After three autumns of football-spectating in venerable Soldiers Field, I must admit I have been pleasantly surprised by Harvard football.
As a Midwesterner accustomed to the bone-crushing that fills crisp fall afternoons at such institutions of higher learning as Ohio State and Notre Dame, I arrived in Cambridge a skeptic. Harvard football had always been swallowed up in that abyss known as "the East." To a diehard Fighting Irish fan tuning into the Prudential College Scoreboard, "the East" was nothing more than a boring prelude to the really important scores--usually a shellacking by a favorite topten power of some school mired in yet another rebuilding year.
Three seasons of following the Crimson's brand of pigskin pitching have at least partially convinced me of my error. I still prefer those titanic struggles like last year's Notre Dame Orange Bowl victory over Alabama, but the 45-3 pastings of hapless opponents I can do without.
Harvard is another story altogether. With the exception of an occasional Columbia game, "laughers" are rare at Harvard Stadium. The big worry is usually how to deal with the cases of cardiac arrest up in the stands.
Harvard football teases you. It is wide-open and unpredictable. Just when Harvard appears to be breezing past its rival, a couple of fumbles or an interception will turn the game topsy-turvy. Just when the Crimson start to go down under, they'll recover a blocked punt in the other fellows' end zone. If the Crimson often fail to deliver the knockout blow, they're rarely dominated.
Last year's highly successful 7-2 season is a case in point. The journey to Yale was an unmitigated disaster, but the bulk of the games had a little something for everybody. In five consecutive contests, the final point spread was less than seven points. By winning four of those games, Harvard earned an advance degree in last-second fireworks.
A blocked punt and two fumble recoveries led to a 21-15 victory over Cornell. Dartmouth subdued Harvard only after the Crimson had twice failed to punch the ball over from the one-yard line. A clutch circus catch in the end zone with less than two minutes left helped defeat Penn by four. The Crimson hung on gamely to nip Princeton 19-14, and then outgunned Brown, 35-32. Not a season with much breathing room.
If such on-the-field antics don't satisfy, a Soldier's Field afternoon offers other diversions. Keep an eye on the band. Its iconoclastic half-time shows sometimes miss their mark, but do provide welcome relief from high-stepping and intricate formations of the typical university band. Its second-half rendition of the Harvard fight song on emptied whiskey bottles never fail to inspire.
So I've come to enjoy Harvard football on its own merits. There is plenty of talent on the Crimson side of the field, but the games always seem a bit haphazard. It is an exciting, risky style of football.
Who knows? Harvard may surprize this year. Perhaps it will overpower all comers. Or perhaps it will get licked with discouraging regularity. But don't count on it. I predict another roller-coaster season. I wouldn't want it any other way because by now I have become addicted to Crimson cliffhangers.
Leaving Notre Dame stadium, one feels like a Roman patrician second-guessing his thumbs-down decision on a vanquished gladiator. Leaving Soldiers Field, one usually wonders how the experts are going to explain this one.