Keith Raffel, author of Dot Dead: A Silicon Valley mystery, takes us back to the days when Ivy league football was for real—and the classic Harvard/Yale showdown of 1968.
Name a team undefeated in the Rose Bowl.
Michigan. Ohio State?
How about Harvard—which played once and thumped Oregon 7-6 on New Year’s Day, 1920?
Here’s the point: way back, when college programs weren’t merely farms teams for the NFL, Ivy League football counted. Harvard and Yale have won 25 national championships between them. The last gasp of terrific national-level football in the Ivy League was 1968, my freshman year at Harvard.
The two teams were mirror images. The Yale Bulldogs, nationally ranked in the AP poll, were an offensive juggernaut directed by quarterback Brian Dowling, who had led Yale to 16 straight wins. (Dowling went on to cultural immortality as the model for B.D. in classmate Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip.)
Calvin Hill, who might be better known today as the father of NBA star Grant Hill, starred at running back. To give you an idea of how good Hill was—the year after graduation he won the NFL’s rookie of the year award over O.J. Simpson.
Coming into the battle with Harvard, Yale was averaging 36 points a game, which, if memory serves, was tops in the country.
The Harvard Crimson had no big stars and was expected to finish last in the Ivies (Wait: the team did have a future star in guard Tommy Lee Jones, but he won that Oscar for his exploits on the silver screen, not the gridiron.) In Harvard’s first game against Holy Cross, the team scratched out a lucky 27-20 win.
The team vastly improved—especially defensively—as the season rolled along. If memory serves, Harvard had the first or second stingiest defense in the country, giving up only seven points a game coming into the showdown with Yale.
So on November 23, 1968 at Harvard Stadium, what did we have? The country’s top offense against a top defense. The irresistible force against the immovable object.
Coming into what was known as “The Game,” both Harvard and Yale were undefeated for the first time since 1931. Legend has it that in 1908, the Harvard coach strangled a bulldog with his bare hands to inspire his team. (It’s not true.) Yale Coach Tad Jones once told his players, without any irony, “Gentlemen, you are about to meet Harvard in a game of football. Never again in your lives will you do anything as important.”
The stadium held 57,750 and tickets to the game were going for hundred of dollars. (Not on StubHub, people. This was a little before the days of the Internet!)
One couldn’t really go to The Game without a date. I’d only been on campus two months. The women I attended classes with lived a mile away and were outnumbered by us guys 4-1. I had no one to ask, but my friend Howie stepped in and fixed me up with a friend of his date.
I don’t remember her name, but I do remember that she was blond, beautiful, and rich. Where did we sit? I remember that, too—we didn’t sit at all. We were lowly freshmen and as such consigned to stand up on the rim of the stadium while the freezing November wind tried to send us into suspended animation.
Things went from bad to worse. First Dowling ran for a touchdown, then he threw to Hill for a second TD. And then another Dowling scoring pass. The second quarter wasn’t half over and Yale had scored 22 points, more than any other team had scored against Harvard in a full 60 minutes.
And the icing on the cake—my discovery that my beautiful date was a first-class spoiled bitch.
Harvard did score before halftime, and the mighty Yale team marched into the locker rooms ahead 22-6.
Harvard received the opening kickoff in the second quarter. Three downs and out. But Yale fumbled the punt and Harvard managed to get the ball into the Yale end zone.
Was there hope? No.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Dowling marched his team down the field and ran into the end zone himself for his fourth touchdown.
Looking across the stadium, I saw hundreds if not thousands of white handkerchiefs waving as the poor-sport Yalies taunted us. Dowling and his minions were unwilling to settle for a thumping. They wanted a humiliation.
Yale started marching down the field. Again. Some fans adjourned at this point for local bars—the Yalies for raucous celebration, the home team supporters to cry in their beer.
Only 14 yards away from a fifth touchdown, the Yale fullback fumbled. So down by 16 with 3:34 remaining, Harvard had the ball.
By this time, Harvard’s backup quarterback, Frank Champi, had taken over. With a third and 18 on the Yale 38, he was sacked, but the ball dribbled out of his arms on the way down and a Harvard lineman—the immortal Fritz Reed—picked up the lonely spheroid and thundered to the Yale 15.
Two more Champi passes and Harvard scored with 42 seconds left in the game. The two point conversion failed. Okay.
So now Harvard would lose, but would not be humiliated. But wait—a flag.
Yale was called for pass interference. On the replay, Harvard fullback Gus Crim rumbled in for a score.
Everyone in the stadium knew that an onside kick was coming, but that did not stop Harvard from recovering it. No one was leaving now. The white hankies had disappeared.
Champi marched the team down to the Yale eight yard line.
Three seconds left.
As he was hit, Champi threw off the wrong foot. Vic Gatto, the first 2000 yard rusher in Harvard history, gathered it in.
No time left. Yale led 29-27. Champi, the backup, recalled, “I thought, ‘We’ve come this far.’ I was very confident. It was inevitable.”
And so it proved. After the field was cleared of fans, Champi hit burly tight end Pete Varney, later a major league catcher. Game over.
Harvard had scored 16 points in 42 seconds. Brian Dowling failed to come off the field with a victory for the first time since sixth grade.
I don’t remember a whole lot after that. And I don’t remember my date’s name. But I think I learned more in that game than I did in my freshman year classes.
What was the lesson? Keep trying no matter what the odds. Never give up. Never.
Yale Coach Carmen Cozza later said, “That tie was the worst loss of my career.” But it was the banner headline across the front page of the Crimson—the Harvard student newspaper—that best captured what we had witnessed: “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”