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Chance and Handsome Dan

By Timothy J. Mcginn

A few minutes before the start of The Game’s second half last November, two fans standing in the Yale student section quietly slipped down onto the field and unassumingly took up their posts on the home sideline. They casually noted the locations of security personnel and, seeing none, cautiously set about their mission. Sauntering up to Handsome Dan, the duo attempted to convince his handler that the mascot was needed for one final anti-Harvard halftime performance. Without a word of dissent, the bulldog’s master handed over the hula-hoop that was serving as a leash, apparently never suspecting anything was amiss.

Stunned by the ease with which they had gained possession of their archrival’s icon, the pair stood paralyzed on the Yale Bowl’s field, their package ready for delivery. They had spoken of, and planned for, this moment for weeks, but neither of them had expected their scheme would come to fruition, and certainly not in so haphazard a fashion. But there they were nonetheless. Success lay just a hundred yards away if they could only summon the courage to sprint to their Harvard brethren, dog in tow. Slowly jogging onto the grass, they led Handsome Dan in circles, drawing thunderous applause from a host of Elis. Then, without warning, they broke for the visitor’s side, sprinting across the pitch as the Yale fan base recoiled in horror, and the few Harvard students aware of what was transpiring broke into wild celebration. The thieves raced through the end zone and to the stairwell leading into the Harvard student section—and immortality—when disaster struck. Handsome Dan’s legs were too short to climb the steps, and, at 70 snarling, drooling, squirming pounds, he was far too heavy to carry. The dream was dead.

Not every one of my Harvard memories ends with such heartbreak, but this moment was wrenching. My roommate, Mark Giangreco, and I looked back to see just how close we had come, before disappearing into the crowd as stadium event staff and members of the New Haven Police Department converged on our seats to reclaim the very much unharmed dog.

And so began my ill-fated and ultimately uncompleted effort at a commencement address. It’s not much of a speech, really, and the last portion is a rather clumsy effort at segueing into a pearl of wisdom that, in all likelihood, would never have emerged. As I was beginning to write, I wanted to stand before the assembled Commencement crowd and, more than anything, casually note just how wonderful my roommate and I are.

But looking back upon my time at Harvard in recent weeks, I’ve come to see the heist as far more than an opportunity for self-congratulation—though it undoubtedly is that, too—and as a lens through which to examine the whole of my college experience.

If nothing else, my time at Harvard has been defined by the random curveball, the unanticipated twist. Mark and I had joked about dognapping Handsome Dan but acted on a whim that succeeded only by chance, then fell through thanks to more of the same. I met one of my best friends two days into freshman week in line at University Health Services, an introduction made possible only because I saw myself as a future rower in need of medical clearance, and she wrongly thought she needed a physical to participate in intramurals. I was lucky enough to meet my 12 roommates only because we were randomly lotteried into the same house. I advanced at The Crimson as rapidly as I did only because the sports department was short on members in the Class of 2005, not because I was particularly remarkable.

Unlike high school and before, chance seemed to play as large a role as any skill I possessed at every step. After all, the last time I had lost anything meaningful prior to my arrival in the Yard I was in seventh grade, I was running for elementary school vice president, and the main plank of my opponent’s platform was candy for lunch. Through a shrewd bit of skill, I promised students that they could teach for a day, and they elected me president the following year. What bumps in the road I encountered were few, far between, and easily weathered.

But at Harvard? There was, undoubtedly and unavoidably, failure and worse. A disastrous performance in a class with Harvey Mansfield sophomore fall, when grade deflation was at its peak. A poorly planned and ultimately unsuccessful candidacy for president of The Crimson, closely followed by news of a family member’s terminal illness. A senior thesis that never really came together. An incarnation of Handsome Dan with unusually short bulldog legs. In short, more setbacks in the last four years than in the previous 17.

Which isn’t to say I am complaining. We’ve all encountered hardship, and Harvard is meant to test us. If I’ve learned nothing else, it’s how to fall, to pick up the pieces, and to put my life back together as well. Mansfield may have gotten the best of me, but I thrived elsewhere in the government department. When the doors to The Crimson closed, I was finally able to return to the tutoring program I’d been forced to leave behind. And when Handsome Dan slipped away, well, it didn’t take very long to find a new dream.

Timothy J. McGinn ’06, who was Crimson sports chair in 2004 and Crimson director of online media in 2005, is a government concentrator in Quincy House.

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