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“So many things had to fall right,” Frank Champi ’70 said. “That was really interesting to me, how critical everybody’s part was in that whole drama at the end. It was a true team win, shall we say.”
In 1968, Harvard football pieced together perhaps its most famous “win” in the program’s 146-year history. Down 29-13 late in the fourth quarter, the Crimson rallied for two touchdowns along with a pair of successful two-point conversions to tie perennial rival Yale. This result marked the eighth and final stalemate in the 135-year-old rivalry.
In a game replete with action and lore, Champi seems to be correct in noting that there are legions of unsung heroes for the Crimson — teammates like Kenny Thomas, for instance, who knocked the onside kick off a Yale return man, delivering the ball back to Harvard so Champi could lead his squad downfield once more.
However, also missing is what happened around the game, in all the years leading up to it and in all the many years since. Athletes like Champi and teammate Vic Gatto ’69, who caught the touchdown pass from Champi which positioned the home team to knot the game at 29, are frozen in history at 20 or 21 years old. What led them to this moment? Where did they go after departing from Harvard?
Champi and Gatto were each the products of humble beginnings growing up near Boston, and the pair had strikingly similar career paths after leaving Harvard. Though The Game of 1968 forever intertwines the duo, there is much more to these gridiron stars than meets the eye.
This game garnered perhaps the most attention of any Harvard–Yale contest to date. Each side entered the game, hosted at Harvard Stadium, at a spotless 8-0 and looking to tie a ribbon on a perfect season by beating its archrival. Yale was led by quarterback Brian Dowling, who had not lost a game he had finished since eighth grade. The Bulldogs also featured halfback Calvin Hill, a skilled ballcarrier who would end up a first-round selection of the Dallas Cowboys. The Crimson was far less heralded, though it was intent on proving false the narrative heading into the matchup.
Champi was born and raised in Everett, Mass., a working-class city just outside of Boston. He seems glad to have grown up when he did, in an age when he did not have to specialize in one sport to advance to the collegiate ranks.
“It was part of life back then, playing on the playgrounds,” Champi recalled. “And of course in those days we could go to playgrounds without parents looming over us, paralyzed in fear that someone might steal us.”
Champi nearly started his competitive football career off on the wrong foot, however. Between seventh and eighth grades, in the summer before football tryouts, he came down with a severe case of pneumonia and was hospitalized. To pass the time, he read sports magazines that his parents would bring him, and by the time he was discharged from the hospital, he had decided he wanted to be a fullback for the Everett Junior High football team.
During tryouts, he faced yet another setback with a groin injury during a running drill. Thinking he was inevitably going to be cut, Champi was surprised when the coach — the father of former Everett High School head coach John DiBiaso — kept him on. Weeks later, the elder DiBiaso was looking for a backup quarterback, and Champi volunteered to throw some passes.
“He says to me, ‘Well, come over here,’” Champi remembered. “He put his hand up against mine and I put my hand up against his, and my hand was much bigger than his hand. He said, ‘Okay, you’re a quarterback.’”
Everett has a storied football tradition, and that was no different when Champi rose to prominence at the high school. When he quarterbacked the varsity team during his junior and senior seasons, the team did not lose a single game. During his senior season, he began receiving recruiting letters from Ivy League schools, most notably Princeton and Harvard. At first, he verbally committed to Princeton because of its location and the school’s persistence in recruiting him.
“There are only seven trees in Everett and all seven of them are in the cemetery,” Champi said. “I just wanted some room.”
But ultimately, the star quarterback landed at local Harvard. Bobby Leo ’67, who graduated ahead of Champi at Everett High and was a standout for the Crimson and later the Boston Patriots, helped spearhead the effort to woo Champi. Champi relented, feeling he owed it to the Leo family and the other Harvard recruiters.
"It was funny, my father and the coach from Wellesley sort of fighting over the scale as I just barely tipped it at 110."
Gatto grew up not too far away from Champi in Needham. He came from a family that had a tradition at Harvard — his father attended the College and went on to the Business School, while his uncle graduated from the Medical School. However, his was not a typical Harvard legacy family. Gatto’s grandfather immigrated from Sicily and ran a corner store in Inman Square. Gatto’s father and uncle took turns taking leave from school to help the other financially so they could each graduate.
“My father obviously had a little bit of prejudice about where I might go,” said Gatto of his college football recruiting process.
Though he would say his father was an impressive athlete, Gatto recalled that his father was not able to partake in sports himself because he had to work from the time he was five years old in the corner store straight through his years at Harvard.
“My dad used to take us out back and then also take us to the beach, wherever we were, and he’d make us catch passes what seemed like endlessly, but it wasn’t,” Gatto said. “It was just his way.”
Gatto’s father translated his own lack of an athletic career into a passion for supporting his sons. Aside from the ceaseless drills on the beach, the elder Gatto had a passion for Harvard football before his sons even started college, and once they got there he would station himself on the roof of the stadium, taking photos among the rest of the photographers. Earlier on, his father coached the Pop Warner team in Needham, where Gatto pushed the boundaries of the league’s 110-pound weight limit.
“It was funny,” Gatto mused, “my father and the coach from Wellesley sort of fighting over the scale as I just barely tipped it at 110.”
Gatto had his first taste of collegiate football when his Needham team faced off against bitter rival Wellesley at halftime of a Boston College game. His brief time at Alumni Stadium would in time lead to a burgeoning career at Harvard, where he and Champi occupied the same locker room, Gatto one year ahead of the younger Champi.
About halfway through the second quarter, Yale led 22-0. The Bulldogs were running away with a game that they largely had been expected to win in the first place. However, head coach John Yovicsin opted for a bold shift in strategy. Yovicsin, a cold, calm leader who traditionally depended on his seniors, deployed junior Frank Champi into the fray at quarterback. Champi and his offense eked out a score before halftime as the junior found Bruce Freeman to cap off a 64-yard drive — heading into the locker room, Harvard no longer saw a goose egg on its end of the scoreboard.
Though the 1960s marked a notable time in Harvard football history, those years were fraught with other concerns, both at home at Harvard and abroad. The Vietnam War raged on, and the football team and the college as a whole were deeply intertwined with the war from a variety of angles.
Gatto, a resident of Quincy House who landed in the History Department after bouncing around social science majors, recalls that the war brought on waves of anxiety but also created a lot of activity and debate among disparate groups around campus.
The football team was no different from the student body as a whole. Two members of the team were part of the Students for Democratic Society, or SDS, a “rabble-rousing, very anti-war group” according to Gatto. Another had recently returned from deployment in the Battle of Khe Sanh, and another still was part of the campus ROTC program.
In the spring of 1969 — after this game occurred — a student strike ended up canceling finals. SDS had entered University Hall, removed a dean, and barred the doors, citing concerns over the war, the school’s ROTC program, and Harvard’s expansion into vulnerable nearby neighborhoods in Cambridge and Allston. Despite the unrest across campus, the football team remained a cohesive unit. The above players, split by the organizations they were part of, all occupied spots on the defense and never appeared to clash.
“They were friends, even though they had very different views,” Gatto said. “And in those years nobody really agreed with the war, including the guy who had to go fight it, but he still had friends over there fighting and — bluntly — dying, so there was no way he could understand or agree with people who were so negative that they accused the guys coming back of being traitors.”
Gatto recalled the student who returned from Vietnam being spit on at the airport in San Diego when he returned from his deployment. It was tough for people to draw a hard line between the war itself and those who were unfortunate enough to have had no choice but to fight. Many of those who fought were not affluent and thus could not afford to be in college and avoid the draft.
“I’m very serious about the fact that it never was an issue,” Gatto maintained. “Everybody was able to step back and realize that we had a different mission. It was more important to us to do well and focus on our team than it was to have to worry about political discussions in the middle of all of that. There was plenty of time to do that back at the House with your roommates. You didn’t have to do it while you were on the football team.”
Champi reinforced Gatto’s claim of the team’s solidarity. The quarterback, despite his interest in history and politics, tried to remove himself as much as possible from the ever-present debate and discontent on campus at the time. In contrast to what the team and the rest of the Harvard student body saw on the nightly news, football served as a release, and once one crossed over the Charles into Allston, the stress and anger and frustration with the war subsided to a degree.
“To have a successful team, you not only have to have ability and drive and focus and all that other stuff, but you also have to like your teammates so you’re all on the same page,” Champi said. “If you’re working with people you don’t like, you might be at odds. You might try to sabotage each other.”
Campus sentiment around the 1968 team was lukewarm during much of the regular season, perhaps due to the political activity engrossing the student body. But interest grew immensely as The Game neared. On the Friday before the momentous contest, a group of recent football alumni approached the Harvard Band, which was playing fight songs near Dillon Field House, and asked if the group would be interested in leading a pep rally. Bobby Leo and former captain Don Chiofaro ’68 championed the effort.
“We knew that was going to be one hell of a game,” Leo recalled. “I mean everybody was hyped for this game the next day. And that [pep rally] still lingers in my memory as one of the significant things, one of the fun things until we got to the next day and that was mind-blowing — the game, The Game.”
Gatto recalls a rally, perhaps Leo and Chiofaro’s, perhaps a different one altogether. As the team boarded a bus that would bring it to a Framingham hotel for the night before the game, about 200 students crowded around and cheered the team’s departure.
“Only in that kind of setting could you get 200 Harvard people to do anything that didn’t involve canceling classes,” Gatto said.
The Game, and the days leading up to it, appeared to be morphing into an escape for Harvard affiliates beleaguered by the constant tensions of the war and resulting ideological clashes on campus. Add that to one of the most highly-anticipated Harvard–Yale matchups ever, and you had a recipe for a memorable game even before the opening kickoff sailed through the brisk November air.
“That game seemed to change everything,” Champi said. “It’s like everybody unbuttoned the tight vests and let their emotions out … during that game and afterwards too. It was like something changed momentarily.”
Harvard continued to build off the glimmer of success Champi saw at the close of the second quarter. Though starter George Lalich got another chance at the outset of the half, he was quickly replaced by Champi again. The teams traded touchdowns, Harvard scoring in the third on a run by Gus Crim ’70 and Yale answering in the fourth when quarterback and captain Brian Dowling kept the ball himself to break the plane. With less than a quarter of action to go, the deficit was still 16.
Champi and Gatto arrived at the 1968 Harvard–Yale game at the culmination of divergent paths. On one hand, Gatto was a senior and the team’s captain, an emotional leader who filled the pregame void left by the relatively aloof John Yovicsin and his staff. On the other, Champi was a junior backup quarterback stuck in a rut behind senior starter George Lalich, having been limited to brief garbage-time minutes in 1968.
Champi even considered quitting at times during his tenure in Cambridge, recalling that he was frustrated with his situation and wanted to focus more of his energy on preparing for life after college.
During his freshman year, Champi struggled to keep up with the academic demands of the College, becoming discouraged and plummeting down the freshman team’s depth chart. Eventually he became acclimated as he switched his course of study from History to English, but football still flowed on, unrelenting.
Champi and the rest of the team dealt with an extremely difficult and demanding schedule during football season. The players would cross the river around 3 p.m. and not return to their rooms until 11 at night. Getting taped and warming up bled into a two-hour practice, which was extended when players had to get in extra repetitions after the final whistle. A quick break for dinner at the Varsity Club was allotted, and then it was back to team meetings — all this despite Harvard’s desire to decrease the time commitment that athletes made to their sports.
“If this is de-emphasizing football, it must be 24/7 at the big schools,” Champi remembered thinking.
Gatto had what appeared to be a somewhat smoother path. The halfback excelled on the freshman team and on the varsity squad for which he was a starter both his sophomore and junior seasons — a rarity under Yovicsin. According to Champi, he was a respected — and sometimes feared — team leader who excelled at bringing the team together as one.
“Everybody who came in, almost everybody, thought they were going to be a star,” Gatto said. “We were going to Harvard, we weren’t going to Notre Dame, and most people had been a team captain or they had been all-league, some cases all-state. We had a lot of talent, but you’ve got to whittle it down from 110 people.”
Just like these two players, Harvard and Yale were to occupy the same playing field but followed significantly different routes to land at Harvard Stadium that day in the fall of 1968. According to Gatto, in the preseason the Crimson was picked to finish as a bottom-of-the-barrel team in the Ivy League.
“I spoke at the Yale victory dinner my junior year after they had gone undefeated in the league and won the Ivy League Championship,” Gatto said. “I told them that we were going to go undefeated. Of course nobody in the Yale audience believed me, and I continued that — what appeared to be absurd — statement throughout the offseason and then again in the preseason. I know nobody believed me among the reporters I was talking with, but nonetheless it was my belief so I stuck with it.”
Leo noted that the Harvard offense was not nearly as highly-touted as Yale’s in the 1960s, but the Crimson had a formidable defense. The implementation of a passing offense allowed the Harvard squad to escape its previous “three yards and a cloud of dust” billing and set the stage for Champi’s heroics to come.
"It was as though I was looking through a tunnel at him."
Both Gatto and Leo described Champi’s arm as tremendous. Leo touted the young field general’s ability to lay the ball into a receiver’s hands accurately and softly. Gatto, on the other hand, recalls Champi tossing the ball from one goal line to the other during warmups. The junior quarterback had a cannon for an arm, but short passes and runs would be the vehicles that guided the Crimson back into contention.
Until Champi entered the game in the second quarter, it appeared as though Gatto’s Yale audience and the reporters with whom he had spoken would have the last laugh. But once the junior quarterback, fear in his eyes, took the field, all that changed. Though Harvard had to severely limit its play selection because of Champi’s lack of practice with the first team, it was able to successfully advance the ball with the help of numerous turnovers courtesy of the Harvard defense’s stellar play and the Yale offense’s inability to secure the football.
“I felt like I was a lamb being thrown to the lions for slaughter, which actually was a good thing. It was the best attitude to have because I was nervous initially,” Champi said. “A few plays into it, I basically said to myself, if I can use a French term here, ‘F*** it. I’m going to play the best I can.’”
Fast forward to the Crimson’s final drive: the team had clawed back to a 29-21 score with a touchdown and a conversion by Gus Crim. Harvard had also remarkably recovered an onside kick because Yale deployed its typical return unit, replete with players who were not known for their hands, instead of a specialized crew.
Down at the seven yard line, Champi scrambled and opted to throw the ball away on first down, leaving just about three seconds on the clock. The Crimson would have time for one last play. Gatto, dealing with a hamstring injury, ran a route opposite fellow receiver Pete Varney ’71, both of whom were draped by defenders. Gatto moved right to left across the end zone, and finally he waved his hand.
“It was as though I was looking through a tunnel at him and he says the same as he looked at me because we had perfect vision to each other, and he let it go,” Gatto said. “There was the benefit of all those times when my father threw the ball to me in the backyard. There it was, coming right to me, right into my chest, and we’re 29-27.”
After the referees and police managed to clear the field of rabid fans, Champi lined up with his team to attempt another two-point conversion. Varney ran a curl route into the end zone and had plenty of room to haul in the pass and tie the game up, delivering Harvard the “win.”
Though Champi and Gatto had taken the field at Harvard Stadium on that fateful day in the fall of 1968 under different sets of circumstances, they both exited as champions.
The comeback and the ultimate tie are ubiquitous in Harvard sports lore as well as in the greater landscape of collegiate football history. Though the Ivy League is not the bastion of elite football programs it once was, this edition of The Game lives on as a testament to many things, most notably the love of triumphs — even those that can only be classified as moral victories — especially those of the underdogs.
As the 29-29 tie concluded the 1968 football season, both players’ playing careers quickly dissipated. Gatto, in his words aided by the stature of Calvin Hill within the college football ranks, received offers to sign as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings and the Dallas Cowboys. He turned both down.
Sensing that the 1968 Harvard–Yale game was a fitting end to his playing career, Gatto opted to start coaching. The recent graduate began at a prep school in Concord, Mass., where he was also a history teacher and during which time he pursued a Master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Then he got his big break. Carm Cozza, the Yale head coach who was at the helm during the tie game, reached out and recommended the former Crimson captain for the top job at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
Champi likewise curtailed his playing career after the game, realizing that football did not make sense to him much given Vietnam and the trajectory of his own life.
“For me, when we tied it up I had a tremendous sense of calmness and relief, like a large balloon of frustration got pricked,” Champi said. “And I felt justified. Personally I felt I proved myself.”
“It really made you focus on what the meaning of life was,” Champi added. “What am I doing here? There were people I went to high school with who went to Vietnam. A few of them died. These poor people are in dirty filthy ditches and dying and losing limbs and we’re playing a sport.”
Champi, who graduated a year later than Gatto with an English degree, followed a strikingly similar path at first. He returned to his former high school in Everett to serve as a backfield coach and a teacher. Champi then enrolled in the Graduate School of Education, obtaining a MAT to teach English. The former quarterback returned to coaching and teaching for a while, bouncing around from Everett to Lunenburg to Melrose.
After a few years of that, Champi decided he needed a career change. Realizing that he preferred working with his hands, he left teaching to work in the emerging technology industry in the early 1980s, ultimately landing as a Senior Applications Engineer at Mitsubishi.
In retirement, Champi has combined a passion for history, literature, and mechanical pursuits. He has developed and patented two products — one a foot pedal that attaches to snow shovels to alleviate pressure on the back.
“The last thing people want to think about is shoveling snow,” Champi noted. “So the moral of the story is if I had to do it all over again, I’d try to come up with an idea … that involves sports or whatever people enjoy doing.”
Meanwhile, Gatto kept on with his coaching career. At age 25, he became the youngest head coach in the nation at Bates. An unexpected lunch with the college’s president led to a job offer when the selection committee remained at a standstill, weighing Gatto against another candidate. Along with his responsibility leading the football squad, Gatto was in charge of the faculty advising system and the minority student programs on campus.
“The summer after my fifth year, I was out fishing on the lake I lived on in Maine — very nice lifestyle up there — and my wife came to the shoreline and started screaming at me,” Gatto recalled.
The athletic director from Tufts was on the phone, offering up the head coaching job. Gatto’s wife, a fellow resident of Needham, was anxious to get back to Boston, so Gatto and his family moved back to Boston for six years. After turning around a Bates program that had lost 25 consecutive games before his arrival, he was handed the keys to a more potent NESCAC program with a larger recruiting base near Boston.
Finding more success at Tufts, Gatto made the move down to Davidson in North Carolina, but his tenure there was short-lived as the program decided to transition down to Division III. Like Champi, Gatto sensed the need for change and as a result made a transition to the energy industry. He first collaborated on a project with a company run by Harvard and MIT graduates to safely dispose of radioactive waste in Oak Ridge, Tenn. — a location where some of the Manhattan Project work was completed. Then, Gatto returned to Boston and created a renewable energy company that he runs to this day.
Champi and Gatto have each returned to Harvard–Yale games over the years. Gatto teamed up with fellow captain Dowling in the late 1980s and early 1990s to do color commentary of The Game alongside a local play-by-play man such as Bob Lobel. Thus, two illustrious Harvard football careers are neatly bookended.
“The first time I touched the ball freshman year I returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown, and the last time I touched the ball as a Harvard player I caught what I would euphemistically call the winning touchdown pass,” Gatto said. “So I had a good career and a very fortunate one.”
Though the pair’s paths have again diverged — as Gatto has remained in Tennessee, Champi has stuck around the North Shore, and each has moved on from coaching and teaching — the quarterback and receiver are forever intertwined in the program’s history. Yes, they did connect for one of the most meaningful touchdowns in Harvard football history. But they each accomplished a great deal on and off the field before, during, and after their time at Harvard.
Snapshots of young Champi and Gatto endure in the consciousness of Harvard football fans, but the two are not defined by their black-and-white photos in newsprint, instead moving above and beyond their place in the Crimson’s most famous victory.
—Staff writer Jack Stockless can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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