Brains and brawn: MIT football undefeated, still really smart

MIT players hold up the New England Football Conference trophy. (Credit: MIT athletics)

Ask a quarterback about the perfect spiral and he'll likely speak of the feeling when the ball leaves his hand, or the pristine arc through the air, or how easy it is for a receiver to catch.

Quarterback Peter Williams can describe the perfect spiral a little differently:

"It ensures the stability of the ball," he said Tuesday. "A lot of factors that go into it. It helps reduce the overall drag."

Williams is a quarterback who happens to be majoring in aero astroengineering. At MIT.

"It's similar to mechanical engineering," Williams said, " but I like the subject a lot more. It's pretty difficult."

This weekend, Williams will hand off to senior running back Justin Wallace, who is taking courses this semester including advanced algorithms, advanced computer architecture, and a project involving "thermo sensors and optical range finders."

Their senior teammate, middle linebacker Cam Wagar, is developing an app that allows cyclists to create the feeling of inclines while riding on a level path.

"We have a lab tomorrow morning to figure that out," he explained.

Justin Wallace is averaging 158 rushing yards per game and has scored 16 TDs this season. (Credit: MIT athletics)
Justin Wallace is averaging 158 rushing yards per game and has scored 16 TDs this season. (Credit: MIT athletics)

Feel free to call these guys nerds – they've heard clunky zingers from opponents like "Go do your homework!" – but know the MIT Engineers are 9-0 and headed to the Division III playoffs this weekend in Maine. They are a part of one of the most rapidly ascending football programs in the nation. Only a few years ago, the team didn't recruit much at all outside the campus. Some of the assistant coaches are still volunteers. But now the team is comprised of guys who are standouts in games as well as game theory, and the fans are lining up on the parking deck across from the field to watch them play.

"The band has been to the last two [games]," Wagar said. "I don't know if it was random or whatnot."

Granted, none of these student-athletes are bound for your NFL fantasy team. Division III players rarely go pro (Mount Union stars Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts III notwithstanding). MIT's opponents include Maine Maritime and Salve Regina, not B.C. and UMass. And when asked if he's recognized on campus as the star quarterback, Williams says, "By my friends; other than that, not really."

But this is a success story nonetheless: MIT was 6-3 last season, and that was the school's best record since 1999. This year, the Engineers have yet to lose. They face Husson this Saturday in Bangor, Maine, and they believe they can go deep into the playoffs.

"We've just been getting better and better," said Wallace. "It's a lot about family, building each other up, more than just football. We know we can win."

That confidence has had a unique obstacle: the players are too smart for their own good. They are some of the best young minds on the planet, and they can't help but analyze everything.

"I tend to overthink a lot," said Wagar. "First couple games [at middle linebacker] I struggled with my reads. There would be times I would just freeze because I was thinking too much."

Of course the benefits of a beautiful mind outweigh the costs. Williams is already eyeing his post-grad life, having had interviews with Amazon about a possible job "doing the drone work." Next year, instead of working on dropping passes into the corner of the end zone, he might be working on dropping boxes of Pampers into your neighbor's yard. For now, he's spending his days in a campus wind tunnel, designing a wing sail.

That's considered normal at MIT. Wallace, only the second player in program history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season, is studying artificial intelligence and may be spending the next 10 years designing anything from a spacecraft to driverless cars. Williams, when asked to name the most impressive person he's met at school, mentioned his adviser, who is president of a school in Russia.

But to a man, all of these players would rather talk about their upcoming bus ride to Maine. This is their release from the stress of labs and projects. "We're going to go out and party," Wagar said of the game plan. "We don't care how many yards we give up as long as we play physical, rush to the ball, hit everybody as hard as we can."

(Photo credit: MIT athletics)
(Photo credit: MIT athletics)

They are pioneers of sorts, many of them coming from across the country to lay the foundation for a better football tradition. The team used to be 40 or 50 guys plucked from campus; now head coach Chad Martinovich is reaching out to all corners of the country. Wallace is from Chicago; Williams is from Portland.

"When I came on my visit, I really liked the people," the quarterback said. "The football team was up and coming and the players and coach were making it better."

Football is, of course, only the latest reason to come to MIT. There's the Boston area, the deep history of the place – the stadium is named for George Steinbrenner's father, who was a champion hurdler there – and the quirky aspects, like the beaver mascot being called "Tim" because that's MIT backward.

Oh, there's also the education.

The only drawback any of the players mention is that the home-field stands aren't the best.

"It was up to par back in the day," Wagar said. "It's just outdated."

If only there were someone on campus with the expertise to design a better version.

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