The Game to win--then and now
"I'm the only Yalie in the Harvard football hall of fame." --Harvard professor Bradford A. Lee, who fumbled an onside kick in the 1968 classic.
George Owen Jr. '23, who will soon enter the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, says a victory over Yale can transform a season.
"It was the game to win then and now," recalls Owen, who completed his college career 60 years ago. "If you won the Yale game, no matter what else happened during the year, then you had a satisfactory season."
Adds Richard Clasby '54, the only other nine-letter man at Harvard: "You could have beaten everyone else, but the game that comes to the forefront is the Yale game, even 30 years later. If you lose, that's 30 years of loss to live with."
For Clasby and hundreds of others, a game played on a cold Saturday in November can easily be the single most memorable event in a long football career.
In Clasby's case, enter 1953 and a 13-0 victory over Yale.
"I was a tailback and Carroll Lowenstein threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to me that was later called off because someone on the team was offside. Well, they could take that touchdown away from me but they can never take away the thrill," Clasby remembers. "The last 20 yards your feet don't even touch the ground."
For other players, however, Harvard-Yale memories are not so glorious. Robert Drennan '46, like Clasby, says he will always remember the Game his senior year. "It was the worst defeat of my life," said Drennan of the 1946 game in which the Bulldogs dumped the Harvard 11, 31-21.
"It's so much more than a game, with all the pageantry, the emotions, the jarn-packed stadium," recalls Paul Crawley '52, who watched "helplessly while the Yale team snatched away" hopes for a Crimson victory in 1951. "There was three minutes left to play in the game and the coach decided to play it safe and kick the ball--he said he figured it would be hard for them to come 80 yards for a touchdown."
Famous last words. A short kick off the side of the punter's foot helped Yale to a touchdown and dashed all hopes for a Harvard victory. Final score: 21-21.
Don Allard '83 came into last year's stunning destruction of Yale quite familiar with such agony. After a heartbreaking no-time-left loss at Penn the week before, quarterback Allard & Co. came back to blast the Blue, 45-7. "It was the high point of my career. We were just a whole 'nother team that day. We could have done anything we wanted. We did."
In the 99th meeting between the two teams Harvard scored more p2oints (45), rushed for more yards (86), and completed more total offense than ever before against Yale.
But, as recollections from stars of yesteryear indicate, the Game is more than the results that appear on the scoreboard and enter the record books.
Owen, for example, remembers that the Thursday night before The Game, Harvard football graduates would hold a dinner for the team in Brookline. At the dinner before his senior year game, Eddie Cantor, a famous vaudeville actor of the 1920's, attended and promised the team tickets to his show if they beat Yale. Harvard proceeded to win by a 10-3 count.
So picking up on Cantor's promise, the squad went into Boston to see his show. "Afterwards we went back stage to meet the cast," says Owen. "Everyone was being so nice to us. I knew something was up." It turned out that after seeing the size of the Harvard team, Cantor had persuaded everyone in the cast to place what had turned out to be successful bets on the Harvard team.
But tradition has not always been part of The Game, according to Vic Gatto '59, who caught a two-point conversion pass in the waning moments to help Harvard overcome a 29-13 deficit and tie Yale, 29-29 in 1968. The radicalism of the 1960s was not conducive to The Game's traditions, he recalls.
Many team members, he says, did not have the same kind of "old school feeling" that previous teams had felt.
"There was very much the feeling that we were doing it ourselves--that we were flying in the face of tradition." Gatto remembers, pointing out that the pre-game rally was boycotted by the team. "We got together and decided we would just do it for ourselves. Fortunately it worked out."
That's an understatement. The 1968 game--between two undefeated teams--with its down-to-the-wire ending is arguably the most famous ever, at least for the Harvard side. While the final outcome was a draw, everyone treated it as a Crimson victory.
Behind by 16 points, backup QB Frank Champi led the rally that tied the score in just 42 seconds, with two touchdowns and two two-point conversions. Remembering a touchdown pass reception. Gatto was at the time quoted in The Crimson saying. "When I saw it. I knew I just had to love it. Just take it in my arms and love it."
Looking back on the miracle ending to that game. Gatto recalls that the comeback was as much a shock to the team members as to the fans.
"I remember looking up in the stands in the fourth quarter and seeing all the Yalies waving their white handkerchiefs. Half the people in the stadium were leaving In another few minutes, the other half were on the field, celebrating. Looking back` on it you have the sense of the inevitable, the sense that the story couldn't have been written any differently that year," he says.
Harvard Associate Professor of History Bradford A. Lee wishes that game wasn't so memorable.
"I'm probably the only Yalie in the Harvard football hall of fame," jokes Lee, who played guard for Yale that year. Lee fumbled the onside kick between the late touchdowns which let Harvard tie the game and split the Ivy League title with Yale.
"Where's the ball?" he remembers thinking on that fateful Saturday 15 years ago. "I had planted my feet into the ground, because I knew as soon as I caught the ball all the Harvard players would converge on me. Then the ball just veered at the last moment."
But for Lee the trouble didn't stop there. A Boston Globe reporter called him the next day and asked how he was feeling. "I had the flu and I told him how dreadful I felt," recalls Lee. "He flippantly took that to mean that I was sick over the game."
The story depicted Lee being on the point of suicide. It was syndicated all over the country. "I got an enormous number of letters, some from senators and congressmen telling me to cheer up, that one game wasn't that important," he now remembers with amusement.
Harvard players have had their share of misery also, as Harvey Popell '54 can attest. "It's the kind of thing I can look back on now and chuckle, but it wasn't a laughing matter then," he says, of an infamous 1952 incident. "We were getting beaten very badly, and the Yale coach, unbeknownst to us, put the manager of the team in on an extra point. He caught the pass and scored an extra point," says Popell. "Nobody, not even the announcer knew who this guy was in the number 99 jersey. It was written up in Time magazine and the whole thing was very embarrassing."
For all the hissing, the white handkerchiefs and the "Impale Yale" buttons, former players agree that the rivalry has always involved a level of respect for the opponents.
Clasby remembers a pertinent 1952 incident. "I was running an end sweep and I cut sharply and tore the muscles in my back and cracked some ribs," he says. "I had lost all feeling in my legs and I just dropped down and lost the ball. The Yale captain put up his hands and kept all his team members away from me."
"No one even fell on the ball...That just shows you that there is a very human side behind all that fierce competitiveness."
The Game sticks with its participants long after they leave Harvard or Yale. Pete Varney, now a baseball coach at Brandeis University, says that having been a part of the famous 1968-team leads him credibility when he tells his team that anything is possible in a game.
"But more importantly, the pride of having won, of having been a member of that team becomes part of your character, and that's not something you can change."
Game memories apparently stay with participants no matter where they go after leaving the locker room--even if it's Capitol Hill. "One hundred years after the Crimson faced off against the Bulldogs for the first time, and of course defeated them, the Harvard-Yale game remains a highlight of the football season," says Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.) "I played in The Game myself (unfortunately Harvard lost but I did catch a touchdown pass)."
Longtime Harvard Coach John Yovicsin says that while winning every game is important. The Game stands out.
"I fish a lot and I'll be out on my boat with some friends and they'll catch a big fish or something and say 'It's almost as good as beating Yale.' 'Not quite,' I say."