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The year was 1968. But in the midst of the chaos of the Vietnam War, a different battle was brewing. This one would take place on American soil—in Harvard Stadium.
Just as they do on every even-numbered year, the Yale Bulldogs were coming to Boston, this time to take on the Harvard Crimson in the 85th playing of The Game.
The clash of the storied rivals was one that dated back nearly a century and had ended the Bulldogs’ and Crimson’s schedules for nearly 70 years running. Even if the circumstances hadn’t lined up perfectly, The Game would have been huge.
“You could lose every game in the season, but it’s a winning season if you beat Yale,” said Harvard end receiver Bruce Freeman ’71.
But this meeting was different. The circumstances did line up.
And even 45 years later, the details are still clear in the minds of those who took the field that day.
A TALE OF TWO TEAMS
A scriptwriter couldn’t have created a better matchup. Entering The Game, both teams were 8-0, and the result of Saturday’s contest would determine the Ivy champion. But despite the parallel in record, the undefeated teams were anything but similar.
In one corner, there was Yale. At the helm was senior quarterback Brian Dowling, who had built up a legendary reputation across the country. Through eighth grade, high school, and collegiate football, Dowling had never lost a game that he finished. So entering The Game, Dowling was riding a nine-year self-assuredness high.
“I think you build up confidence throughout history, and I had confidence from high school and from my [college] teammates, so I just couldn’t wait to play each week,” Dowling said.
Lining up next to Dowling was halfback Calvin Hill. Named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1969 while with the Dallas Cowboys, Hill was the first Ivy League graduate to be drafted in the first round of the NFL.
“[Bulldogs coach] Carmen Cozza said that in his 32 years coaching at Yale, [Hill] was the only player he had that could have played all 22 positions,” Dowling said. “Some people say if you’ve got a shotgun, you shoot it. With Calvin, I just tried to get him the ball as much as possible. The more I could get him the ball, the better—he was such an incredible athlete.”
With Dowling and Hill leading the offense, Yale became unstoppable.
“More than anything else, it was exciting,” Bulldogs safety JP Goldsmith remembered. “We had the longest winning streak in the nation, we knew we were going to win, we had Dowling and Hill, and it just didn’t occur to us that we were going to lose.”
And with just one game left, Yale hadn’t lost yet. Predicted in the preseason to be the Ivy League champs, the Bulldogs were rolling coming into their final game of the season—the Elis had outscored every opponent before Harvard by at least two scores.
In the other corner, there was Harvard.
“I remember [team captain and halfback] Victor Gatto [’69] telling us in the bowels of the stadium that we were going to be undefeated, and I remember sharing skepticism with my teammates on that,” said Crimson offensive guard Tommy Lee Jones ’69.
The 1968 Harvard team did go undefeated, but, for an offense rebuilding after graduating a strong senior class, games were not won with style points.
A suffocating defense held all Ivy League opponents to 14 points or fewer, but relying on defense also meant that the Crimson never routed opponents the way that Yale did.
“We were more of a blue-collar team that wasn’t expected to be good,” said Harvard defensive end John Cramer ’70. “I think we were picked for the second division of the Ivy League that year. Somehow, we kept winning, and not by a lot. We ended up having a pretty good defense, which is what I think carried us through much of the year.”
But the impressive victories Yale racked up throughout the season carried with them a sea of momentum. Two weeks before The Game, Harvard squeaked by Princeton, 9-7. The next week, Yale downed Princeton handily, 42-17.
“Everybody believed that Yale was by far the dominant team,” Gatto said. “They had that kind of notoriety, and obviously when you’re the great offensive team, you have a lot more publicity. So they had all of that going for them. Everybody expected that they’d roll us.”
In a sold-out stadium in Allston, the stage was set for the most prolific offense to meet the most stifling defense in the league.
“We all got complimentary tickets, and back in those days, some people were able to scalp their tickets for 50 dollars a piece (worth over $300 in 2012), which was outrageously high-priced back then,” Cramer said.
Forty-thousand people packed into Harvard Stadium to watch the hyped-up action, and at first, the game didn’t deliver.
“Sports Illustrated called it one of the 10 greatest games in college football history, but you know what? I don’t think it really was,” Cramer said. “It was a pretty boring game for the first 59 minutes. Yale was so dominant, they kind of pushed us around.”
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 22-0 lead by the second quarter, and Harvard coach John Yovicsin decided that it was time for a change. He pulled starting quarterback George Lalich ’69 from the game and put backup Frank Champi ’70 in his place.
Lalich had quarterbacked the team through the season, while Champi had only seen action in garbage time.
“[Champi’s] from one of the places up on the North Shore and has a really thick Boston accent,” Cramer said. “So when he got into the huddle, he was a little nervous, and he had this Boston accent, and nobody could understand what he was saying. We couldn’t understand the play he was calling because he was nervous and had this funny accent.”
What Champi didn’t have in experience, he made up for with arm strength. As a member of the Harvard track and field team, the junior would go on to be second-team All-Ivy for javelin throwing in his senior year. But Champi was still a junior playing among veterans, which showed in his lack of confidence.
“I thought Frank was going to die,” Jones said. “He had a hell of an arm, and I was very happy to see that arm prevail, but he wasn’t particularly inspirational until he brought that arm to that game and that moment.”
But Champi channeled his nerves into anger.
“When I first got into the game, I was very nervous and surprised, but that quickly evolved into something else,” Champi said. “Basically, I was a little pissed off. I felt like I was getting thrown to the wolves. But there are no expectations, so something has to kick in. Either you worry about it and you fret about it, or you say, ‘Ah, frick it. I’ll do what I can and not give a damn.’”
That emotion fueled a Crimson drive that finally got the home team on the board at the end of the half, when Champi hit Freeman for a 15-yard touchdown strike. But entering halftime, the home team was still trailing the Elis, 22-6.
“I was just embarrassed,” Harvard fullback Gus Crim ’70 said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, we can’t play a whole lot worse than this, and they are kicking our tails all over this field.’”
Harvard cut the deficit to nine in the early minutes of the second half off a one-yard Crim touchdown run. But Dowling answered early in the fourth quarter, effortlessly moving the chains before running in a score himself. Yale led 29-13 with 10 minutes left.
Bulldogs fans jeered from the sidelines, waving handkerchiefs tauntingly at the Harvard sidelines. After all, up by 16 with just four minutes to play, what could they possibly have to fear?
But then, disaster struck for Yale.
“We were driving down the field, and I threw a screen pass to the fullback, who cut back and got tackled at the 20-yard line,” Dowling remembered. “He tried to lateral it to Calvin and fumbled.”
The fumble was Yale’s sixth on the day.
“Six fumbles,” Goldsmith said. “When you have six fumbles lost, you usually lose 38 to nothing.”
The Crimson took over with two and a half minutes left. Facing a third and impossibly long situation near midfield, Champi coughed up the ball under pressure.
“The play I remember most was Mr. 75, Mr. Fritz Reed [’70],” Goldsmith recalled. “The longest run from scrimmage was when No. 75, the Harvard tackle, picked up a Champi fumble and lumbered for 25 yards.”
Reed’s run set up Harvard at the Bulldog 15, and Champi connected with Freeman to finish the drive. 29-19, Yale.
With under a minute to play, the Crimson had to opt for the two-point conversion attempt. The play, as Gatto remembered, was designed for Champi to find either halfback Pete Varney ’71 or Gatto. Champi lofted a pass to Varney that was swiftly batted down by a Yale defensive back, seemingly crushing a Harvard comeback.
And then another gift in the form of a yellow flag. A controversial interference call forced the Yale defense to replay the conversion.
“If I were coaching on the Yale sideline, I wouldn’t have liked it, and they definitely didn’t like it,” Gatto said. “Our guy was big, and the defensive back trying to come around him did grab him a little bit. So without that, everything else wouldn’t have happened.”
On take two, Crim punched it in. 29-21, Yale.
With just 42 seconds remaining in the game and down by eight, Harvard had to go for the onside kick. And in a situation that calls on fundamentals, the Bulldogs special teams proved far from special.
“We didn’t have a hands team,” Goldsmith said. “That’s like going to a golf course and leaving your putter and your wedge at home. I mean, come on—it’s a tool, everybody has to have one. You may not need one, but you have to come prepared.”
The kick bounced off of the chest of a Yale offensive guard, and Harvard’s Bill Kelly ’71 fell on top of it. Crimson ball at midfield, 42 seconds on the clock.
Champi ran a sweep on the next play, and then the floodgates opened for Eli mistakes. A facemask penalty on that play moved the Crimson to the Yale 20.
At Gatto’s urging, the offensive coordinator called a draw for Crim, catching the Bulldogs defense off guard with a 14-yard run. With 15 seconds left, Harvard was already at the Yale six.
“By now, everybody’s come out of the stands,” Gatto remembered. “People are lining the field all around the end zone. Refs pause everything to try to pull people back.”
But the comeback stalled when Champi dropped back to pass on the next play and was sacked. The Crimson burned its last timeout. One play, eight yards, and just three seconds remained in The Game.
Champi ran the same play as the two-point conversion, looking towards Varney, then to Gatto.
“Champi gets the ball, runs around like a chicken with his head cut off,” Cramer said. “The clock meanwhile has expired—the play probably took 10 seconds, this last play.”
The backup quarterback scrambled furiously out of the pocket, looking right, then left.
“I had a sense that I was kind of protected,” Champi said. “I expected to get hit, and then there was the sensation that there was a force field around me, and then the voice inside me said, ‘Okay, now move.’”
Champi moved, saw Gatto out of the corner of his eye, and floated the ball to the halfback in the end zone a split second before a Yale lineman brought him down.
Touchdown, Harvard. Harvard Stadium erupted.
“I got tackled by three Yale guys and jumped on by 300 fans,” Gatto remembered.
But Yale still had the two-point edge.
When the referees finally herded the crowds back behind the chalk, Champi and company lined up for the two-point conversion.
“It was as if the world had just stopped,” Cramer said. “It makes you wonder if there was this otherworldly kind of thing going on that made it inevitable that this second two-point conversion was going to happen.”
The Crimson elected to try the same play as the previous conversion and touchdown. Champi looked to Varney, threaded the ball to Varney, and this time, he hung on. 29-29, Harvard.
‘THE MOST WINNING TIE IN HISTORY’
“The stadium just emptied,” Cramer recalled. “The Yale sideline was just stunned. I think there were three heart attack victims that day in the stands among Yale fans. Harvard fans poured out.”
Dowling, who played safety in high school, had asked his coach to put him in on defense in the final minute. Cozza refused, and the unbeaten quarterback watched from the sidelines as his unblemished record slipped away.
“It was very frustrating to end our college careers on a down note, but it wasn’t a loss,” Dowling said. “So that was the consolation. Some newspaper reporters after The Game came up to me and asked how it felt to finally lose a game, and I said, ‘I thought it was a tie.’”
Dowling would join a number of his teammates that year, including Hill, in the NFL draft, but that day, the success was all Harvard’s. The scoreboard may have reflected a tie, but to both teams, it felt like anything but.
“It felt worse than a loss,” Goldsmith said. “It was surreal. I don’t remember coming off of the field. I do remember their locker room was noisy. They were high-fiving each other, and you could have heard a pin drop in our locker room.”
The game was, for the most part, a dominant Yale performance. But the final 42 seconds, when Champi strung together that miraculous 16-0 run, are all history seems to recall.
“We didn’t deserve to win the game,” Crim said. “It almost would have been disrespectful to a very great Yale team that they had lost that game. I remember walking off of the field with Calvin Hill, and it felt okay to me that it felt like we won, but we tied, and that’s the way it should have ended.”
The 1996 change in NCAA rules that added overtime ensured that the 29-29 tie would be the eighth and final in the Harvard-Yale rivalry, locking the game in posterity.
“There are a lot of close games that come down to the wire, and there are thrilling endings,” Champi said. “But typically what happens is that teams get close, they’re fighting to come back, and something happens. But that day, everything fell into place.”
A missed extra point. Six fumbles. A controversial pass interference call. An imperfect onside kick that ended up working out perfectly. Everything did fall into place at Harvard Stadium on Nov. 23, 1968 in a fitting culmination of a highly anticipated game.
And even though the record books show the Crimson and the Elis sharing the 1968 Ivy League championship, those who witnessed and played in that game know the real story, and maintain their opinions, even 45 years later.
“It was absolutely the most winning tie in history,” Cramer said. “No doubt about it.”
—Staff writer Samantha Lin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LinSamnity.
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