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The Game, The Catch, The Title
Quarterback Joe Walland rose from his sickbed to help beat Harvard, capping a fall sports season dominated by the return of Eli football.

If you'd read the story of this year’s Yale-Harvard game in fiction, you'd have dismissed it as absurdly melodramatic. Even the creators of Dink Stover and Frank Merriwell might have balked at the story of a quarterback, who was once thought too small for the job, throwing for a record-breaking season, then ending up in the infirmary with an IV tube in his arm the night before the big game. And they'd have howled at the tale of how the quarterback—still feverish the next day, and with a sprained thumb—threw the ball on almost every play in the second half, including one in the final seconds to his longtime friend and roommate for the winning touchdown.

Dink, Frank: Meet Joe Walland.

Walland, a 5'11" senior from Mentor, Ohio, was an unexpected star quarterback, having been recruited as a receiver (the position he played in high school) by former coach Carm Cozza. But as a sophomore, he won over a skeptical Jack Siedlecki, Cozza’s successor, and became the starting quarterback in the midst of a disappointing 1–9 season. Walland went on to pilot the team’s remarkable reversal of fortune over the next two years, culminating in the win over the Crimson that gave the team a share of the Ivy League championship for the first time since 1989.

The turnaround of the football team was the most talked-about story this fall, but there was drama in other sports, too, most notably men’s soccer, which came into the season with high expectations after winning their last six contests in 1998 and finishing second in the league. The team returned five of its top six scorers, including Jac Gould ’00, the 1998 Ivy League player of the year. And while Gould’s 1999 season was less spectacular than last year's, the team did not disappoint. The Bulldogs featured a more balanced offensive attack, primarily due to the addition of first-year sensation Jay Alberts '03 and the rejuvenated play of Phil Harris ’00. The team was strong from the beginning, winning seven of their first eight games, including four shutouts. The season’s first weekend of the year was one of the most remarkable in the program’s history—the Bulldogs upset defending NCAA champion Indiana and beat nationally ranked Georgetown the following day. The team qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991, and played their best game of the year in round one, upsetting Rutgers 1–0 in double overtime. Yale fell to number-six Connecticut in the next round.

The women’s soccer team also had reason for high hopes, coming off an ECAC championship season last year. But this year’s team, while returning a large group of experienced players such as captain Danica Liberman ’00 and Theryn Gibbons ’00, faltered early. A midseason 4–0–2 run appeared to be the turning point in the season’s fortunes, but two back-to-back overtime losses crushed any hopes for a championship bid in November.

Similarly, the field hockey team, having won a school record 15 games last year, was one of the favorites to take the league crown. They had four seniors returning, along with their leading scorer, rookie of the year Amanda Walton '02 (see page 39). But after a shaky 3–2 start, the Elis would go on to lose 11 of their 12 remaining games, scoring only ten goals in their losses during the collapse.

But come November, all eyes were on Walland and the football team, whose season did not begin on an auspicious note. In Yale’s home opener at the Bowl in September, Brown scored a bizarre last-second two-point conversion off a blocked extra point to win the game 25–24, a game that would turn out to cost Yale an outright championship. The Bulldogs, though, reeled off eight straight wins before going into the last Yale-Harvard game of the 1900s with a chance to share the title with Brown.

That was easier said than done. The team was built around the throwing arm of Walland, the most prolific passer in Yale history, and the speed and agility of running back Rashad Bartholomew '01. But Harvard would prove able to shut down Bartholomew, and Walland seemed to be in no condition to play football that day.

Remarkably, Siedlecki says he was sure enough of Walland that he never had a contingency plan if Walland had been unable to play—or play well. Even when Walland arrived at practice the day before the game and could barely throw the football 30 yards, even when he awoke that night at half-past-two in the infirmary—where he was being treated for tonsillitis—and could not get up and walk himself to the bathroom, and even when he took the field at game time with a sprained thumb, a temperature of 102 degrees, and a headache, Walland was going to start as long as he wanted to. There was no Plan B.

As might be expected, Walland got off to a slow start. Missing open receivers and misreading routes, he was tentative and inconsistent for most of the first half—and so was the Bulldog offense, trailing 7–3 and seemingly incapable of sustaining a long drive. The weather was unusually warm for a late November afternoon, and with the sun shining down on him for nearly the entire half, Walland wasn’t, unlike most of the 52,484 in attendance at the Yale Bowl, thankful for the unexpectedly pleasant weather. “With my fever and the warm weather,” Walland said, “I was dying. I’d never sweated that much, and I felt really bad.” But just before the end of the half, the sun suddenly disappeared into the clouds, and as the temperature cooled down a bit, so did Walland. The Bulldogs moved the ball deep into Crimson territory late in the half, with Walland connecting on several passes, and although they did not score, Siedlecki knew that Walland was coming around.

On the first play of the third quarter, Siedlecki called a handoff to Bartholomew, who was stuffed for a meager two-yard gain. The Crimson defense’s first priority throughout the first half was to stop Bartholomew, who had rushed for 800 yards and ten touchdowns during the year, and force the offense into a one-dimensional attack. After that first play to open the half, Siedlecki sent Bartholomew to the sideline in order to put in a fourth receiver. The running back from Palo Verdes, California, so critical to the team for the past two seasons, would not return for the rest of the game. Siedlecki was going to put the game into Walland’s hands. Even given Walland’s condition (in addition to the fever and the sprained thumb, Walland injured his toe in the third quarter, causing him to limp throughout the rest of the game), Siedlecki not only scrapped the Bulldog running game altogether in the second half, but also—for the first time in his career—let his quarterback make every single call at the line of scrimmage as Yale went to an exclusively shotgun offense. “One of the biggest things was Coach’s confidence in me,” Walland said. “It was unbelievable. It just makes you play better automatically when you have support like that.”

After Bartholomew was pulled, Walland went on to call 51 plays at the line of scrimmage. All 51 were passes. And most ended up in the hands of Walland’s favorite receiver, Eric Johnson '01. The Elis moved almost effortlessly down the field, with Walland throwing completion after completion. But a long third-quarter drive deep in Crimson territory was disastrous. Harvard blocked Mike Murawczyk’s field goal attempt and ran it back for a touchdown, putting the Bulldogs down 14–3. Walland just got stronger and called tighter plays, finding wideouts Tommy McNamara '01, Jake Borden ’00, and Jake Fuller ’00 on several different routes. The Bulldogs scored 14 unanswered points to reclaim the lead in the fourth quarter. The Crimson, though, responded with their most impressive drive of the day, a six-play, 80-yard scoring romp to take the lead again. Walland and the Bulldogs, though, would have one last chance, getting the ball at their own 42-yard line with three minutes left in the game, trailing by four points.

Walland was masterful on this final drive, scrambling hard on several plays, often finding an open receiver at the last moment while falling out of bounds. Eventually, the Bulldogs marched down to the 4-yard line.

Twenty-nine seconds remained on the clock, and on the final play of his Yale career, Walland dropped back and fired the ball over the middle into the end zone toward Johnson, who was covered well. The pass was tipped by a Crimson lineman, only to fall into the hands of a diving Johnson, who grabbed it just inches above the grass. Harvard coach Tim Murphy expressed doubt after the game as to whether Johnson caught the ball before it touched the ground, but what the referees saw was a touchdown, and the Bulldogs took the lead for good. “I’ve watched the replay over and over and over,” says Johnson, who was convinced from the very beginning that the catch was a catch, “and yeah, it was much closer than I thought it was.”

The reception was Johnson’s 21st of the afternoon, to go with an equally astounding 244 yards receiving—both school records. Johnson was just three catches shy of Jerry Rice’s Division I-AA single-game receptions record set at Mississippi Valley State. “It’s very weird,” Johnson says, “to be even mentioned up there. Very weird.”

The even weirder numbers, however, came from Walland, who had broken just about every single-game record a Yale quarterback could aspire to. In the second half alone, under the shadow of the clouds, Walland had an out-of-this-world 33-of-51 attempts for 343 yards. His final numbers: 42-of-67 for 437 yards, all school records.

“He is the greatest player I’ve ever coached,” says Siedlecki of his quarterback. “His game will go down in history, no doubt about it.”

After the game, Walland sat on the sideline, watching fans storm the field and players celebrate at midfield. “I wanted to enjoy the moment. I was really in disbelief. I couldn’t believe what had just happened.”  the end


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