Ivy League additions help Colts keep smart edge

Former Harvard linebacker Zack Hodges participates in the Indianapolis Colts minicamp for rookies. (Photo courtesy Indianapolis Colts)

Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Zack Hodges said football is a highly intellectual game. And with the Colts having six players on the roster from either Stanford, Harvard or Yale, including Hodges, they might be the smartest team in football.

“Maybe, maybe not,” said Hodges, who played at Harvard and was twice named the Ivy League’s Defensive Player of the Year. “We’ll see as soon as the season starts.”

Only their AFC archrival, the New England Patriots, come close to the Colts’ brain trust, having four players from Stanford or Ivy League schools on the roster.

Former Yale running back Tyler Varga participates in the Indianapolis Colts minicamp for rookies. (Photo courtesy Indianapolis Colts)
Former Yale running back Tyler Varga, above, and former Harvard linebacker Zack Hodges, top, participate in the Indianapolis Colts minicamp for rookies. (Photos courtesy Indianapolis Colts)

Before the draft, the Colts had three Stanford players in quarterback Andrew Luck, tight end Coby Fleenor and wide receiver Griff Whalen. The team added Stanford defensive tackle David Parry to the roster in the fifth round of this year’s draft and also selected Cardinal defensive end Henry Anderson in the third round. Anderson is still unsigned.

The team added to its pigskin precocity after the draft, signing Hodges and Yale running back Tyler Varga.

“Intelligence doesn’t just come from the Ivy League. There are many guys on this team who are really smart,” Varga said.

Said backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck: “You have to be smart to be on this team because of our coaching staff. They are brilliant.”

Hasselbeck often tweets about getting his teammates to help with homework and said finding good homework help, even on the smartest NFL team, goes beyond where his teammates went to college.

“It’s about how young you are and how recently you’ve studied grammar, math, geography, a foreign language and science,” Hasselbeck said. “The big one is math. I can get the answer, but I get it in a different way than the kids are learning.”

Has Hasselbeck enlisted Varga to help with his children’s homework?

“Not at this point, but I’m happy to help,” Varga said.

Having smart players can only help the team, Varga said, because the fewer mistakes the team makes, the better it will be.

But the learning curve is steep, even for Varga, who earned his degree in ecology and evolutionary biology on May 17, because a new NFL system features players who are bigger, stronger and faster than most college players he faced.

“I am learning my assignments in all phases of the game,” he said. “I need to know what I am doing. I’m taking a lot of mental reps because the new guys don’t get put in for too many plays.”

Varga said in addition to learning new offensive schemes and a new culture, he’s also learning how to play special teams.

“In college, you pretty much play offense or defense. Now I’m learning special teams plays, and I think I’m catching on quickly,” he said.

Catching on quickly may be attributed to Varga’s work ethic.

“It comes down to diligence. Studying is studying,” he said. “But you also have to have the ability to adapt. Taking a lot of different classes in college teaches you different ways to learn. That’s the beauty of a liberal arts education. You take different approaches to studying different subjects.”

Last month, while many of his peers were focused on the NFL Draft, Varga was focused on a 30-page thesis about a gene in mice that may hold a key to a breakthrough for Type 2 diabetes and a 20-page paper on the evolution of the human shoulder.

“I got it in on time, and I earned an A on it,” said Varga, who has plans to go to medical school once his football career ends.

Hodges still has a semester left at Harvard after taking off this spring to focus on football, and he plans to earn his diploma next year.

When his football career ends, Hodges said he hopes he’s made others better.

“My goal is to be helpful,” he said. “I want to increase the value in others around me, whether they interact with me from close or afar.

“I learned a long time ago that my essence of being is in my values and my character and the things I hold most critical. You can do any job. But it isn’t about how you do it, it’s about how you carry yourself. What you do doesn’t speak to who you are.”

So don’t judge these two bookworms by their covers.

Stacie Shain

Stacie Shain is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Ky.