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Harvard University strength and conditioning director Craig Fitzgerald urges his student-athletes to "train like your hair's on fire."

Andrew Brecher, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound starting right tackle on the Crimson football team from Needham, took the advice literally while training in the basement gym of Fitzgerald's Belmont home.

Brecher, sidelined all of last season after undergoing surgery to correct a stress fracture in his foot, took the spring semester off so he could return this fall as a fifth-year senior.

In order to keep up with Harvard's conditioning regimen last winter and spring, the former Needham High three-sport standout left his parents' home at 3:45 a.m. to train for an hour or so four days a week with Fitzgerald. Then he'd head off to the gym for a cardio workout before changing, having breakfast, and going to work at an investment firm.

It was during one of those training sessions that Brecher stood up and whacked his head against one of the two light bulbs mounted on the ceiling, 6 feet, 7 inches from the floor.

"The light went out and I definitely smelled a little smoke because my hair got singed," recalled Brecher, who is regarded by Harvard head coach Tim Murphy as the best offensive tackle in the Ivy League. "The story has pretty much made the rounds among the team. I do know that the next morning, Fitzy had two floor lamps in the basement.

"It was either play last season or wait it out for this season," added Brecher, "because I owed it to my teammates and the coaching and training staff and to myself, because 2006 would have been my first year as a starter and I had worked very hard to get to that point. I couldn’t just walk away."

Fitzgerald said Brecher has returned to the Crimson (4-2 overall, but 3-0 in the Ivy this fall) in the best shape of his career.

"The players and coaches have a ton of admiration for him," Fitzgerald said, "because he's a super, caring teammate. He approached me about coming to my home to work out and he was a great training partner. We laughed for three months about his hair incident."

But the fracture in his foot was no laughing matter.

"It may have been because I was breaking in some new cleats or just wear and tear on my foot, but it was pretty sore" during the summer of 2006. "Finally, at preseason practice, Coach Murphy noticed me limping and suggested I see the trainers," recalled Brecher, who played on two Bay State Conference championship football teams and a Division 2 state championship lacrosse team at Needham High.

"After an X-ray and MRI they found the fracture in my fifth metatarsal."

The choices were to let the injury heal or try to speed up the process through surgery. Brecher chose the latter, but his recovery was slow, and by the seventh game of last season, it was obvious waiting a year to get back in the lineup was his best option.

"His great character and great discipline got him back here," said Murphy. "Now he's stronger and faster, he's a complete player and he's a legitimate National Football League prospect."

It took Brecher time to add some weight to the 260-pound frame of his high school days, and to learn the technique of his position while playing behind more experienced Harvard linemen.

"I was fourth on the depth chart at tackle as a junior, but I knew that my time was coming," said Brecher, who wears a special sole plate and orthotics to protect his feet. He inherited his size from his grandfather, 94-year-old Church Yearley, a two-sport star at Johns Hopkins back in the day who is in the US Lacrosse Hall of Fame. He resides in Buckhead, Ga.

"My grandfather last saw me play football when he came up here for the Needham-Wellesley Thanksgiving Day game in 2002 when I was a senior. We won that game and he sat in a car above Memorial Field to stay warm because it had snowed that day," said Brecher. "My grandfather played for the 1932 US Olympic lacrosse team and he also played football at Johns Hopkins. I call him after every Harvard game to update him on how things are going."

And at the moment, things are going quite well for Brecher, who wants to play football as long as he can.

"I've got everything to gain and if I make it to the pros," he said, "I still get to do what I love."

Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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