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The 1968 Yale-Harvard game—the famous 29–29 tie—is one of those sporting events, like Bobby Thomson’s home run or Don Larsen’s perfect game, whose attendance has grown exponentially over the years. Many more people claim to have seen it than were actually there at the time. I used to fervently profess to have been in the stands that day until my wife pointed out that, as a member of the Class of '68, I had graduated the previous June and she knew for a fact that shortly afterwards I moved to England. The closest I got to Harvard Stadium was a little baggie full of turf that someone had dug up after the game and mailed to me. An English friend eagerly picked it up from my desk one day, assuming it was something we could smoke.
And yet, after all these years, I recall that game much more clearly than any that I really did attend—those agonizing last few minutes, Dowling scrambling, the onside kick, the botched coverage in the end zone. My memories are a composite, I guess, of all the afternoons I did spend watching Yale football and of all I’ve heard and read about the 1968 game. Yale, then nationally ranked and riding a 16-game winning streak, was hugely favored in the annual tilt that year. The team was led by quarterback Brian Dowling '69, who hadn’t lost a game since the sixth grade (and was later immortalized by Garry Trudeau ’70, ’73MFA, as the character B.D. in his Doonesbury strip), and by Calvin Hill '69, who went on not just to sire Grant but to play for 12 years in the NFL. In the second half, Yale got a little sloppy, but with less than a minute left they still led 29–13. Then it was as if time slowed down, and in just 42 seconds Harvard somehow managed to score an improbable 16 points. The next day the headline in the Crimson said: “Harvard Beats Yale 29–29.”
That’s also the title of a documentary film by Kevin Rafferty that was an unlikely hit at the recent Toronto Film Festival, not the kind of event where people tend to get carried away by old-time Ivy League football. Rafferty (Harvard, Class of '70) is an unreconstructed hipster and rebel, most famous for The Atomic Cafe, an anti-nuclear documentary that has become a cult classic, and works out of what must be the dingiest basement in all of Greenwich Village. If only the lighting were a little better, it could be the setting for the next installment of Saw. But he has, it turns out, a distinguished football heritage—both his father and grandfather played for Yale—and though he’s hardly a rah-rah type, he saw the ’68 game and it made an impression on him. “My father watched from the other side,” he told me recently, “and afterwards I said to him, ‘Dad, how did you like the game?’ This was a guy who had been at Guam and Iwo Jima. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Worst day of my life.’”
A year ago, Rafferty bought a used car for $4,000 and put 16,000 miles on it, driving around the country and interviewing people who had played in that game. He did all the filming, editing, and sound work himself. The result is a no-frills but thoughtful documentary that combines talking heads with extensive footage from the telecast of the game on the Boston station WHDH. The film is part straightforward football reminiscence and part essay about the passage of time. The game footage has faded a little—it has the sepia glow of a bygone golden age—and the broadcast, by the veteran sportscaster Don Gillis, is so professional it makes the Ivy League broadcasts of today look and sound like something on your local cable channel. Watching it, you can’t help thinking that this may be the last moment when people actually took Ivy League football seriously.
The players, too, have inevitably aged, though as a group they don’t look so bad. Vic Gatto, the Harvard running back, must be taking the secret sheep-gland extract. He could pass for 40. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand, looks tired and grizzled and speaks so slowly and with so little affect that you wonder whether he didn’t practice without a helmet sometimes. (He says that he and his roommate Al Gore had “too much fun,” and gives as an example listening to Al play “Dixie” over and over on the keypad of a touch-tone phone.) If you didn’t know already, you would never guess that this guy was an Oscar-winning actor as well as an all-Ivy tackle. You also might not guess that the roster of players interviewed includes distinguished educators, a well-known pediatric neurosurgeon, and a couple of guys who have made vast fortunes. Identifications, beyond their names and what position they played, wouldn’t have hurt.
They all remember (or, in one case, misremember) the game even more vividly than I do. A few of the Yalies, so heavily favored to win, still haven’t got over it. Several of the players also talk about what it was like to be a young person back in 1968, when there was so much going on besides football: the first stirrings of the feminist movement and sexual revolution, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, which hung threateningly over all of us, dividing faculty and students, friends and classmates and even teammates. Pat Conway, who played defense for Harvard, was a newly returned Vietnam vet on a squad where many of the players were outspoken opponents of the war. Football brought them together, he says, and Del Marting '69, the great Yale end, recalls that it did the same thing for the Yale community as a whole. “The team’s success had a role in keeping the campus focused on something else,” he says. “Everyone went out to the Bowl on Saturday.” At a time when the Bowl is more than half empty on most Saturdays, that too seems a glimmer from an era that, for all its shadows, was also simpler.
Mike Bouscaren '69, the Yale linebacker who drew a costly, last-minute penalty trying to knock the Harvard quarterback out of the game, still seems tortured by that afternoon. “I’m glad we lost,” he says in the film, not entirely convincingly, “because if we had won I would have had more difficulty becoming a regular person.” But in fact by tying the way they did, the Yale players became more famous than they ever would have as victors. Does anyone seriously care anymore who wins the Yale-Harvard game? But that one afternoon 40 years ago, so singular, dramatic, and unrepeatable, lingers in our memories, even the made-up ones.
No, we won’t claim to have been there, but my wife and I didn’t miss a tick of that fateful final minute over our local-carrying TV channel 11’s vantage site atop Television Hill, here on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
Actually, my clearest recollection of the event came later, while we were making our way through the TV station’s parking lot. Just ahead of us, scuffing along toes-first was a totally disconsolate figure whom I shortly recognized as a classmate I did not know personally, the late Roy Hunt (Alcoa). To this day I regret not offering a few words of solace to take comfort in the realization that we, at least, had just seen the greatest Harvard-Yale game ever played to that time. And now here we are 40 years later, and it’s still a good thesis.
Classics on two coasts
I had the (good? bad?) fortune to root for Brian Dowling and Yale at “The Game,” and then move to Palo Alto and root for John Elway and Stanford in 1982 at “The Big Game,” in which Cal won as time expired on the notorious five-lateral kickoff return through the Stanford band.
Left just in time
I attended the game and now brag to friends that I missed its ending. Our car driver, at two TDs behind, said, “Let’s go. We want to beat the traffic.” So we did—and heard the ending on the car radio.
Harvard’s QB—and another historic game
I enjoyed your write-up of the infamous Yale-Harvard game of 1968, although I didn’t enjoy watching the game. I would have liked an update on that Harvard quarterback who came off the bench at the half and led his team to a tie against such a strong team as Yale. As I remember, he became disenchanted with Harvard’s football and quit during the next season. What became of him?
There’s another Yale game I’d like to read about, and that’s the 1934 Yale-Princeton game. Compared to the '68 Game or any other, this game was perhaps Yale’s finest hour. Princeton was a powerhouse in '34 and was even being considered for the Rose Bowl, when the best of the East was being matched with the best of the West. Yale won 7-0 on a touchdown by Larry Kelley ['37], and Yale played the entire game with no substitutions, earning the name “the Iron Men.” The last surviving team member [Jim De Angelis '35S] died last year. He was the center and weighed less than 150 pounds.
Larry Kelley’s legendary career got its start here. According to rumor, when a Princeton substitute came in for the backfield, he was uncertain whom to relieve. Kelley was heard to say to him “Maybe you’re relieving me—I’ve been in your backfield all day.”
Yale did beat Harvard in '34 and won the Ivy League championship, which is more than can be said for the '68 season.
I look forward to a more complete account of the '34 Yale-Princeton game, Yale’s finest hour.
Harvard quarterback Frank Champi, who came off the bench in the second quarter of the '68 Game after seeing little action all season, did indeed quit football after starting in the first two games of the 1969 season. “I was just going through the motions and I wasn’t enjoying it,” he told the Harvard Crimson at the time. As for whatever happened to him, the Boston Globe profiled Champi on November 20, reporting that he works for a digital printing company and is a part-time inventor. (He has patented a “lifting device for shovels for his fellow baby-boomers with aching backs.”)
As for the 1934 Yale-Princeton game, there is probably no account more complete than Yale’s Ironmen, a book about the game published in 2005 by former New York Times sportswriter William N. Wallace '45W.—Eds.
Saw it coming
I remember being seized by the horrid feeling that it was going to happen and nothing could stop it.
Like it was yesterday
Great article. I was there (really), as an MIT student and guest of Robbie Busch, Harvard '70, my best friend, alas no longer with us. One of the details we recalled in amazed pleasure for years after—and gotten a tad wrong by Mr. McGrath—is that the Crimson’s “Harvard Beats Yale, 29–29” headline had been published and was handed out not the next day, but as we were leaving the stadium! Much of the Yale alum section had left early, white kerchiefs already aloft.
Being married to a '77 Yalie and now both a Harvard and Yale (grad school) alum myself, as to whether it was the most heartbreaking or the most thrilling game, I ought to demur, but I can’t recall ever being so excited at any sports event, not even at the huge antiwar protests that occupied so much of our time in those days.
Like Charles McGrath, Dr. Satinover and the many others who remember reading the famous headline on their way out of the stadium may be under the influence of “mem'ry's haze,” as our alma mater puts it. As a Harvard Magazine article from 2000 explains it, the headline came not in the Saturday extra (which carried the more prosaic “Harvard, Yale Draw, 29–29”) but in the following Monday’s Crimson.—Eds.
A view from the field
I appreciated Charles McGrath’s article. He has it right: Yale players got more “fame” out of the tie than we ever would have by winning the game outright. It has never ceased to be a conversation piece wherever I have gone. I have come to accept and appreciate the hold that game has had on people.
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