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AFTER the 1968 Harvard football season, the Harvard Club of Boston gave a dinner for the first undefeated Crimson team in 50 years. George Lalich was asked to speak and he told the story of how he became the starting varsity quarterback.
"When we came to early practice the Boston area papers didn't even mention me as a prospect," George said. "The only guy they seemed to think had a chance was someone named Big Hole. The columns read 'and at quarterback the Crimson will have a Big Hole.' Well, I didn't know this guy Big Hole, so I decided to show up for practice and try my luck."
George won the starting position at quarterback, but for the pre-season games it looked almost as if Big Hole might have done better. With raw rookies trying to fill the voids left by injured veterans like John Tyson and Dan Wilson, the Crimson first unit bumbled through a 16-7 loss to a weak New Hampshire team.
The pundits were ready with their criticism, and still they placed Big Hole at quarterback. The first half of the Holy Cross game made the most pessimistic forecasts look right. Those who had predicted losing seasons sat back and puffed half-time cigars confidently.
But something happened in the locker room at half time, something which changed that team from a loser to a winner. It didn't look it as the Cross came out in the third quarter to run the score up to 20-12, but those who know Harvard football could sense the comeback. We found some new heroes to replace those lost to graduation and injury. Most important the new faces had the poise and the confidence to come back, and keep coming back all year. Lalich found a couple of sophomore ends, Pete Varney and Bruce Freeman (of Redlands, California), and a defense that decided to dig in. Two fourth quarter touchdowns provided the margin as Harvard won its most important victory of the year 27-20.
After the Holy Cross game the Crimson began to roll. Week after week the victories piled in, each more surprising than the last. The key to any undefeated season is not to think about it. Take each game as it comes and play your best football. For the Harvard eleven this was easy. Each Saturday they were faced with a challenge, and no defeat could have been considered an upset.
Bucknell fell 51-0 in a game which shouldn't have been scheduled. The rout gave more confidence to the new players. But the next week Columbia and its super star quarterback Marty Domres took some wind out of the new Crimson sails. The skeptics reappeared as Harvard won by only one touchdown, 21-14. Sloppy football was the pundits' watchword and again Big Hole appeared in the lineup. But the pundits didn't know how lasting the Holy Cross half-time magic was and were caught by surprise as Harvard downed Cornell 10-0 and Dartmouth 22-7 in successive weeks.
Pennsylvania, too, was living an impossible dream, and a crowd of 2,000 expected a tight game on October 28 when the Quakers met the Crimson. But the potential of the Crimson, so obscure in pre-season exhibitions, was again apparent, though again not its limits. What was supposed to be another tight game, a possible defeat for Harvard, ended in a rout. The Quakers went home after a 28-6 shellacking and there wasn't much to drink to in the Penn fraternities.
Princeton stretched the Crimson heart to its limit. The defense, magnificent throughout the year, held the Tiger squad to only one tally. Again and again, as it appeared the Tiger tide might sweep past the tiny nine points the offense had amassed, the defense came up with a play to plug up the dam. A goal-line stand, a key interception by Tommy Wynne, and a come from behind chase down tackle by Mike Georges were the highlights. But the Princeton game gave the pessimists something to talk about "George Lalich can't pass," was the new phrase. But at least mention of the Big Hole has disappeared.
And so the stage was set. Until the final whistle sounded at Princeton, the Crimson eleven hadn't really been thinking about Yale. It was too big, too powerful, too far removed. And always there had been a more immediate task at hand. And yet, after an easy rout of Brown, here they were. A Cinderella team facing the might Eli. Somehow it was impossible, and in the euphoric week before The Game people seemed to float from place to place. Harvard sophomores got rich with tickets going for $200 each. The pundits were almost too numb to write about the biggest college game in decades. The old grads were in the finest hour.
And it all centered around a group of about 40 guys.
Every obnoxious Yalie I know came up to me in the week before The Game to tell me tales of the fabulous Brian Dowling and Calvin Hill. They moved the clouds and made the sun shine. They walked on water. They lived like Gods.
And all I could tell them about was a group. A group of about 40 guys, none of whom, not even Vic Gatto, was a superstar, but all of whom wanted to win. It doesn't look like much on paper, and it didn't sound like much to the Yalies, but for anyone who saw the Harvard-Yale football game it was the margin of victory.
It was the most perfect ending to a perfect season. It was the Red Sox winning the pennant, or the New Hampshire primary. It was a victory of the unknowns. Sophomore Bill Kelly, a reserve defensive back, and ends Pete Varney and Bruce Freeman became over-night heroes. And for Frank Champi, the moon-faced second string quarterback, it was a dream--not the dream he says he had the night before--but the dream he lived on the field.
By the third quarter it was over. For the pundits, the Yalies, the old grads and those who had never seen the Crimson play before, and even for the coach. But for a few hopelessly naive romantics in the stands and about 20 players on the field it was not.
I was one of these romantics. I had seats on the 15-yard line towards the open end of the field. It was the second Harvard touchdown that did it for me. Crying and hoarse I turned to the guy sitting next to me and babbled "We're going to do it. We're going to do it." Then Yale scored again and the skeptics relaxed. The score was 29-13 and Harvard couldn't possibly come back.
Forty-five seconds to go. Harvard down by 16. The Crimson on the Eli 38-yard line. A penalty. A run by tackle Fritz Reed, Bingo. A score from Champi. to Freeman who beat the Eli hands down to the end zone. We could tie. I could barely see.
The kickoff. Everyone knew it was going to be onsides. Everyone except the Yale coaches who had set their usual blocks of flesh up on the front line of the receiving team. Miracle. Bill Kelly came up with the ball. Impossible. A draw. No Frank it takes to much time. But it worked. Dowling watching from the bench. Carm Cozza stunned.
Three seconds to go. I was down near the field. "Hit the Big fella!" But it went to the little man instead. The bumbling Elis had Big Hole on their squad now. He was defining Gatto. Six points and delirium.
People were on the field. Not me. I remembered the Dartmouth game a year before where a penalty on an extra point try had cost us the ball game. But that was a different team. Nothing could be denied our darlings. And the daintiest, the sweetest of those darlings did the job. The Big Fella, 240-pound tight end Pete Varney. When Varney moves there's no denying him. He jumped high in the air after the catch with the ball held high. The Yalie had him in his arms, but there wasn't anything he could do.
I was on the field, drunk with joy. From the Yalies only silence. We carried tackle Steve Ranere off the field and as he passed the Yale bench he raised his hands. We had won, 29-29.
Harvard for me will never be the same again as it was on that day. There will never be another team for me like that team. I may never go see another football game.
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