From the Ivy League to the Big League: Anthony Firkser’s NFL Dream
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because “jack-of-all-trades” may seem like a compliment, but it’s a sneaky phrase.
Harvard, leading by seven, is nearing halftime at the big game, known appositely as “The Game,” against rival Yale. Three minutes till the half. Crimson tight end Anthony Firkser decides it’s time for some heroics.
On third-and-5, quarterback Scott Hosch drops back and makes a throw that’s on such a rope it has no business being caught. Firkser, running a flag route, is caught up in tight man coverage. As Harvard head coach and tight ends coach Tim Murphy, who recruited Firkser as a high school wide receiver out of Manalapan High School in Englishtown, New Jersey, recalls of the 2015 game with a laugh, “He’s not really open.” Firkser gets his dominant arm pinned against his body, leaps up and brings in the one-handed, left-handed catch. After, he can’t contain his grin as he jogs back to the line. Just like they drew it up, right?
“You see all the guys on the Yale bench just look at each other and go, ‘What the heck do we need to do?’ ” Murphy says.
There’s no denying the versatility the 6′2″, 240-pound Firkser brought to the table as a weapon in Murphy’s up-tempo offense, which relies heavily on the tight end and H-back positions. Firkser, 22, is the latest prospect from a position group that has produced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Cameron Brate, the Chicago Bears’ Ben Braunecker and the San Francisco 49ers’ Kyle Juszczyk, the latter of whom just became the NFL’s highest-paid fullback. And while Firkser would have to face down much tougher rivals than Yale in the NFL, his ability to play all over the field means he stands a chance at being picked in the later rounds of this month’s NFL draft. “Being able to be versatile on an NFL team would give me a great opportunity to get on the field in any way possible,” Firkser tells OZY. Like any hungry prospect, he’s willing to start on special teams to eventually earn a role on offense.
Murphy calls his tight ends and H-backs ‘the SEALs of the offensive unit.’
This is Murphy’s philosophy, Firkser recounts to OZY three nights before his pro day. In film sessions, Murphy teaches his athletes to “be able to do everything possible, whether it’s blocking on the line, running routes, playing fullback and leading through the hole.” This attitude is what has helped Murphy build a dynamic offense and send so many players to the NFL from Harvard. Murphy calls his tight ends and H-backs “the SEALs of the offensive unit,” because they have to be so versatile; on many other college squads, they’re simply big receivers.
But coming out of Harvard, and the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), which generally incubates less star-studded talent because of limits on scholarships, Firkser faces a difficult path to the NFL. Going for the NFL from Harvard isn’t like shooting for the pros out of Alabama. While Juszczyk was drafted outright by the Baltimore Ravens, the rest of those Crimson players earned their way onto an NFL roster as undrafted free agents, meaning they received offers to sign with a team after going undrafted. It will be even more challenging for Firkser; though Brate and Braunecker entered the draft as tight-end prospects, Firkser projects best as an NFL fullback, a position that only accounts for three or four draft selections in any given year. But Bleacher Report NFL lead scout Matt Miller thinks Firkser’s receiving ability resembles the successful Juszczyk. “Being a utility player on offense will be a great calling card for him.”
And as the four-year, $21 million deal that the 49ers offered fullback Juszczyk demonstrates, the position — and its value — is experiencing a revival. Traditionally thought of as a big blocker for the halfback carrying the ball, the fullback or H-back of today’s NFL frequently handles the ball himself. The position can assume the duties of a fullback, a halfback, a slot receiver, a wide receiver or a tight end on any given snap — without ever having to substitute the personnel on the field. As defenses get smaller, “versatility on offense is more important than ever, so you can disguise formations in the huddle,” Miller says. He adds, “[Firkser] is the most gifted of all the receivers we’ve had who have played tight end.”
Football wasn’t always Firkser’s main focus. Even while committing to Harvard, Firkser told Murphy he wanted to “give basketball a shot.” He didn’t make the team, and turned to football quickly. The applied mathematics major put on about 20 pounds to convert his body from that of a high school wideout to a tight end, and he threw himself into learning complicated run schemes and blocking techniques after having mainly only blocked cornerbacks and safeties.
Growing up in New Jersey, the son of a software engineer and a sales rep, Firkser and his brother played soccer and basketball. The now-star didn’t start football until sophomore year; he credits competing and training with elder brother Josh and friends for helping him develop a slight edge over his peers.
Firkser wasn’t invited to the NFL combine in February. He did participate in Harvard’s pro day on March 13, where he ran a 4.79-second 40-yard dash and benched 21 reps of 225 pounds — better results than projected top fullback prospect Sam Rogers. And Firkser will wait for a call during the draft April 27 through 29. But even if his phone doesn’t ring by the final selection on Day 3, he might sign as an undrafted free agent, which would give him the freedom to choose a franchise that would get him on the field. Miller says Firkser “could definitely” get play as a free agent if he goes undrafted.
“You just need that one team,” Firkser says.