For Robb Dehney ’23, sports have always been a fun way to create community and bring joy to others. From launching a fantasy football league that still connects him and his childhood friends from Wilmington, Delaware, to playing the mascot for a minor league baseball team there, to offering pun-filled TV commentary as head football analyst at University of Virginia football games, “If you’re not making people smile, you’re doing something wrong,” he says.
In the winter of 2022, Dehney decided Harvard Law students needed a fun way to get together and blow off steam — in other words, they needed a flag football league.
He had no idea if others would agree. After all, as far as he knew, the school had never offered intramural sports. But he put up posters around campus and got the word out among his friends, and on a brisk March morning he lugged a large sack of footballs and orange cones to Cambridge Commons in hopes someone would show up.
More than 180 did. And with that, HL Football took off like a running back toward the end zone.
Each week, the common swarmed with teams of students in painted faces calling plays and racing through the mud and grass to the cheers of their families and friends. “It was not what I expected at all. There was a buzz about it,” says Dehney. “People were ready for it, to just mess around and be innocent and revert back to how everyone was in kindergarten.”
By fall 2022, the league swelled to 250 students in teams named Torts Illustrated and Chad Section Cinco. As league commissioner, Dehney organized game schedules, collected scores, reported team standings, and shifted games to new fields when local kids showed up to play soccer. He found sponsors for the league, not just major law firms but some he’s is pretty sure had never partnered with Harvard Law School before, including Viva Tequila Seltzer, Veggie Galaxy, a Cambridge vegetarian restaurant, and Fudgy Pop popsicles.
Today, HL Football Inc., which bills itself as “the best football league in the Commonwealth,” is a thriving 501(c)(3) that includes a team from the Harvard Kennedy School — they play in the gunners league, naturally, and won that championship — and players from the community, since anyone is invited. There was an all-star game in April in the Harvard football stadium sponsored by Daring Foods Plant Chicken —Dehney is a vegan — and a championship trophy. And next year, four Harvard Law students will serve as the new league commissioners after Dehney graduates and heads to a clerkship at the Delaware Supreme Court.
Today, HL Football Inc., which bills itself as “the best football league in the Commonwealth,” is a thriving 501(c)(3) that includes a team from the Kennedy School
“People really came together around that community,” says Dehney, who after his clerkship will join Davis Polk & Wardwell in San Francisco. “It was never about the game, it was about teams on the sidelines wearing tie-dyed shirts, or the LL.M. team whose players weren’t familiar at all with American football coming in with no idea of the rules but going all the way to the playoffs, or little kids running around doing an easter egg hunt during our tailgates. Those are the memories I’ll think about with law school.”
Although Harvard Law School has a strong sports law program, that’s not what drew Dehney to Cambridge after he graduated from the University of Virginia, where he majored in media studies with a religious studies minor. “I’d had a lot of experience in the sports world, enough to be solidly planted if I wanted to go that way” as a career, he says. During college, he interned at MLB Network in New York and taught sports broadcasting at a children’s camp. And at the student TV station, WUVA, he quickly moved from behind the camera editing film to broadcasting on air.
At Harvard Law, “I wanted to find everything else,” he says. “I wanted to find all types of people with all types of interests, with a variety of life experiences who could stretch my mind in politics and global affairs and all kinds of stuff. But it was also important I not lose the pieces of me that are just fun.”
During his first year of law school during the COVID pandemic, Dehney and a few friends began playing socially distanced kickball on the Common to have some in-person interaction. And this past year, while running HL Football, he was invited by the Harvard Athletic Department to help create an intramural league for all the Harvard graduate schools — a first — and tapped as the league’s student commissioner, organizing volleyball, basketball, and soccer leagues. More than 400 students participated.
And while he enjoyed an internship with the Miami Dolphins during his 2L winter, his favorite experience was working at a small startup outside Philadelphia that valued his input on matters of importance. “Once upon a time I thought I’d like to run Major League Baseball, now I’d like to do something that’s growing and innovative, whether it’s in sports or not,” he says. Whatever he ends up doing, “I want to be in a business that’s concerned with how we can make someone smile and give them a good memory.”
“These have been the best three years of my life,” he adds. “Every year was better than the last.”