|« 5 questions with Weber State LB Nick Webb||Rivalry goes back long way for Toreros twins »|
Total control: Yale QB Witt talks football, Rhodes
Welcome to the palace,” says Patrick Witt, JE ’12, by way of apology.
The staircase of the DKE fraternity house is strewn with Styrofoam cups. There is a shoe on top of a bookshelf, a coffee mug perched on a fence post. Three couches sit on the front porch, their cushions sagging, the pillows mismatched.
He sighs. “I’m sorry the common areas are so messy. My room’s the cleanest in the house.”
We climb up three flights of stairs. Patrick looms large in the narrow space, a calm giant. At the top, he pushes open his door, and I have the sudden impression that perhaps I should take off my shoes.
It looks like a model home, or a page in the dorm section of a decorating magazine. The posters hang straight and smooth, the red rug sets off the classic navy bedspread. And that gleaming floor—has he actually polished it? I take my seat gingerly on an American-flag-patterned chair.
“You’re right. This is nice.”
There is little in the room to suggest that Patrick Witt is more than a very clean frat boy, but a few details stand out. On the bulletin board is a picture of three guys in lettermen’s jackets; on one wall hangs an old-style poster of a Harvard-Yale football game. Granted, these would fit in many a dorm room; here, though, they take on an extra gravitas—this room is the home of Yale’s starting quarterback.
Witt has been playing for the Bulldogs for three years. He joined the team as a sophomore transfer in 2009. This season, they have a 2-1 record, after falling to Lehigh 37-17 last Saturday. They will face Dartmouth at home this Saturday at noon, and are looking to turn things around.
Coach Tom Williams said it shouldn’t be difficult. He attributed the loss at Lehigh to a failed execution of routine plays. The team isn’t in need of any major shake-up, he said, just a better execution of what they already know how to do.
“What happened at Lehigh was we turned the ball over five times and we dropped eight passes; we roughed the kicker one time, and we missed a field goal, all in the first half…we need to make those plays, and go back to being the team we’d been in those first few weeks,” Williams said. Witt agreed.
“I’m looking forward to getting back on track this weekend. We still have a very good football team, and our goal to win the Ivy League championship is still very much attainable,” he said. “Saturday will be a true character test to see how our team responds to adversity.”
A typical answer—Witt sometimes sounds like a politician. He is careful, controlled, guarded. He never swears. He rarely relies on “um.” When he slipped up on grammar—only once, saying “him and I” instead of “he and I”—he corrected himself instantly. At 6’4”, the quarterback moves slowly, like a smooth cruise ship. Crossing the street with him is a comforting experience; you get the sense that he’d never dash recklessly in front of a car, but that if he did, it would be the car that should worry.
“I like to be in control a little, I guess,” Witt said, when I asked him why he plays football. “I can’t imagine playing any position other than quarterback. It would be bizarre, to be in a position of dependence like that.” Growing up in Georgia with parents intent on raising two “all-American” brothers, not playing football was hardly an option. He was also a baseball pitcher, and said that a position on the mound held a special appeal. Theoretically, if he pitched a perfect game, no one else would have to do anything at all.
“That might sound a little selfish,” he said, catching himself. “But it’s true. It’s the same on offense. Every play starts with you.”
Witt says that when he first arrived at Yale as a transfer student from the University of Nebraska, he spent a full year hanging back and keeping his head down. Another sophomore was in line for his job, and he said he would have felt awkward giving pump up speeches, standing in the center of a huddle and telling his teammates to aim high and never give up; who would listen to the new guy?
Williams likened Witt’s transition to “moving to a new neighborhood.” It wasn’t always easy, he said, but the quarterback paid his dues. Still, Witt remembers those early days as a difficult time.
“I felt like an outsider looking in,” he said.
It’s 7AM and the field is hushed and rainy. Thursday morning practice is the last early day of the week for the football team. Defensive end coach Doug Semones strides over before things get started and warns me that I might want to move away from the speaker. “It’s gonna get loud. Oh, and”— he covers his ears and grins—“put your earmuffs on. There’ll be profanity.”
He’s not wrong. The first song, which blasts from the speakers after the warning peal of a bullhorn, is “Welcome to the Hood.” The boys walk to the sidelines and begin group stretches to the thump of the bass. I find Witt—he’s wearing jersey number seven and going quietly through his paces. He later tells me that during practice, he’s picturing his teammates in the colors of the team they’ll face that weekend (red and white this time, for Cornell). He asserts himself as a leader only once, yelling out, “Pick up the pace!” as the group moves from one lunge to another.
After warm-ups, Witt steps off to the side to practice his throws. The aim is to skim the surface of the goal post. He does it on his first try, and a teammate whoops in appreciation (“P Witt!”). Witt doesn’t respond. The quarterback no longer has much to prove; he’s currently ranked as the most accurate passer in Yale’s history. Still, at practice, Witt keeps his head down. It’s just his way.
Maybe it’s the Southern upbringing. Witt spent most of his childhood in Lilburn, Georgia, a wealthy suburb of Atlanta. It’s a small town—recent editions of The Lilburn News include such headlines as “Hidden world of storm drains.” Witt describes it as “pretty much what you’d expect from Everytown, America.” Boys played sports, 16 year-olds expected cars, and kids learned to say “yes ma’m” and hold the door.
The family moved before his senior year to Wylie, TX. As one of the state’s top players, Witt drew the attention of Big 12 teams. His brother, Jeff, had played quarterback for Harvard until he suffered a bad shoulder injury. But Witt decided that the Ivy League wasn’t for him. He was graduating from Wylie High with a 4.72 GPA, but he wanted to play football at Nebraska.
Four years later, sitting across from me at a dark wooden table in Yale’s Commons dining hall, Witt says he was wrong. “As wise and mature as you might be, or think you are, your perspective changes as you get older,” he said. Two years into his stint with the Huskers, in hot competition for the starting quarterback position, he realized he wanted more.
“Being in a locker room where the mantra is ‘Cs get degrees,’ I was upset that all these guys would eventually carry the same degree I would. You can distinguish yourself to some degree with GPA, and I did, but it’s not the same.”
Before spring training, Witt requested a release from his scholarship. He hadn’t yet talked to other coaches, per college football rules. He wasn’t sure where, or if, he’d play the following year. To the careful quarterback, such uncertainty was terrifying.
“You have to walk away from a free education before you know if there’s anyone else out there that wants you,” he said.
Luckily, someone did. After reviewing Witt’s record and transcript, Yale’s coaches walked him through the transfer process and onto the field. The quarterback has found the academics up to snuff. He’s a history major, writing his senior thesis on King Cotton economics in the Confederate South. Late in our conversation, he casually lets slip that he has just been endorsed for the Rhodes and Mitchell scholarships.
“So, that’s exciting.”
He finds the football exciting, too. The level of competition in the Ivy League is high. This he emphasizes; his teammates play well, his coaches are strong, and the opposing teams keep him on his toes.
“The only thing you’re going to miss,” he says, “is…the stands aren’t exactly packed on Saturdays.”
No kidding. The Yale Bowl seats 61,466, but at many home games, attendance hovers around 3,000. Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium seats 81,067—and it’s often full to capacity.
Rarely does Witt admit to an ego, but in describing the empty stands and the general apathy towards the game, he cracks a little. “If I’m going out on a Saturday night after a win, I might be thinking, oh, everyone’s going to know how well I did today.” He pauses, embarrassed to admit the thought, then shrugs. “They have no idea. They don’t care. They don’t know what football is.”
Still, Witt is the first to say that football and class are better left in separate worlds. He apologized to me for wearing workout clothes to our first meeting. Normally he dresses preppy, he said, but today he hadn’t had the time.
“Why do judges wear robes? It’s a matter of mentality. When you put on a robe, you act differently. It’s the same with school. It’s part of a pattern of excellence that extends through your entire day.” He catches a note of superiority in his tone, and quickly clarifies, “I’m not saying I don’t wear sweats to class sometimes—I do. But I try to dress like a student in class, and a player on the field.”
Witt is a man of two worlds. Next year, he’ll choose between them: Maybe he’ll take a post-grad scholarship, maybe he’ll accept the full time job he’s been offered at Boston Consulting, or maybe he’ll go pro. There was a guy with a clipboard from the Indianapolis Colts at Thursday’s workout session, and another from the Seattle Seahawks. Patrick said there’s been about one scout per day all season—19 teams in all.
“I might play in the pros, if the opportunity presents itself. All options are on the table right now.”
Again, he catches the hint of ego, the suggestion that maybe he thinks he’s a pretty successful guy. He backtracks, rephrases, gets things under control.
“I know. It’s a good problem to have.”
By Sally Helm, The Yale Herald