It’s been 22 days since that Saturday afternoon in New Jersey, and tonight the senior carefully bends his elbows, gladly raising both his arms in front of his chest. Half-standing—hands clenched now—Tanner pumps his fists. Once, twice: tap, tap.
There is a pause. Tanner smiles.
Today, reenacting the scene in the corner of Pforzheimer dining hall, no yellow flag flies.
Princeton Stadium was a different story.
“I hit the receiver, the ball went through his hands, and I really just did this with my fists,” he says, pantomiming the motion. “I banged my chest. Personally, I thought it was a bad call.”
By most accounts—those of teammates, YES Network announcers, fans, Harvard coach Tim Murphy (who had “not seen that call in college football”), and even Tigers wideout Adam Berry, who offered words of support after the game—it certainly looked that way.
More obvious, though, was the season-crippling result.
With less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the then-No. 24 Tigers had been trailing, 28-24, with the Harvard defense strangling a gasping Princeton drive. At last, on third and four from the Tigers’ 39-yard-line, Tanner broke up a Jeff Terrell pass to force a punt.
The safety then pumped his fists twice—“instinctively,” he says—and the whistle blew.
Tanner froze. A flag for excessive celebration fell to earth, and the Crimson’s championship odds went in the same direction. Given 15 yards, momentum, and a fresh set of downs, a resuscitated Terrell would find Brendan Circle two plays later for a touchdown.
The Tigers held on to win, 31-28, dealing then-No. 15 Harvard its first loss of the year.
In seconds, the whole complexion of the season changed. And a normally unflappable veteran—a starter in his freshman year—suddenly went from defensive stopper to goat.
“For it to be that type of play, with so many emotions running through?” Tanner’s voice, already quiet, trails off. “As soon as I saw the flag come out, everything kind of dropped: my stomach dropped, my emotions faded. I thought that I had let my teammates down.”
Princeton’s fans had no idea.
Tanner’s taunt was so unremarkable—and the resultant penalty so unexpected—that the students behind Harvard’s bench began to mercilessly heckle cornerback Steve Williams. The Tiger faithful thought that it was the junior, not Tanner, who had committed a personal foul.
“I felt bad for him,” Tanner says now, laughing. “And I was just sitting there. Those fans did their job. They were really giving it to him.”
Thankfully, a more important jury left him unscathed as well.
Tanner admits that he “really took the loss hard” for the next week, recounting a miserable period of time which involved a lot of cogitating and “a lot of guilt.” But his teammates and coaches never allowed the matter a second glance.
“Obviously, we were all very upset after that game, but in no way did we look at him as the reason we lost,” senior defensive tackle Mike Berg says. “We all supported him and tried to pick him up.”
“The response to that penalty was, there wasn’t much of a response,” senior tailback Clifton Dawson adds. “Danny Tanner is an unquestionable leader on this team, and we definitely don’t question anything he does on the field.”
Such treatment is a product of the respect Tanner earned in his very first year in Cambridge.
As a freshman out of Western Branch High School in Chesapeake, Va., he stepped into a depleted secondary and was called on to start games with a cast protecting a broken hand. He was then squeezed out of a starter’s role as a sophomore, before shifting around from corner to weak-side safety. Tanner would start again, obviously. But he didn’t make a fuss either way.
To his coaches, it all makes a charge of “unsportsmanlike conduct” that much more ironic.
“He’s been a great kid for us since the day he walked in here,” Murphy says. “And yet, he’s not the biggest, not the fastest, not the strongest. He’s very cerebral, very dedicated. And because of that, he’s been a great role model for our younger players.”
The harsh truth, however, remains. And everyone knows it.
If Dan Tanner is never flagged for taunting, and the Crimson can hold on, 28-24, Harvard almost certainly looks forward to a beautifully rare sight this weekend: Harvard and Yale, with just one Ivy loss apiece, playing for the sole possession of a championship.
Back in reality, of course, the Crimson’s two defeats—the second coming last week to Penn—relegate it to third place.
But with the way things have played out, Harvard can actually still earn a slice of the Ivy crown. If the Crimson beats the Bulldogs for a sixth straight year and Dartmouth also upsets the Tigers, Harvard would seize a third of the title, along with Princeton and Yale.
Not that Tanner, who has never lost to the Bulldogs, needs any extra motivation.
After a lifetime of football—from his youth in Newport News to his Saturdays in Allston—this weekend will finally bring him to the end of the line. As is true for many of his classmates, The Game will likely be the final time he’ll ever wear a football uniform, let alone Harvard’s.
“I want to focus on the game itself, and kind of reflect afterwards,” Tanner says. “But I will say that over the past week or so, the reality has set in. I know this will be the last time I step on a football field and play. And I’ve been playing since I was nine years old.”
This 123rd rendition of The Game, he confesses, is something that he’s thought about ever since stepping foot on the grass of the Yale Bowl as a freshman in 2003.
Today, he wants “nothing more” than to win.
“It’s what we’re here for,” he summarizes. “It would be the best way to end my career.”
Here in the corner of Pforzheimer dining hall—22 days removed from that fateful afternoon at Princeton Stadium—Dan Tanner allows himself to grin.
The senior, of course, cannot wait to celebrate.
--Staff writer Pablo S. Torre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.