Alex Spisak's football career nearly ended before it ever started.
When he was five years old, Spisak underwent surgery after being diagnosed with Arnold Kiari malformation, which is a deformity of the brain. He struggled with the diagnosis for many years, culminating two years ago when he was told his neck was too unstable to play the game he had loved since he was a child. Determined to find a way back onto the gridiron, Spisak continued to work hard and was given the green light to play again.
Now the 6-foot-3 center from Charlotte, N.C., is arguably one of the strongest players in the Ivy League, even after making a difficult transition from defense to the offense prior to last season. Spisak says he feels blessed being able to play each game and is interested in pursuing a professional career after graduation.
Spisak first visited Harvard while on a school trip to Boston during his senior year at Vance High School. After meeting with the coaches, he realized playing for the Crimson could become a reality so he decided to attend camp - a decision that only solidified hi college choice but started a journey that has seen him become the league's top center as well as one of the strongest football players at any level.
The appeal of playing at Harvard - besides the world-class education - was obvious to anyone who considers himself to be a competitor. Spisak believed he could be an asset to the team which every competitor guns for game in and game out. "Harvard is the ‘top dog' in the Ivy League and has been for some time," said Spisak. "So what better place to be than with the best, taking everyone's best shot each Saturday?"
As most high schoolers, Spisak played both ways as a defensive tackle and offensively lineman. He started on defense at Harvard but was moved to offensive because of his ability to pick up plays and pure strength. "Coach Murphy felt that I would make a bigger contribution playing on the offensive line," says Spisak. "I just wanted to play - it didn't matter to me which position it was but when coach Murphy sees something in a player he is usually correct so I was excited. So when he asked, I said yes, and the rest is history."
History is still being written, after he earned All-Ivy honors in his first year at center in 2008. Spisak says that what he loved about defense is what makes him good on offense. "I got to run around and hit people on defense. I always felt like an offensive linemen. I'm just natural at it. I was just born to play the O-line."
Spisak is glad he made the switch to the other side of the ball last year - also because of Harvard's notoriety of developing pro-caliber players on both sides. "I think I was an average defensive linemen to be honest. I'm not a Matt Curtis, a Dez Bryant or a Carl Ehrlich. For whatever reason, I have always been able to succeed on the offensive line," says Spisak.
He says that part of his success at center comes from his ability to handle the pivotal snap of the ball without any nervousness. "I must snap the ball at least a 100 times every day in practice and we practice four days a week. That is at least 400 snaps every week going into the game. It becomes almost fluid. It's second nature for me now."
Regardless of his success, Spisak says there are still tough parts about playing center. "Right from the get-go, snapping the ball puts me at a disadvantage because I only have one hand to use in blocing my opponent. It is especially tough going against guys that are really quick on the right side = the hand which I snap from. I have nothing to block them with," says Spisak. "It was a bit easier with Chris Pizzotti at QB last year because he was so tall. However, this year the quarterbacks are shorter so I have to be more accurate at getting the ball into their hands." Spisak has not mishandled a snap during a game and hopes to continue that success this season.
Spisak says that while he may be at a disadvantage blocking his opponents, he is confident in his blocking ability and strength. "It's all a game of leverage on the line - especially at center. The key is to have the right technique, which for me revolves around staying lower than those guys that are bigger than I am. It's actually harder to block guys that are smaller than me," says Spisak. "The smaller guys are lower than me, which makes it tougher get underneath them."
Spisak discloses that the secret to stopping the smaller people is body position. "I make sure I take the right steps off the ball. Being a member of the offense, I know where the ball is going, so that gives me a bit of an advantage to use against my opponent. Defenders have to react to what we do so it allows me to set the tone," Spisak said.
Spisak's weight room production has helped him tremendously with his game and blocking techniques. "Strength is something I've always prided myself on because it's always been something I've been good at. I like to believe I'm one of the hardest workers in the Ivy League in the weight room." He credits his success in the weight room to the fundamentals he learned in high school.
"I've always loved the weight room. It's a place that makes me feel at home," Spisak said. "Strength Coach James Frazier is doing a great job of really pushing me over the edge with his different routines." Spisak holds Harvard's power clean record of 385 pounds - a number unheard of at most Division I football schools. He is hoping to break 400 pound mark this spring before the NFL Draft because his ultimate goal is to be the only one on that level at the university.
Coach Murphy is impressed by the amount of work Spisak puts in both on and off the field. Of Spisak, Murphy says, "We've been fortunate to have some outstanding centers during our time at Harvard, but none better than Alex Spisak. As a coach, you appreciate him so much because of the exceptional commitment and dedication he has shown to Harvard football."
"Playing football here has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done," said Spisak. The guys that I have met and the people I have come into contact with are amazing," says Spisak. "I've always defined myself as a football player, but if I can't play on the next level, if it comes to an end after the Yale game in November, it will be a very bittersweet day."
Until then, Spisak is going to enjoy his senior season. "It's my ‘now'. Last year it was Matt Curtis and Erik Schultz's team. This year I feel like it is my team, it's Ben Sessions' team, it's Carl Ehrlich's team. It's our team."
Spisak is ready to take his turn at the helm to see how he does as a leader. "It's my turn to step up and be the guy you can turn to. I'm going to be the guy that is looked upon and counted on." Spisak hopes his leadership and his skill on the field will help his team to clinch his third straight Ivy League championship. The Crimson is off to a 3-0 start. Look for Alex today and see if his technique impresses you as much as the coaches.