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The Boola Boola Thing

It seems like I should have made it to the Harvard-Yale game before this year. I’m a football fan, after all, and I've spent a lot of my adult life living in New Haven and just outside Cambridge, so I can’t claim to have been lacking in motive or opportunity.

I guess I’ve just been avoiding it. There’s something about The Game—aside from those self-congratulatory capital letters—that makes me nervous in a way I can’t quite account for, though the feeling itself is oddly familiar. It’s pretty much the way I felt my entire freshman year.

When I arrived at Yale in 1979, it seemed to me that I’d ended up there by accident.

When I arrived at Yale in 1979, freshly liberated from a mediocre public high school in working-class New Jersey, it seemed to me that I’d ended up there by accident. Unlike many of my new classmates, I wasn’t following in the footsteps of a family member—neither of my parents had gone to college, nor had the parents of most of my friends—nor was I living out some lifelong dream of my own to be an Ivy Leaguer. I’d barely given Yale a thought when drawing up my list of possible colleges, and had only submitted a late application at the insistence of my guidance counselor, whose son had gone to the Drama School. When I got admitted, it just seemed crazy not to go, not to take advantage of such an amazing opportunity.

There were lots of people on campus who'd traveled much greater cultural and psychological distances to get to Yale than I had, but I still felt like I was a long way from home. The summer before I left, I’d promised my friends (and myself) that I wouldn’t let college change me, that I wouldn’t turn into a snob or forget where I came from. I expended a lot of energy that year trying to keep Yale at arm’s length, going home on weekends often, and reserving a high level of skepticism (at times bordering on scorn) for anything that smacked to me of Old Blue tradition, the whole boola boola thing: singing groups, secret societies, football games against Harvard.

It goes without saying that Yale changed me in a thousand ways, despite my touching adolescent vow to remain the regular guy that I’d never really been in the first place (for one thing, most of the regular guys I knew didn’t share my high opinion of The Magic Mountain). A few years ago, I wrote a novel called Joe College that chronicled the evolving identity of a Yale undergraduate suspiciously similar to myself, and I’m assuming that this is what inspired the alumni magazine to invite me to go to The Game and write about it.

I was startled by the level of vitriol directed at Coach Jack Siedlecki by the YDN.

I picked an interesting year to finally make the pilgrimage—in my case, a ten-minute bus ride followed by a short walk over the Larz Anderson Bridge to Harvard Stadium—that all Yalies must apparently make at least once in their lifetimes. This season, as helpful people kept reminding me, The Game actually mattered: Yale needed a victory over Harvard to secure at least a share of the Ivy League championship, a prize they would have won outright if they hadn’t imploded in the second half of the Princeton game the previous week, blowing a 14-point lead on the way to a demoralizing 34-31 defeat.

The humiliation of the Princeton debacle, and the grim fact that Yale hadn’t beaten Harvard in the past five outings, were major themes in the slightly overheated pre-Game coverage in the Yale Daily News (“Falling to Harvard Unacceptable,” one editorial sternly proclaimed). I must admit I was a bit startled by the level of vitriol directed at Coach Jack Siedlecki by the young sportswriters (“Siedlecki proved yet again that even if he couldn’t spell ‘adjustment,’ at least he could spell ‘collapse’”), who weren’t the least bit shy about suggesting that the coach might be out of a job if he couldn’t pull off a win against the Crimson.

If you’re the kind of person who cares about this sort of thing, then you probably already know that it all worked out: Yale trounced Harvard 34–13, breaking its ignominious half-decade losing streak, and sharing this year’s Ivy League crown with Princeton. No one’s complaining about Coach Siedlecki anymore.

While the score sounds lopsided, the game remained fairly competitive until well into the third quarter, when, with Yale leading 20-7, Harvard’s Matt Schindel shanked a punt from deep in his own end zone, giving the Bulldogs the ball at Harvard’s eight-yard line. Yale’s star sophomore Mike McLeod ran for a touchdown on the very next play, and from that moment on the outcome was never in doubt. Overall, Yale played well on both sides of the ball, with the defense turning in a particularly impressive performance, shutting down Harvard’s stellar running back, Clifton Dawson, and forcing several key turnovers, including a fourth-quarter fumble that was recovered by sophomore Steven Santoro, who ran 38 yards for a touchdown.

A naked guy with “MIT” written on his back streaked across the gridiron.

I watched most of the game from Olympian perspective of the press box, insulated from the crowd noise and the unseasonably gorgeous November afternoon by a thick sheet of Plexiglas. With about ten minutes to go, I headed down to the field for a closer look at the action, just in time to watch a naked guy with “MIT” written on his back streak across the gridiron and evade security for a while before getting tackled and taken into custody.

I was still on the sidelines when the final whistle blew, and hordes of jubilant students and alumni stormed onto the field to celebrate along with the players, coaches, and cheerleaders. Within minutes a sea of current and former Yalies had spread across the synthetic turf, obliterating the big red “H” of the home team, eventually stretching from one end zone to the other. They remained on the field for a long time, hugging and high-fiving and shouting to one another, savoring the victory, drawn together by a shared sense of community, a kind of institutional patriotism. I climbed up on a metal bench and watched the party.

Yale turned out to be a much bigger and deeper part of my life than I ever could have anticipated. I had a wonderful, if occasionally difficult experience as an undergraduate, and returned to teach in the English department for five years after finishing graduate school. I feel a genuine sense of nostalgia every time I’m back on campus, every time I see my old roommates and friends, every time I remember the handful of teachers to whom I remain deeply indebted. I would be thrilled if my kids ended up going there.

Cigar-smoking football players posed for pictures with their proud mothers.

For some reason, though, Yale’s big win over Harvard just didn’t mean much to me. It was as though the person standing on the field that afternoon wasn’t me—a 45-year-old writer with a deep connection to Yale—but him, the wary 18-year-old I’d been in the fall of 1979, the boy who'd walked across the Old Campus with his hands jammed into his pockets, pretty sure he didn’t belong, not even sure if he wanted to.

Looking out on the crowd—the cigar-smoking football players posing for pictures with their proud mothers, the percussionists who'd stripped down to their sports bras, smashing cymbals while the band played the familiar Yale anthems I’d made a point not to learn, the fleshy alums who'd eaten gourmet sausage and downed a few microbrews at the tailgate—I wished that these matters of identity and allegiance didn’t run so deep, that after all this time I didn’t feel still so divided between who I was and who I’ve become, between the place I came from and the place I went to, but there’s no court of appeals for our emotions. I felt the way I felt—far away, a bit melancholy—and that was too bad, because those Yalies sure looked like they were having a good time.  the end


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