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Offseason work pays dividends for Harvard O-lineman

COURTESY: HARVARD UNIVERSITY - Offensive lineman Max Rich (79), from Jesuit High, celebrates winning the 2014 Ivy League championship and a season-finale victory over Yale that capped an undefeated season.At 6-7 and 310 pounds, Max Rich is used to being spotted in a crowd.

“I don’t blend in too well,” Rich says.

Rich also stood out throughout his Jesuit High career for his considerable skills in football, basketball and track and field.

That extra attention he got over the years has added to his appreciation for how he’s treated differently now as a starting offensive lineman at Harvard University.

“People don’t care that we’re on the football team,” Rich says.

Oh, sure, because of his stature, people still correctly assume the 21-year-old junior plays a sport. But Rich is essentially able to blend in with his fellow hard-working Harvard classmates when roaming the picturesque 209-acre campus in Cambridge, Mass.

“We’re treated like regular students here,” Rich says. “We don’t get special privileges or anything because we’re athletes. That’s actually the coolest part of the Harvard experience. We get to just be ourselves and not be put on a pedestal in any way.

“It’s nice just being normal.”

Well, as “normal” as it can be for someone who balances the rigorous workload of an Ivy League college schedule with the long hours spent as a starting left tackle and all-Ivy second-team player.

Rich, who lived in Los Angeles for 13 years before moving to Southwest Portland, could have remained on the West Coast for college. He received a football scholarship offer from Washington State and says he was close to being offered by Cal. He also could have been a “preferred walk-on” at Oregon.

“I really wanted to experience something new and different,” Rich says. “You get to learn so much more about yourself that way. I wanted to challenge myself.”

It didn’t take long for Rich to realize that the Harvard experience lives up to its challenging reputation. The economics major remembers being a bit overwhelmed when he went through his first semester and first football season in the fall of 2013.

“It was hard to concentrate during football because I was always worried about other things in school,” Rich says. “It was pretty challenging and a difficult adjustment at first. But as the years have gone by, it’s gotten a lot easier.”

Rich has learned to compartmentalize his duties. He has a list of important deadlines on his wall at home to help keep him on track.

The success of Harvard football also has helped him by providing the perfect outlet for any academic stress.

Rich, who received limited playing time as a freshman and sophomore, made sure to glean as much as he could from his older teammates. Along with learning technique and offensive strategies, Rich took notice of how the veteran players managed their time as students and athletes.

“They showed me how great it is to get your mind off school and just go out there and have fun playing football with all the guys you’re closest with,” he says.

Rich’s most memorable day during his first couple years was when Yale visited Harvard last fall for the annual rivalry that is known simply as “The Game.” Because the Ivy League doesn’t participate in the postseason, the Harvard-Yale game is treated like a bowl game for both programs.

That was especially the case last year when the Crimson had a chance to wrap up an undefeated Ivy League championship with a victory over the Bulldogs. ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” pregame show even visited Harvard to hype the showdown.

“It was a wild scene,” says Rich, who arrived with his team on campus as the show started. “It was a blast to see everyone having a good time and getting ready for a great football game that’s always very competitive.”

Harvard went on to beat Yale 31-24, and Rich reveled in a postgame celebration that included him hoisting the Ivy League championship trophy in the air.

That moment increased Rich’s desire to do whatever he had to do in the offseason to earn a starting offensive lineman role this season. One morning last winter, he walked outside in a wind chill of minus-27 degrees at 5:30 a.m. in order to participate in a workout.

“That was by far one of the worst weather days of the year,” Rich says. “It was freezing, and there was a couple feet of snow on the ground. It was brutal.”

But it was all worth it when Harvard coach Tim Murphy informed Rich during spring practices that he would be the starting left tackle for the Crimson in 2015.

Rich hasn’t taken the role for granted. He took great pride in helping the Crimson’s offense outscore their first six opponents 304-47 this season. Then came a nationally televised game against Dartmouth on Oct. 30 that produced a different type of victory.

Trailing 13-0 after three quarters, Harvard rallied for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to escape with the 14-13 win and keep its unbeaten streak going.

“That was one of the most fun experiences of my life,” Rich says. “We didn’t play as well as we could, but we were confident we could come back.”

Rich also enjoyed Harvard’s 42-7 home win over Princeton on Oct. 24 because it gave him the opportunity to catch up with former Jesuit High teammate AJ Glass, a junior running back for the Tigers. Glass has rushed for 88 yards and one touchdown this season.

“We both know what each other is going through, so it’s great to have another person from Jesuit out here,” Rich says.

Harvard had a 22-game win streak until a loss to Penn on Nov. 14. The Crimson finished 9-1, beating Yale again, 38-19, on Nov. 21 in their season finale.

Jesuit football coach Ken Potter, who is in his 29th year, has several former players who have played or play for big-time FBS-level college programs. But Potter always is encouraged when a Crusaders athlete is able to continue his career in the Ivy League.

“Those kids who are able to go there do it for the right reasons,” Potter says. “They study really hard and play athletics for the fun of it. Those schools keep it all in perspective. I’m very proud of Max and AJ for accepting that challenge.”

Rich, who has an older sister living in Los Angeles and a twin sister who attends Texas Christian University, is unsure of what the future holds for him. A member of two state championship basketball teams at Jesuit, he would love a chance to continue playing football beyond college.

But his top priority is to continue making strides toward earning a coveted Harvard degree, which would help him stand out among other job candidates in the business world.

“That degree will be the culmination of a lot of hard work,” Rich says. “It’s been tough at times out here, being so far away from home and doing both school and football. But that degree will make it all worth it and show that I achieved everything I set out to do.”

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