Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office

Campus & Community

Ball-carrier Dawson rushes the future

5 min read

While nearly every college senior can relate to the anxiety of an uncertain future, very few have the luxury (or is that curse?) of seeing how those hopes and dreams unfold on television. Harvard football running back Clifton Dawson, glued to ESPN for a solid weekend this past April during the NFL Draft, is among the select few.

“I couldn’t think about a single other thing. I was so concerned about where am I going to be? What’s my schedule going to be like? How much am I going to make? All that sort of stuff,” Dawson explains.

A possible to long-shot late-round pick in the draft (depending on who you asked), Dawson’s name was never actually called. But the Monday following the draft, April 30, the compact senior with excellent blocking skills and great hands (he committed just 10 fumbles on over 700 carries with the Crimson) had received half a dozen free agent offers from different teams, affording Dawson and his agent the opportunity to leverage the proposals against one another. The ultimate result: Dawson — the Ivy League’s all-time rushing leader with 4,841 yards — inks a contract with the Indianapolis Colts.

It’s an intriguing situation for the senior, insofar as Indianapolis not only lost its star running back, Dominic Rhodes, to free agency in the off-season, but the Colts also skipped on drafting a ball carrier. Consequently, Dawson is vying for a final roster spot (along with a pair of other free agent signings) with the Colts, last season’s Super Bowl champs and consistently one of the NFL’s top contenders. “I’m glad that it finally worked out,” Dawson said.

Not a bad series of events for the native Canadian — born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario, by Jamaican parents — who just wanted to play the game. A longing, it turns out, that was first realized with the Crimson.

A transfer student from Northwestern, Dawson arrived in Cambridge for the 2003 season after a year in Evanston, Ill. There, in the highly competitive environs of Division I-A football, Dawson’s field time was limited to special teams, prompting the then-rookie to eventually red-shirt his freshman season (that is, sit the season out while not losing a year of eligibility). But at the conclusion of his first year, Dawson soon began to re-evaluate his college experience altogether, and Harvard — interested in Dawson since his high school days in Ontario — started to look like a perfect fit.

“I wasn’t really interested in going to a nonscholarship program. I fell in love with the big stadiums,” Dawson admits, alluding to the romance of the Big Ten Conference. But slowly, the lure of Harvard’s high academic standards, combined with the prospects of a starting role with the Crimson, proved too hard to resist. “It was a gutsy decision,” Dawson recollects, but one that paid off, he says.

In his first year with the Crimson, Dawson — accustomed to the biggest and fastest players in all of college football — exuded confidence on the field. His reputation as a workhorse, a gridiron cliché if there ever was one, quickly proved accurate given his consistency and stamina. He proved to be something of a racehorse as well. Helping his team to a 7-3 record (4-3 Ivy League), Dawson became the first freshman in league history to rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,187, in fact). And though Dawson’s red-shirt season excluded him from rookie of the year consideration by the Ivy League, his mark on Division 1-AA football in general was indisputable.

“Once we knew what we had,” said Harvard football coach Tim Murphy about acquiring Dawson, “we knew we could get our best receivers single coverage because teams were going to constantly gang up on the running game. … It opened up our offense to spread the field and throw the ball, allowing us to run a very multiple, balanced offense.”

Together with skilled quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 (currently a member of the St. Louis Rams), Dawson and Harvard went 10-0 during Dawson’s sophomore season, as the tailback continued to fluster defenses with his explosiveness and knack for finding holes. In that undefeated run, Dawson amassed 1,302 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 108 points — breaking a Harvard record for points dating back to 1912.

Over the past two seasons, Dawson continued to play a monster role in consecutive 7-3 campaigns to keep the Crimson atop the league standings. This past season alone, Dawson entered the end zone 22 times, including his six three-touchdown performances. Such wild numbers secured the senior his fourth All-Ivy League selection — a league first for an offensive player.

Off the field, Dawson relished his time at Harvard: “One of the reasons I wanted to come here is because it would expose me to things that I wouldn’t have been exposed to. … [Harvard] really opened up a world that was completely foreign to me,” Dawson says, adding, “It sounds corny, but even things like wearing a suit.”

Today the ball carrier will be wearing a cap and gown. And if all goes well, his future plans will call for a pair of cleats and shoulder pads. Nice threads for an economics concentrator.