In 1959, the syndicated sports columnist Walter W. “Red” Smith called a Yale athletics official at the time, Charlie Loftus, to say he wouldn’t be able to make that year’s Harvard-Yale football match. Loftus disbelievingly replied, “What? You’re going to miss The Game.”
Although Smith’s absence went largely unnoticed at the game that year, his column did not. In that week’s paper, Smith stole the epithet from Loftus’s comment and christened the Harvard-Yale rivalry football match “The Game” for good.
The name didn’t quite find its legendary foothold right away. It wasn’t until the following year, when Harvard Sports Information Director Baron Pittenger mantled the Yale game program with the respective title, that the name stuck.
Many college football fans across the country find the name “The Game” smug, pretentious, and woefully indicative of the Ivy League elitist sensibility. The Harvard-Yale rivalry, they say, is mere backyard tomfoolery compared to the likes of Ohio State-Michigan, USC-Notre Dame, or Alabama-Auburn—rivalries of so-called “real” football. So where do Harvard and Yale find the audacity, not only to preface their rivalry game with the definite article “the,” but also so presumptuously to capitalize that “The”?
Let’s not forget where American football started: in the Ivy League schools. And back then, in the 1860s, when the sport was just taking off as a more violent variation of rugby, it didn’t yet have a name. Although soon it was deemed “football,” more colloquially it was known simply as “the game.”
Admittedly, Harvard and Yale are not quite the football monoliths to which we normally sing odes of giddy exaltation. But every November, despite the chronic disinterest that Harvardians and Yalies show towards their athletics, Harvard Stadium or the Yale Bowl manages to fill up to maximum capacity. This year, the 128th game, it will be no different. Thousands of students, faculty, alumni, and their usual associates will pour into New Haven to watch the match. After all, this isn’t just any old football game. It’s The Game.