after every win, the Crimson sing.
Over 100 players and coaches crowd Dillon Field House in Harvard's athletic complex, reciting the half-Latin, half-English lyrics to the school fight song, culminating in the ever-lasting words, "Ten Thousand men of Harvard gained vict'ry today!"
But after the Crimson beat Princeton earlier this year, there was something a little bit different about the post-game song. It was a lone voice. A tenor.
"At the end of the game after we sang '10,000 Men,' I said, Pavarotti, it's your turn," recalls Harvard head coach
Opera and football? It's not exactly a common combination, but then again, Van Niel was never exactly common. While most boys jump at the chance to play Pop Warner or little league, he was starring in elementary school musicals.
His road to stardom began in a third-grade production of the musical
"I didn't look very starved," Van Niel laughs. "I've always been sort of burly."
That build finally paid off four years later, when Van Niel tried his hand at seventh-grade football. His size and soft hands made him a perfect fit at fullback, where he flourished at Newton North High School in suburban Massachusetts.
But even as he received recruitment letters from the Crimson, eventually matriculating at Harvard in 2004, Van Niel always had another, less mainstream love.
"I started seriously singing and studying opera when I was about 13 or 14," he says. "I've always had the balance between playing sports and doing theater and music and stuff like that."
This isn't your typical popular singing of today, filled with voice-aiding techniques and heavy on background music designed to hide a singer's imperfections. Opera is, according to Van Niel, "the human voice functioning at its most capable, at its best."
Success in opera requires constant practice, made up of breathing techniques and maintaining a loose throat in order to fill the 3,000-seat auditoriums were performances are held. It's generally read in French, German, English and Italian, meaning that -- in addition to the work and practice that comes with being a Harvard student and a Division I athlete -- Van Niel has to be proficient in four languages and be able to interpret music like a composer.
Thankfully for the 21-year-old, the football field and the opera house have a few things in common, as unlikely as that may seem.
"You spend all this time rehearsing or practicing a set of skills, and then there's a time you perform that set of skills under pressure," Van Niel explains. "The venues are different --out on a field or up on a stage -- but we put in all those hours for just 10 Saturdays or only a few performances."
Van Niel has made the most of his opportunities -- he's the fourth-leading rusher on the team and a key component in the Crimson's resurgent running game and its 7-0 Ivy League record, including a 37-6 thrashing of Yale over the weekend.
And like most of his fellow Harvard seniors, he's also looking for a job. But instead of investment banks or law schools, Van Niel is sending out applications to vocal schools. That's right; his singing isn't just a hobby. It's what he wants to do with his life.
It all came together this summer in New York, when he sang with a full orchestra and a conductor from the Metropolitan Opera. Not only was it the most memorable performance of his young singing career, but it cemented his goal of wanting to do it for a living.
And even early on, he has at least one fan -- even if he's not an opera aficionado.
"All of us were like, 'whoa,'" Murphy says, recollecting the impromptu performance after the Princeton game. "You just know when you're in front of something legit. I can't tell between a national class or an international class singer, but it was legit."