Profile of Noah Van Neil
By Perry Barlow
At Harvard we are used to hearing about student-athletes who set themselves apart from the rest of us. We might hear of the swimmer who speaks five languages, the golfer who has sailed around the world, or the field hockey player who is destined to be a great neurobiologist. Every so often, however, an athlete comes along who manages to go above and beyond the rest—a person who makes even the most successful individual experience a combination of both envy and admiration. Meet: Noah Van Niel—your local poetry loving-humanitarian inclined-star fullback who also happens to be an unbelievably talented…opera singer?
That’s right, there appears to reside within our midst a Madame Butterfly trapped in football pads. Head Harvard Football Coach, Tim Murphy, labels Van Niel a “true Renaissance Man… even at a place like Harvard he distinguishes himself as a very interesting and amazing kid.” Although football has consumed the majority of his time while at Harvard, Van Niel could have easily chosen to go to a conservatory and focus primarily on his musical talents. Instead he chose a place where great music and athletics were only two of many opportunities offered. At Harvard, Van Niel has been able to pursue his wide range of interests and talents to a much greater extent.
Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, Van Niel played a number of different sports including soccer and basketball. He distinguished himself as one of the top swimmers in the Northeast between the ages of 13 and 14 years old and even recognizes some rivals from his youth on the current Harvard swim team. However, despite his gifts as a swimmer, it was football that really captured his attention. As Van Niel recalls, “It was really what my body was best built for and suited for and ultimately where my passion was. I loved playing these other sports but there was just something about football and the intensity and the toughness and the physicality of it that I really enjoyed.”
Starting in seventh grade (“I was too big for Pop Warner,” Van Niel jokes”), Noah quickly emerged as a standout fullback and became a three-year starter on Newton North’s high school team as well as an all-city selection. Although his father, Anthony Van Niel ’74, played soccer for the Crimson during his time at Harvard, Noah claims to have felt no pressure to play the legacy card: “[my parents] just told me-- go and follow your passions and interests, and wherever that leads you… great.”
Now in his third year as a Crimson football player, Van Niel has proven himself to be a worthwhile addition to the team and has caught the eye of Coach Murphy, who remarked: “Noah was not necessarily a top recruit but has forced his way to the top of the depth chart—almost willed it to happen—through hard work and very few mistakes.” According to Van Niel’s best friend since elementary school, Peter Mayers, this has always been Noah’s MO: “Even at a young age Noah demanded people’s attention. Not only because he was louder and bigger than everyone else, but because his drive, and intensity, and incredible gifts made him stand out.”
Long before Van Niel began standing out on the football field, however, he was busy developing a very different talent—singing. “My mom likes to take credit for it because she says she liked to play opera when I was in the womb to help calm her down.” Although he was exposed to great operas like La Traviata from a young age, Van Niel’s voice was not mature enough to sing opera yet, so he began auditioning and starring in musical theater. Headlining one of the foremost theater programs in the Northeast at
One of the things Van Niel has enjoyed most about his Harvard teammates since joining the team is their understanding and interest in his unusual passion. While he may receive the occasional barb in the locker room, Noah says one of the greatest things about Harvard is that, “We don’t have ‘dumb jocks’ here who just play football and that’s all they do. These guys are interested in other things—they’re intelligent, they can appreciate an opera or a piece of art. Obviously there aren’t any other opera singers on the team but there are other people who do other things.”
When he got to Harvard in the fall of 2004 he had no trouble connecting with other gifted musicians who, like Van Niel, most likely could have gone to the musical conservatory of their choice had they not preferred the option of a liberal arts education. Van Niel was especially drawn to the Dunster House Opera Society, which is the only all-undergraduate opera house on campus. Now the president, Van Niel says he has loved being surrounded by people who love opera and love to perform opera, but he still holds no regrets over not choosing to go to a music conservatory: “I think it would be too limiting to have just a music education. There is so much richness to the world—which is enhanced by the musical aspect—but not strictly limited to that.”
While Noah has been enjoying his decision to go to a liberal arts college, he has not ruled out the option of an operatic career in the future. In fact, there are many who believe he could be successful should he ever choose go in that direction. One such person is his music teacher of almost six years,
Boston University’s Director of Opera Programs, Sharon Daniels, who had this to say about Van Niel: “In my 20-year experience of auditioning, working with, and teaching young singers, I find him to be among a handful of truly exceptional talents…. Noah's unique vocal talent along with his intellect, love of languages, musicality, and personal depth as a human being, give him the potential of becoming a truly great artist.”
Oh yeah, and was it mentioned yet that on top of all of this incredible talent he is a really great person as well? As if he did not have enough on his plate already, Van Niel lists his community service projects at the Phillips Brooks House Association as equally important to any of his musical or athletic activities. As Coach Murphy remarked, “Not only is he a great athlete and very musically talented, but he also gives as much time to community service—more than just about anyone else on our team.” This past summer Van Niel devoted his time teaching an ESL (English as a Second Language) course to high school age immigrants and refugees who are from inner-city Boston. For three hours a day every Monday through Friday, Van Niel would work with these kids in an effort to help them function more successfully in society. It seems difficult for him to understand how someone could not be drawn to help those in their surrounding community. “If you can help change someone else’s life for the better—whether they be underprivileged or right here at Harvard—then I consider it a real challenge and a duty of every human being to do so, not just the ones who happen to go to the best university in the world… but especially those.”
Van Niel’s kindness and compassion for those around him have not gone unnoticed. Whenever people are asked to comment on Noah’s extensive list of accomplishments, they tend to remark instead primarily on what an exceptionally sensitive and considerate person he is. As Mayers points out, “Although focused on achieving his goals, he fiercely loves his family and friends. To this day, he still doesn't mind kissing his family in front of his buddies.” Noah credits this to being a very religious person who has been given so many blessings and gifts in his lifetime that he feels there is no excuse for not sharing his joy with those around him. Van Niel’s Harvard roommate, Kieran Burke, adds: “He is one of the most down to earth people I know…. The thing that amazes me the most about him is his ability to stay disciplined and work hard at all of his interests yet stay relaxed and happy.”
So what’s next for Noah? In addition to continuing his career as a Crimson football player, Van Niel plans to write an English concentrator’s thesis examining either an opera or the works of his four favorite British poets. From there, Noah hopes to apply to graduate schools with opera programs and begin pursuing his dream of a career in music. Regardless of the actual steps he chooses to take, it is not a question of whether Van Niel will succeed in life—it is a question of how many people he will influence along the way. Should he ever achieve his ultimate dream of singing in the “Superbowl of opera” at the Metropolitan Opera —we can only hope to reserve a seat in the front row and say, “we knew him when.”