He battled through hard times as a child to get through Harvard cum laude. Isaiah Kacyvenski wound up in the Super Bowl in 2006, and standing across the field during the coin flip was another long-shot Ivy Leaguer.
On the last game of the 2006 NFL season St. Louis Rams linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski helped make history. For the first time ever three former Harvard players appeared in an NFL game. In a late-season matchup between the Rams and the Minnesota Vikings Kacyvenski, All-Pro Vikings center Matt Birk, and Rams reserve quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick all played.
"[Coach Scott Linehan] threw Ryan in for the last series," says Kacyvenski. It was Fitzpatrick's only 2006 season appearance. Linehan "didn't say he knew about the record, but I was talking about it all week."
Harvard hasn't always been on his mind, though. "I heard the Super Bowl on the radio when I was nine or 10," he remembers. "Then I got focused on playing in the NFL." Kacyvenski had a rough upbringing. His parents divorced when he was nine, and during his childhood his father would sometimes have to pull food from a dumpster to feed the family. At times the family home was a tent. His mom passed away his senior year of high school.
Kacyvenski continued to focus on football, trying to earn a scholarship to Notre Dame. Then Harvard coach Tim Murphy visited his home. "He told me 'You will never regret going to Harvard,'" he remembers. "I had never thought of Harvard. But I could get the best of both worlds, be a four-year starter and get a Harvard degree."
When he arrived at Harvard "I worried about fitting in," but his concerns were eased when he found that "everyone there has their own story. They were from all walks of life." Majoring in pre-med Kacyvenski fit right in on the football field, earning honorable mention All-Ivy and Rookie of the Year honors his first season. He was introduced to Ivy play the hard way. "We were at Columbia, and they would sometimes play Marcellus Wiley at fullback. I was matched against him on a lead block. He lit me up, it was like thunder going off. 'Welcome to the Ivy League' I thought."
Not all his matchups were that intense. Kacyvenski would go on to be named first-team All-Ivy for three straight seasons, and set school game, season, and career tackling records that still stand. Academic life was intense, though. "I'd practice, barely make dinner, study, then there was game film at 9:30," he recalls. I had to schedule labs for Monday, our off day. I had to take organic chemistry lab over the summer."
He graduated cum laude and was taken by the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth round of the 2000 draft. Working his way up to special teams captain over the course of a seven-year career, Kacyvenski became the third Harvard alum to play in the Super Bowl when the Seahawks won the 2005 NFC Championship.
As special teams captain, Kacyvenski was on the field for the pre-game coin toss. Also on the field was Pittsburgh special teams captain Sean Morey, who had played at Brown. The cameras showed the two speaking. What did Kacyvenski tell him? "How proud I was of him," he says."He was cut a bunch of times, battled his butt off. Becoming special teams captain, it's a hard thing to do. I told him I respected it."
Kacyvenski had to deal with being cut himself the next season, "It happened just before the Chicago game," he says. "They told me 'our plan is to re-sign you on Monday.'" But then six other teams called. "I had a choice where I wanted to go," he says, and he picked St. Louis. "The hardest part was picking up and leaving. Coach [Mike] Holmgren was like a father figure to me. It was hard to tell him."
He'd like to play in the NFL 10 seasons "then reassess. It's tough to see life without football." His ultimate job? "Be the GM [general manager] of a team."
He likes the NFL chances of running back Clifton Dawson, who last season broke the Ivy League rushing record formerly held by Cornell's Ed Marinaro. "He's definitely got a really good shot," says Kacyvenski. "Coming from the Ivy League he's got to test well [in the combine, a workout where potential draftees are extensively tested on speed, agility and other physical attributes].
"In the NFL we have to beat down the stereotype" that Ivy players "are smart" and thus "can't function on the field," he says. Through his career Kacyvenski's done his part to beat down that stereotype.
— Stephen Eschenbach