Harvard, Yale players take rivalry to Colts' locker room
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Undrafted running back Tyler Varga fits right into the Colts' locker room.
Here, players routinely tout their alma maters and playfully trade barbs with guys who attended rival schools. So when Varga pulls out a camouflage baseball hat with the blue letter ''Y,'' it barely draws a response from his new teammates - with one notable exception.
Zack Hodges, an undrafted rookie from Harvard, knows exactly what that darned letter signifies: He's still chasing the former Yale star around a football field, this time in the NFL. It's becoming the game within The Game.
''It's cool,'' Varga said. ''It's a little friendly competition.''
Friendly, maybe, but the passion hasn't subsided.
Ask Hodges about the rivalry and he quickly notes he went 4-0 against Yale.
Ask Varga about his memories from playing in the series and he simply shuts it down.
''They've gotten the best of us the last couple of years, so I don't want to talk about it,'' the 5-foot-11, 222-pound running back said, conveniently omitting he ran for 127 yards and two touchdowns and caught four passes, including one for a TD, in November's a 31-24 loss, Harvard's eighth straight win in a series that dates to 1875.
But these two former opponents have found they have a lot in common, too.
In addition to attending schools better known for producing presidents, lawyers and CEOs than athletes, they're both long shots to make a team with Super Bowl aspirations. They're trying to become the first Harvard and Yale grads to play on the same NFL team since 2008, according to STATS. The last time it occurred quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, of Harvard, and tight end Nate Lawrie played for the Bengals. Lawrie, an Indianapolis native, also was the last Yale player to appear in an NFL regular-season game.
Hodges and Varga also took non-traditional paths to the NFL.
Varga was born in Sweden, grew up in Canada and started his college career at the University of Western Ontario. After one year there, he transferred to Yale, where he became one of the best backs in school history. Last year's Ivy League offensive player of the year became the first Yale alum to receive a Senior Bowl invite in 60 years. And the premed major spent draft weekend preparing to defend his thesis on a possible breakthrough for Type 2 diabetes.
Hodges, meanwhile, overcame more daunting challenges.
His father died when he was 1 year old. Hodges' mother, who got remarried and then fled an abusive relationship, struggled to make ends meet. There were times the Atlanta native and his mother were homeless, hungry and thirsty. After she died, when Hodges was age 14, he was taken in by extended family.
Though he attended three high schools in three states in three years, he never let the chaotic circumstances stop him.
Hodges wound up at Harvard and is now one semester away from earning his degree in government. He was twice voted the Ivy League's defensive player of the year, and the 6-foot-3, 235-pound college defensive end is trying to succeed as an NFL linebacker with more at stake than just a dream job.
''It's a great opportunity. I think I realized, before all these cameras were in my face, that I have a chance to influence people in the way that I carry myself and the way that I play this craft,'' he said during the Colts' rookie minicamp. ''Second, it's a chance for my family, it's a chance for some security.''
Hodges and Varga understand their next chapter in life is about more than just an old college rivalry, which may explain why these old college rivals have temporarily put away the gloves and become members of the mutual admiration society.
''He's a very talented running back and I have a lot of respect for him,'' Hodges said after participating in a Play 60 camp on the Colts' indoor practice field. ''Kind of our whole careers, we have been fighting for recognition in our conference and in our league.''
Now the two Ivy League prospects find themselves in a different kind of battle. They're both trying to beat out bigger, faster, better-known football players for roster spots, and it will take everything in their arsenal - grit, determination, study skills and intelligence - to succeed.
And to the chagrin of Hodges, it also means wearing hats and colors more suitable for a guy like Varga.
''For me, the biggest thing coming to the Colts is learning to wear so much blue,'' Hodges said, smiling. ''But I have my own ways of taking care of my boys (at Harvard) and keeping that crimson on my chest.''
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