Harvard tailback Cheng Ho establishes his own legacy
Harvard tailback Cheng Ho's lost his father to liver cancer when he was 12
His mother suffers from schizophrenia and lives in Taiwan
Ho will suit up for the 125th edition of The Game against Yale
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- At 12, Harvard tailback Cheng Ho remembers coming home from school on Wednesday afternoons, sitting in his living room to watch television and hearing shrieks come from behind his mother's bedroom door. "It was my mother's voice, but it wasn't really her," Ho said. "It was her illness."
Living with schizophrenia since Ho can recall, his mother, Hui-Chih Hsie, spent her days in isolation as he and his sister, Tien, who shared a bedroom in the family's Taipei, Taiwan, apartment, learned to care for each other. Meanwhile, their father, Chien Pen, a corporate lawyer dealing in mergers and acquisitions, suffered from his own ailments. Diagnosed with liver cancer eight years earlier, he prepared his children for life without him. "I would get mad when he'd ask us, 'What are you going to do when I'm no longer here?'" said Ho, who will suit up for Harvard in the 125th edition of The Game against Yale on Saturday afternoon. "I was na´ve to think he would always be alive."
With his children by his side, Chien Pen died that March. Unable to live alone with their mother, the siblings moved in with their paternal grandfather. As previously arranged before her brother's death, Beatrice Woo, the children's aunt, filed paperwork to adopt the siblings, and bring them to Martinez, Ga., to live with her and her husband. Six months later, the embassies gave their approval. Deciding the best care for the mother, the family enrolled her in a Taiwan mental health institution that had bars on its windows. "I just hated it," Ho said. "It seemed like a prison."
As an escape, Ho played basketball in Taiwan. Upon arriving in SEC country, he switched to football. Off the field, he was so shy he scurried from the door when the door bell rang. On the field, he enjoyed the aggressiveness, finding the passion infective and the pageantry invigorating. "Football's an outlet that you can use to relate in the South," said Ho, who entered the U.S. knowing little more than the English alphabet.
Increasingly immersed in the football culture, he befriended classmate Brad Freeman and grew close with his family, which owned season tickets to Georgia football games. Over the course of three years, he saw 12 games, both between the hedges and in other SEC cities. Drawn to the atmosphere, he wanted to play Division I football. "I didn't care where I went," said Ho, who starred at Evans High. "As long as it was Division I."
Ho sent highlight tapes to 45 schools and when he didn't receive much response, contacted another 35, including Harvard and Cornell. Harvard was the only one to reply. Laughing off their interest, he parlayed the Crimson's calls into a preferred walk-on offer from Georgia coach Mark Richt. "I told him to be a Saturday hero was great, but as good as he is, he may not see the next level as a pro," said Mike Bibee, the Evans offensive coordinator. "The decision had to be looking more after school than school itself."
Adds Ho: "My family told me I'd be the first person to turn down Harvard for Georgia."
After he took a visit north, Harvard informed Ho -- the co-salutatorian of his class at Evans -- that his SAT scores needed to improve. His math score was fine, but his verbal needed to come up. Suggesting he attend Avon Old Farms -- an all-boys prep school in Connecticut -- they assured him a spot if he increased his verbal. Offered free tuition, Ho enrolled at Avon -- experiencing a new world of wealth and snow. "In hindsight, it was a great stepping stone for Ivy life," Ho said.
His first season at Harvard, Ho fine-tuned his mechanics while playing behind Clifton Dawson, who is now an Indianapolis Colts reserve. Having run a 4.4 40 at Evans, he became more exacting in his cuts. Given the chance to play as a sophomore, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound back rushed for 722 yards on 152 carries and eight touchdowns and was named second-team All-Ivy. "Once you have a taste of success you want more," said Ho, who has been slowed by a right shoulder sprain this season and sat out last week against Penn. "You know what to look for."
Last May, Ho, who had been back to Taiwan once since leaving home, returned with his sister and aunt. Seeking out old basketball coaches and wearing Harvard gear, he caught up with old faces. One day, the three visited his mother -- who now lives in a nursing home -- a cleaner, more inviting institution. Wanting more time with her, Ho returned the day before he was to leave and took her out to lunch. For the first time, he says, he felt a strong motherly love.
"I've dug deep to understand the context of her struggle," said Ho, who calls his mother once a week. "She doesn't understand football and probably would be very much against me playing if she knew of the hitting. I'm pretty sure my father would be to. But I believe in miracles and everything happening for a reason."
On Saturday, Ho will walk among the 10,000 Men of Harvard inside the Stadium's reinforced concrete walls, for his third Harvard-Yale game. Upon taking the field as a freshman, he said, "I was just exhilarated. Looking around I couldn't find an empty seat."
This time, he will look up in the stands to see his aunt and uncle. "A lot of people have carried me to where I am," Ho said. "Hearing the cheers is always a nice sound."