October 1, 2009
by Bill Reynolds, Providence Journal columnist
He is called the most versatile athlete in the Ivy League, was All-New England last year, and going into this season was already 25th on the Ivy League's all-time reception list.
So you can make a case that very few Rhode Islanders in recent memory have had a better college football career than Bobby Sewall, who has gone from Portsmouth to Brown as easily as he evades defensive backs.
You also can make the case that he's had as much success at Brown as any local kid in many a moon.
And Portsmouth is where the roots are, no question about that.
"We used to wear our jerseys to school every Friday when I was a kid in Pop Warner," he says.
Football was a way of life early, his father once playing for John Toppa at Rogers. He began playing Pop Warner when he was in the fourth grade, part of an effective feeder program that had turned Portsmouth High School from a school that few people outside Aquidneck Island had ever heard of into one of the best schoolboy football programs in the state.
He remembers when he was just a kid, maybe fifth grade or so, and Portsmouth went undefeated, remembers being at Pierce Stadium in East Providence and watching the clock winding down and knowing that Portsmouth was going to win the state title. He remembers how excited he was, seduced by it all, the crowd, the excitement, the sense that there was nothing bigger in the whole wide world.
He was a quarterback then, and he was a quarterback when he got to Portsmouth High School, where he played two years for Bob Monteiro and two years for Tim Coen. And for four years it was Friday night lights, big crowds and a lot of wins, football out of some playground fantasy.
"It was great," says Sewall. "The same kids I handed the ball off to in Pop Warner were the same kids I handed the ball off to in high school."
He was more an athlete than a classic drop-back quarterback in high school, someone who operated out of the shotgun because he could run and make plays.
He was All-State for two years, and if that weren't enough, he also played basketball, lacrosse, and ran track, too. Oh yeah, he also was a two-time captain in football, and also the captain of both the basketball and track teams. It was a high school career out of some old Chip Hilton novel, back to when kids moved through the seasons playing different sports, and he still found the time to be on the National Honor Society.
Is there any great surprise he was The Journal's Honor Roll Boy in 2006?
He was recruited by Yale. He was recruited by Holy Cross, who envisioned him as a running back, and UMass, which saw him as a wide receiver. URI, who saw him as an athlete, and other Atlantic 10 schools at the time that also viewed him as an athlete. He didn't play receiver until he attended a football camp at Boston College before his senior year in high school. He was then invited to work out before the Brown coaches.
"Right from the beginning his athletic ability and how smooth he was jumped out at us," says Brown coach Phil Estes. "We didn't know if he was going to be a wide receiver or a free safety, but he had both the physical size and things you can't teach, like the ability to change direction and his instincts, his improvisation."
That is Sewall's gift, his ability in this age of specialization, to just make plays, a little of this, a little of that, almost as if he's still in a high school game, able to make both his athleticism and his savvy work for him. He runs a 4.4 forty, fast in any league. He also can catch the ball. In last week's game against Harvard he even played quarterback for a few plays in Brown's version of the wildcat offense.
Sewall got a little taste of playing time as a freshman, but it was two years ago that he first burst across the college football world, when he was the national player of the week for his performance against Dartmouth. He rushed for 144 yards, caught 18 passes, and also scored four touchdowns and threw a 41-yard pass for another.
Roll those numbers around on your tongue for a while.
It was one of those performances that changed the landscape, showed the possibilities, the kind of numbers that jump out at you.
Now it's two years later, his senior season.
And if at one level he's already had a career few could have envisioned when he was coming out of Portsmouth High School in the spring of 2006, his football dreams aren't over, as if Brown is a bigger stage than high school, and hopefully he can find a bigger stage after Brown.
"I know I still want to play," he says. "Football is still extremely important to me. I will play it until I can't play it anymore."
But that's for the future.
For now Sewall gets ready for URI on Saturday, and the bulk of its Ivy League schedule that begins next week as it tries to defend its Ivy League title. Now he's become one of the most exciting players in New England college football, someone who has come so very far from when he was playing Pop Warner as a kid and used to wear his jersey to school on Fridays, so far from those Friday night lights in high school, back when all this was ahead of him, sitting out there in the future like a promise.
"This has all worked out for all the best," says Bobby Sewell. "It's been great."
So has he.