Growing up in Manalapan, N.J., Atlanta Falcons tight end Anthony Firkser focused more of his time on math textbooks than football playbooks. He always had a strong bent for quantitative reasoning, thoroughly enjoyed his studies in algebra and calculus, and began contemplating a career in business or economics.
“I really enjoy working with numbers, solving problems,” he told the Atlanta Jewish Times. “It kind of came more naturally to me.”
And football, you ask? Firkser actually didn’t even start playing until he was a sophomore in high school as his mother, Donna, initially shuddered at the thought of her son being on the receiving end of jarring hits. But Firkser’s body had different ideas. He soon sprouted over six feet and bulked up to 220 pounds — an imposing physique that made him a force on the basketball court…and on the gridiron.
Ultimately, his mother signed off on football and a couple All-Shore first team selections later, backed by 110 receptions and 19 touchdown grabs, Firkser found himself getting wooed by multiple Ivy League schools.
“We recruited the heck out of him,” said Tim Murphy, head football coach at Harvard University, where Anthony ultimately ended up. “We thought he had a chance to be a really good Division-I athlete.”
Indeed, Firkser viewed himself as an athlete, not just a football player.
As Murphy explained, “The kind of glitch in recruiting him was that he wanted to play Division-I basketball and he had a couple of Ivy League offers to play Division-I basketball. And he said, ‘Coach, what happens if I make the basketball team here?’ And I said, ‘First of all, I know you’re a really good basketball player, but I don’t think you’ll make the team. I’m not saying that to try to dissuade you. I’m just saying that to be very honest with you.’
“I said, ‘Here’s the deal. If you want to come to Harvard, and I know you’ve got great opportunities at all the top Ivies, and if you make the basketball team, I’ll eat that for four years.’ And to his credit — he didn’t make the team, though I’m sure he could have been a good player—from then on, his focus was strictly on football, and he became a really great Division-I H-back for us.”
After being tabbed to the All-Ivy League first team as a senior and developing a legacy as arguably the greatest possession receiver in school history, Firkser signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent on May 5, 2017. After not making the final cut for the Jets’ 53-man roster, Firkser started studying to become an actuary, a position that would allow him to leverage his applied mathematics degree toward assessing risk and uncertainty as they relate to assets and liability.
However, soon thereafter, other NFL teams viewed Firkser as an asset to their rosters. After enjoying a brief stint with the Kansas City Chiefs, Firkser signed with the Tennessee Titans, with whom he ultimately experienced his first gameday action.
After four productive years for Mike Vrabel’s upstart squad, he joined the Falcons this past season and has since become a reliable option for fellow former Titan and current Atlanta quarterback Marcus Mariota.
“It’s been a little bit of a change coming to a new team after being on the Titans for four years, trying to see where I fit into the offense and where I can help this team out,” acknowledged Firkser a couple days before his Falcons won a pivotal Week 6 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.
“It’s a bit younger of a team in Atlanta. It’s good to have young guys around. They’re all excited, they all play hard.”
True. During a Week 2 road game against the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, the Falcons found themselves down 31-10 early in the fourth quarter. The stubborn Falcons didn’t go quietly into the SoCal evening, reeling off 17 unanswered points to make it a respectable 31-27 score in favor of the Rams. Ever since, Atlanta has turned its season around and is currently in the mix for the NFC South title.
“I think it was great to see how the team keeps fighting and never gives up,” says Firkser, who off the field has assumed an active role in enlightening other NFL players about his Judaic background by being an ambassador for Unity Through Sport, a non-profit that leverages sports to combat societal discrimination. “Being down by such a large amount late in the game, a lot of guys can just chalk it up [to playing the defending Super Bowl champs] and take the loss, but we just kept pushing. We know that’s a big value in our team and something we want to keep going week to week after.”
Dethroning Tom Brady and the Bucs in the NFC South is one daunting challenge. But Firkser, as an undersized tight end who has cracked multiple NFL rosters, and, perhaps more impressively, excelled in both academics and athletics at Harvard, remains quite familiar with tackling adversity.
It’s a bit younger of a team in Atlanta. It’s good to have young guys around. They’re all excited, they all play hard.
As he noted about his college experience: “It’s a little intimidating for sure, being an athlete and knowing how challenging the academics can be. I was excited for it, and I did my best to make the most of athletics as well as the academics and be able to set myself up for life after college football and now luckily enough, life after the NFL.”
Speaking of other professional endeavors, it’s probably a good thing that Firkser didn’t pursue a career in the insurance industry. He undoubtedly would have been a successful actuary (and may still become one), but this football gig hasn’t worked out too badly for him either.