TAMPA — Shortly after today's Bucs practice, rookie tight end Cameron Brate will hurry to the airport to catch a plane to Boston.
On Thursday morning, he'll graduate from Harvard with an economics degree, and then he'll fly back to Tampa, putting one promising future on hold for his hopes of another one on the football field.
"This is definitely harder," said Brate, asked how the offense he's trying to learn compares to the challenges of his first classes in Cambridge. "Once you get the base down, everything builds off of that in economics. One thing that Harvard helped me out with was teaching me how to learn efficiently."
If his next two days seem like a tricky juggling act, consider two weeks ago, when he was a tryout player at Vikings minicamp. His day started at 6 a.m., and after a full 14 hours of practices and meetings, he met a Harvard-approved proctor in the lobby of the team hotel at 8 p.m. to take his final college exam.
"It was tough to balance it," the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder said of his double-duty. "I had to learn a whole new system when I was up there, and I studied a bunch leading up to it because I knew I was going to be in that situation. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I'll never have a day like that again."
Brate flew to Tampa for a workout last week and landed a free-agent contract. He led the Crimson with five touchdowns last season, finishing with 25 catches for 403 yards. He's one of six tight ends on roster, competing for three or four spots that survived the final 53-man cut in August.
Few have been able to do what Brate seeks to accomplish. In the past 94 years, only 41 players have gone from Harvard to the NFL. The Bucs have never had a Harvard graduate make their roster, and in 38 seasons, just five Ivy Leaguers have played in a game as Bucs. Only two have made more than a one-game cameo — Cornell's Tom McHale from 1987-92 and Yale's Nate Lawrie in 2004-05.
"You expect a guy from Harvard not to make a lot of mental mistakes," coach Lovie Smith said Tuesday. "He hasn't, but it was more than that. He came in and we saw athletic ability. We saw a tight end that could run, caught the ball well and made some plays."
At Harvard, Brate was a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, known as the "academic Heisman." He isn't sure where his degree will take him — he interned last summer at a hedge fund in Boston — but now finds himself living a dream. As if being on an NFL roster isn't enough, he grew up "a huge Bears fan" in Napierville, Ill., watching Smith coach his favorite team for nine years.
Brate faces long odds to survive as an undrafted rookie, but the Bucs saw an unheralded tight end do just that last year in Tim Wright. Brate will have a Harvard degree to fall back on, but his immediate focus is on extending his football career as long as possible.
"When you're coming in behind the eight-ball a little bit, you've got to come in and make the coaches take notice," Smith said. "He did that, catching the ball and knowing what to do."