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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Irony is the sportswriter's most valued tool. It elevates merely exciting events to the realm of the extraordinary. The Oakland Raiders' Super Bowl victory, for instance, was a prime example--as the first wild card entry ever to win, it was interesting, but Jim Plunkett's remarkable comeback made it a story in the fullest sense.
Covering the Harvard sports scene this past year has left indelible impressions. On reflection, I am overwhelmed by the intensity and gratified by the intimacy of Crimson athletics. You can have Stanford, Michigan or Princeton.
* * *
The IAB, however you deprecate it, is intimate. And on occasion, it can throb with intensity. On December 6, American University came to town, replete with a genuine All-American, a classy entourage and the year's best publicity campaign.
The All-Everything's name is Russell "Boo" Bowers, and his comely features adorn a replica of an American Express card together with his 1970-80 nation-leading points-per-game average among returning players. This night, Boo showed a packed IAB crowd why his team does not leave home without him.
He was all over the floor, slinky, often inconspicuous. By the end of the first half, he had scored more than 20 points, and hardly anyone paid attention. But in the second half, he was unstoppable and eminently noticeable, hitting from all angles to run his game total to 45 points and to propel his Eagles to a 108-88 win.
The most powerful aspect of the game, however, was the effort displayed by the Crimson cagers. They shot at a superb clip and held American close, 54-52 at halftime in fact. The audience in the old, soon-to-be obsolescent IAB stomped and stamped, exhorting the Crimson defense. Seldom have so many Crimson hoop fans cheered so loudly for so long. And even if Bowers ultimately performed a one-man wrecking job, he could not dispel the image of a fired-up bunch of devotees in the cramped quarters.
* * *
Why? Why spend hours every day of the year lifting weights, running, doing the most grueling of exercises only to have training compressed into a minute and a half? Those who don't row crew at this school, those who watch their roommates tumble out of bed at 6 a.m. in the middle of winter for a brisk jog, those who can't help detect a rower's inexplicable calm during reading period, ask this question. After all, rowers have their daily workout, their daily dose.
And why venture down to the Charles or the Thames or wherever to witness a crew race? The Head of the Charles, sure, that's panorama. But in all honesty, I didn't expect a rush when I trekked down to the Mass Ave bridge to watch the first Radcliffe heavyweight Black and White (the only varsity squad that stubbornly resists the "Crimson" appellation) race.
I was pleasantly surprised. Despite the frigid and turbulent conditions--the race had been delayed till dusk--it proved an exhilirating moment. The last traces of sunlight scraped the horizon, and the sky grew pink, then azure, with the Boston skyline silhouetted in the background.
Darkness fell as the heavies cruised across the finish line, in first place of course (death, taxes, and the good Harvard crew teams are the only certain things), and in a sudden epiphany, the ostensible absurdity of working so long and so hard for a fleeting instant of victory made perfect sense.
* * *
It was a temperate Saturday in early February, sunny and balmy. But buried in the bowels of Hemenway Gym was one of the closest, point-for-point squash matches imaginable. Mike Desaulniers, who eventually retired undefeated, had dispatched his Princeton opponent in short order.
None of the other matches in this showdown for the national title was as mercifully antacid. Almost every contest came down to the fifth game, many of those sudden-death tiebreakers. The Crimson had a point to prove: for the past three seasons, squash primacy had belonged to the heavily recruited and deep Tigers.
Princeton coach Norm Peck and Crimson assistant Mark Panarese retired to the locker room to await the final results--the pressure had proved too great to bear. The opponents commiserated watching the decisive battle, a five-game, seesawing, gut-wrenching match involving Harvard's Chip Robie, who had suffered from the flu all week. The Crimson racquetmen wondered whether he had the stamina to go the distance with stubborn Tiger Jason Fish.
Hemenway's crowd was hushed during each rally, then would explode after the point had been decided. Robie and Fish thrusted and parried on interminable points, bending but not breaking.
Finally, Robie gained the edge at 14-12 in the fifth game. Fish fought back to 14-13 and the gallery emitted a collective sigh--he had already squandered a match point. But then Robie clinched the game, the match, the national crown championship, exacting a sweet measure of revenge. Hemenway, as always, still smelled of sweat, but on this afternoon champagne (squash players are ever eminent) flowed freely.
* * *
A week later, I was at Boston Garden watching the Northeastern Huskies scratch and claw their way to the Beanpot crown. The UnderDogs were overmatched by the formidable B.C. Eagles, who jumped out to an early lead.
The Huskies, however, were resilient and relentless--in a word, dogged. Gerry Cowie, Paul MacDougall and Sandy Beadle whisked all over the ice for the heretofore hapless Huntington Hounds, who had never struck Beanpot gold in the tourney's 27 years.
A late Northeastern goal knotted the score at four and sent the game into overtime. Wayne Turner notched the winner for the Huskies and coach Fernie Flaman, a former Bruin star who possesses the world's most beautifully broken nose. The Garden erupted in the greatest hockey upset of the year--to that point. Who could've imagined a couple of old Pot participants name of Eruzione, Craig and Silk would lead the U.S. past the mighty Soviets?
The aftermath also has a personal note. In the ensuing frenzy, I lost my copy and proceeded to retype my story on the Red Line--to the stares of many suspicious and, needless to say, inebriated Huskie lovers.
* * *
West Point. A great place to train generals, no doubt about that. Plebes al week had greeted superiors with the salute "Beat Hahvahd, sir." A friendly place on the exterior. But make no mistake. This meant war.
The Crimson gridders had an extra spring that day, swarming the field with boundless kinetic energy. As the sun-flecked mountains gleamed in the background, Harvard managed one of its most unexpected--and most welcomed--triumphs, a 15-10 shocker over the gray, gray Cadets.
Brian Buckley, Crimson quarterback, deserved a Purple Heart for his gutsy performance against a characteristically disciplined and hard-hitting Army defense. The partisans, who assuredly frown on defeat, watched in growing disbelief. Harvard? The Preppies?
"I'm quitting this job. No way you guys should beat us. No way in the world," one disgruntled Army P.R. man muttered. The look on his face and the setting were unforgettable.
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