Brogan McPartland realized pretty early on that he couldn’t have the ideal academic and athletic career that he initially envisioned when he enrolled at Harvard University.
His ability to embrace that helped him achieve things that only a select few people can claim.
The 2015 Sherando graduate is on track to graduate from Harvard this spring with a GPA of 3.6 following a fall semester that cemented his legacy forever with the Crimson football team.
The defensive end’s honors included leading the Ivy League in sacks, first team All-Ivy League, team MVP (based on the voting of his teammates), and second team Academic All-American.
Those athletic honors were achieved despite the 6-foot-4, 255-pound McPartland missing the first three games because of an injury. The applied mathematics major with a computer science concentration might not have a 4.0 GPA or a football All-America plaque, but he certainly has his admirers.
“There are a lot of special guys here at Harvard when it comes to the academic part of it, the athletic part of it,” said Logan Johnson, Harvard’s fifth-year defensive ends coach, in a phone interview earlier this month. “Everything that it takes, even among those guys, Brogan’s a guy that stands out. He’s someone you’re going to remember just because of the way he worked. He had a willingness and desire to go above and beyond in everything he did.”
Many high school sports stars can’t wait to begin their college athletic career. In recent years, some of the nation’s top college football players have elected to forego the second half of the senior year of high school so they can enroll in college for the spring semester. It allows them to get acclimated to their college’s training program, participate in spring ball and gives them a much earlier idea of what to expect compared to the freshmen who arrive on campus in the summer.
McPartland gave a verbal commitment to Harvard — an NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision school — in January of 2015. As a Sherando senior in 2014, McPartland was a Class 4 all-state second team selection and The Winchester Star’s Defensive Player of the Year. Of his 69 tackles, 40 resulted in lost yardage. McPartland had an area-best 19.5 sacks for the 9-3 Warriors.
But in April of 2015, he told the Crimson he wanted to wait a year before enrolling. McPartland took that time to participate in online courses, work in mobile computer development for Valley Health, and most importantly, get his mind right.
“I think having an extra year gave me an opportunity to really mature a lot,” said McPartland in a phone interview last week. “You see a lot of kids come in freshman year and they’re just really not ready for it mentally even if they are ready for it physically.
“I was kind of getting a feel for what life was like outside of school. I became more independent and mentally more mature.”
McPartland didn’t get much of a chance to show what he could do physically in the summer of 2016. Just three days into practice, McPartland suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot. (The Lisfranc joint is the point in which the long bones that lead up to the toes and the bones in the arch connect.) His season was over.
McPartland’s increased maturity played a role in helping him deal with the situation, but an even bigger aid to him was experience. As a junior at Sherando, McPartland only played in the season opener and in the state championship game (a contest he didn’t finish) because of a broken leg.
“Having [missed significant time] once before, I knew how to really pace myself and get back on the field,” said McPartland, who was able to return to action in January of 2017.
Once back on the field, McPartland began working toward becoming a factor in a 4-3 defense in which the Crimson make heavy use of their defensive linemen.
“We refer to how we use them as hockey lines,” Johnson said.
McPartland said the Crimson essentially use three groups of defensive linemen. The top group plays up to 40 snaps a game, the second group 30, and the third group 20. McPartland was able to carve out a role in the third group as a sophomore. He recorded nine tackles (2.5 for loss) and two sacks as Harvard went 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the Ivy League.
“The first thing that stood out to me was just his motor and his energy and the way that he played the game on the field,” Johnson said. “He’s just one of those guys who would not be denied.”
Because of the rotation, Johnson doesn’t put much emphasis on the “starter” designation. But McPartland did open games while continuing to play on the left edge of Harvard’s front as a junior.
Taking the field for 30 to 40 snaps per game, McPartland had 19 tackles, led the team with four sacks, and ranked second with eight tackles for loss as Harvard went 6-4 overall and 4-3 in league play. He also earned CoSIDA Academic All-District first team honors.
It was an admirable campaign, but McPartland didn’t think he was doing enough.
Healthy and hurting
Every athlete at their core enjoys playing the game. What isn’t always enjoyable is all the work that needs to be done leading up to game day.
While there’s nothing easy about lifting weights, there are plenty of athletes that enter the weight room with gusto. Athletes can track their progress by their ability to lift more weight. And if they like what the see in the mirror after a weightlifting session, that’s another incentive to attack lifting sessions harder.
Eating right and stretching though? That requires discipline. Stretching can be a tedious chore even if you’re pumping your favorite music into your ears to help pass the time.
McPartland was leaving nothing to chance this year, though. He ate better and treated stretching less like a warm-up, but more like an actual event by doing it for an hour each night.
“I got into this mentality that I was going to get every type of competitive advantage that I can,” McPartland said. “I went from eating a healthy diet to an incredibly clean diet.
“I ate almost exclusively chicken breast, brown rice, broccoli, and then right around that time I started stretching for an hour each day. I wouldn’t say I was stiff, but I became very flexible. It showed up on the field and in the way that I felt. It was kind of a body overhaul.”
So intent was McPartland on being the best that he could be in the offseason that he pushed himself beyond what his body could handle. Just before camp opened for Harvard, McPartland was “doing some pretty intense treadmill sprints” and he pulled his groin.
It would take another two weeks for McPartland to get that diagnosis though. Never having pulled a muscle before, he kept exercising through the injury. A week into camp, McPartland finally rendered himself inactive when he tried to explode off his left leg after backpedaling into coverage.
McPartland missed the last two weeks of preseason camp. He tried to come back for the season opener on Sept. 21 at San Diego, but in warm-ups the day before the game he realized he wasn’t healthy enough. In retrospect, McPartland said his desire to not miss any game action might have delayed his season debut.
“I was definitely worried,” McPartland said. “With soft tissue, you really don’t know when it’s 100 percent ready. Testing [a groin injury] involves going through a range of motion that can hurt it more.”
McPartland missed three games and was cleared to return for the Oct. 12 game against Cornell. And from there, it was full-speed ahead.
McPartland had two sacks in his season debut against Cornell (a 35-22 win), setting the tone for a season in which he would league the Ivy League with 9.5 sacks. In total, McPartland would finish with 13.5 tackles for loss (his 1.69 per game led the league) among his 36 tackles.
A week later in a 31-21 win against Holy Cross, McPartland had three tackles, including two sacks totaling 20 yards in losses. McPartland received the team MVP award for the game, was named the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week and was a STATS FCS National Defensive Player of the Week honorable mention selection.
That first couple of games confirmed to McPartland that the steps he had taken in the offseason had him on the right path. In addition to improving his diet and becoming more flexible, McPartland added 10 pounds of muscle and also asked the coaching staff if he could line up on the right side occasionally so he could make some blind-side rushes at the quarterback, which is a predominately right-handed position.
“There was a lot of hype, at least in my own head, about what I was going to be able to do, and I wasn’t able to go out and show it,” McPartland said. “When you haven’t played in so long sometimes you start to second guess yourself and you wonder if you’re going to have the season you expected and other people expect you to have.”
With a talented group of defensive linemen to work with, McPartland said opposing teams couldn’t afford to focus their blocking schemes on one particular player. (Harvard’s 42 sacks were 16 more than any other team in the Ivy League. McPartland was one of three Crimson with at least 5.5 sacks.)
McPartland went on to record at least half a sack in all but one his seven games (the one game he didn’t, he had eight tackles, six of the solo variety against Columbia) and McPartland had at least one TFL in every game.
McPartland was entrusted by the coaching staff to average 50 snaps per game. They needed him on the field and they trusted his intelligence and instincts. Johnson said there were times when they’d see McPartland do something they didn’t expect him to do on the field, and when questioned about it after coming off the field, he’d provide perfectly logical reasoning.
McPartland’s intelligence played just as big a role as his athleticism when it came to causing havoc in the backfield.
“There are a lot of really bright kids at Harvard, but even for our standards, he’s an outlier when it comes to intelligence on the field,” Johnson said. “He just understands the pass rush game in such a way that when he comes off the ball, he can diagnose very quickly what move he should go to, whether it’s a speed rush coming off the edge or a power rush.
“He’s at his best when he’s coming off the edge and putting a quick move on an offensive tackle. But if an offensive tackle has a little bit of a deeper set when he’s anticipating the speed rush, he can turn that into a counter power move because he does have that power ability. Some games, just regardless of what the scheme was, regardless of who the tackle was, they just couldn’t block him.”
As it turned out, the game against Holy Cross would be Harvard’s last win of the year — not that McPartland didn’t do his best to secure some victories.
He was part of a strip-sack and fumble recovery against then unbeaten Dartmouth (7-0) on Nov. 2 with 1:19 left, only to see the Big Green throw a 43-yard Hail Mary TD pass on the final play of the game to win 9-6.
In the season finale against heavily favored Yale at Harvard in the 136th edition of “The Game,” McPartland had two sacks and forced a fumble. In a game marked by climate change protests at halftime that delayed the game for nearly an hour, the Bulldogs (9-1) rallied from a 15-3 halftime deficit to win 50-43 in double overtime.
“That game is going to be hard to forget for a lot of reasons,” McPartland said. “I guess there’s no crazier way to go out then playing a two-overtime game against your rival in their stadium.”
McPartland said he’d probably would have done better in the classroom if it wasn’t for football, and if he put less emphasis on his studies, he probably could have done better in football. But it’s clear he found a pretty good balance.
The accolades for McPartland poured in after the season. Other honors that came McPartland’s way were selection to the New England Football Writers Division I Team, ECAC second team, and academic All-Ivy and All-District. Earlier in the season McPartland was also named a semifinalist for the national William V. Campbell Trophy, which recognizes excellence in football, academics and leadership.
McPartland said it meant a lot to see those people outside the Harvard program recognize his academic and athletic prowess. For his peers to recognize him as team MVP is something else he won’t forget.
“We had a great group of guys, and I feel like I had a good relationship with everyone on the team,” McPartland said. “We just overall had really good team chemistry. You really can’t beat that. Having guys you battle with every single day, every single week feel that way about you, there’s really no way to describe it.”
As McPartland gets closer to graduation he’ll likely have a better idea of his career prospects. Though his football career is complete, the experiences he had with the Harvard football program will likely serve him well.
“Now that [football] is over, it makes you think about how much you’ve grown through the process,” McPartland said. “When I first came here I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. But trusting that hard work does pay off and always will, and seeing where it leads ... it just feels great to see where I’ve come from being a senior in high school.”