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The Game

November 22, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments
Pete Varney catching the winning 2-point conversion

Pete Varney catching the winning 2-point conversion

In an hour, the 2008 enactment of The Game will begin. (The Game refers to the annual season-ending football matchup between Harvard and Yale.) I’m paying more attention to The Game this year than usual, both because I learned that it will be televised on the cable channel Versus and because of recent publicity surrounding the movie Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 that opened Wednesday in New York. The title, of course, refers to the headline in the student paper the Harvard Crimson– as famous as the game itself — that appeared two days after Harvard’s great victory of November 23, 1968.

Why the strange headline? If you need to ask, you should see the movie, but here’s a quick summary. Both teams entered The Game with 8-0 records. Yale was a nationally ranked team, led by its quarterback-idol Brian Dowling and running back Calvin Hill, Dowling would go on to play briefly in the NFL and be the model for BD in the Doonesbury comic strip. Hill would be a star with the Dallas Cowboys. Harvard was not considered in the same class, and this showed when Yale took a 21-0 lead. As the game entered its final minute, Yale still led, 29-13. But in the final 42 seconds, Harvard scored, got a two-point conversion, recovered an onside kick, scored as time ran out, and then made its second two-point conversion to “win”, 29-29.

I wasn’t there. I was a senior in high school at the time. But I remember it. What I particularly remember is having my required local interview for Princeton with a Princeton alum at the same time. I anxiously drove over to his home, was brought into the study, with its Princeton chairs, and had a not particularly comfortable conversation as the game was broadcast in another room. I left before it ended and didn’t turn it on when I got home, so I had to read about the excitement the next day.

I didn’t feel nearly as bad about missing the end as the sportswriter and commentator Haywood Hale Broun must have. His poor decision to leave the game early is recounted in the short on-line note about the game that our greatest baseball writer (and member of The New Yorker’s first family), Roger Angell, posted at the New Yorker’s website. The note is only three paragraphs and you should follow the link immediately. Here’s its first paragraph.

Here’s a late tack-on to Rick Hertzberg’s nice post about that epic 29–29 Harvard-Yale tie back in 1968. I’ve not yet seen the new documentary about The Game, but I was at Harvard Stadium that afternoon and don’t need much reminding. It’s not often you’re aware that a sports event that you’re at is trying to connect itself to current history, even while it’s in progress, but, as Rick said, 1968 was a terrible year—the worst any of us in this country had known since 1940, when Europe fell to the Wehrmacht. Yale was ahead by 29–13 very late in the last quarter, and while early darkness spread itself across the striped, chewed-up turf below, a succession of untidy, untoward football events—a scooped-up fumble that turned into a huge gain, a lucky bounce on an onside kick, two killer Yale penalties—turned into sixteen Harvard points in the final forty-two seconds, and the shared conviction on our churning, screaming, steeply packed side of Harvard Stadium that this jumbled concatenation was a gift from somewhere: a chance to yell and hug and jump around, and, for that wintry moment, to empty out the back closets of our minds. The unlikely tie (on a two-point conversion pass, with no time left on the clock) preserved undefeated records for both teams, and now somehow we had put defeat aside as well.

Angell’s junior New Yorker colleague Hendrik Hertzberg, as Angell notes in opening, has a nice post on the game at his blog, as does James Fallows at his Atlantic Monthly blog.

Whatever glow the game produced in Cambridge didn’t last past April, when President Nathan Pusey called in the Cambridge police to forcibly remove students from University Hall, which they had occupied on April 9. I was admitted a week later, and my father had concerns about the atmosphere there, but we were reassured by a family friend who was a senior.

I arrived in September 1969 to a college with radicalized students and a divided faculty. The SDS was giving tours during freshman orientation, one of which I dutifully took. And sports just didn’t seem the same. Frank Champi, the surprise hero a year earlier of the 29-29 victory, lost interest and quit the team in mid season. Closer to home, the freshman heavyweight crew team that I had joined kept losing oarsmen, and not just those with no future, but also the experienced prep school stars who should have been leaders of the varsity boat in the coming years. This attrition was brought home to me dramatically. As the numbers declined from the twenties to the teens, our coach, Ted Washburn, assured me that I should stick with it, because of my solid future in the freshman second boat. But then the awful day came when the number of oarsmen dipped under 16. There was no second boat anymore! I kept showing up. I was no quitter. But soon there were only 12 of us, then 11, and I had become redundant. Ted never said anything about this awkward situation. He just took the elite 8 oarsmen out on the water and left us to fend for ourselves. I eventually stopped coming. And a year later, only 3 members of my class came back to row. (Strangely enough, two of the forgotten second boat members came back too, as managers. I’m glad I did.)

Oh, one more thing. After the excitement of 1968, how could I pass up attending The Game in 1969? It was in New Haven, but a sophomore with a car was willing to drive me and two of my best friends down there with him. We jumped at the chance. I remember very little of it now. Yale destroyed us. It was mind-numbingly boring. After the game, our driver wanted to see a Yale friend, so we had a couple of hours to kill. We walked over to the Yale campus, wandered around, and then headed back to the Yale Bowl parking lot, or rather the grass fields surrounding the Yale Bowl that had been covered with cars and tailgaters hours earlier. It was now pretty empty, and in the darkness we had a heck of a time finding the car. Plus, I don’t think we had the presence of mind to get dinner when we were at the school. I know we didn’t have the presence of mind to find any bathrooms. This presented a bit of a problem, but we found a solution, helping to put out a potential fire in the grass left over from the tailgating.

And another thing. Pete Varney, pictured at the top, was just a sophomore at the time. I watched him for two more years, but his greater fame was in baseball, where he was our star catcher and a first-round draft choice in 1971 of the Chicago White Sox. He played for the White Sox from 1973 to 1976, seeing only limited duty, before being traded to Atlanta in mid-season of 1976 for Blue Moon Odom. He has been the coach of the Brandeis University baseball team for many years, arriving just about the time that I left Brandeis. The Brandeis baseball blog has a nice piece about him today, in honor of the 40th anniversary of his famous catch.

I better go. The Game is starting.

Categories: Film, Sports
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