Harvard beats Yale 29–29
The most heartbreaking football game in Yale history lives again, in an indie film.
Charles McGrath ’68, former editor of the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker, contributes frequently to the New York Times Magazine, Golf Digest, and other publications.
Photo illustration: Mark Zurolo ’01MFA
The 1968 Yale-Harvard game -- the famous 29–29 tie -- is one of those sporting events, like Bobby Thomson's home run or Don Larsen's perfect game, whose attendance has grown exponentially over the years. Many more people claim to have seen it than were actually there at the time. I used to fervently profess to have been in the stands that day until my wife pointed out that, as a member of the Class of ’68, I had graduated the previous June and she knew for a fact that shortly afterwards I moved to England. The closest I got to Harvard Stadium was a little baggie full of turf that someone had dug up after the game and mailed to me. An English friend eagerly picked it up from my desk one day, assuming it was something we could smoke.
And yet, after all these years, I recall that game much more clearly than any that I really did attend -- those agonizing last few minutes, Dowling scrambling, the onside kick, the botched coverage in the end zone. My memories are a composite, I guess, of all the afternoons I did spend watching Yale football and of all I've heard and read about the 1968 game. Yale, then nationally ranked and riding a 16-game winning streak, was hugely favored in the annual tilt that year. The team was led by quarterback Brian Dowling ’69, who hadn't lost a game since the sixth grade (and was later immortalized by Garry Trudeau ’70, ’73MFA, as the character B.D. in his Doonesbury strip), and by Calvin Hill ’69, who went on not just to sire Grant but to play for 12 years in the NFL. In the second half, Yale got a little sloppy, but with less than a minute left they still led 29-13. Then it was as if time slowed down, and in just 42 seconds Harvard somehow managed to score an improbable 16 points. The next day the headline in the Crimson said: "Harvard Beats Yale 29–29."
That's also the title of a documentary film by Kevin Rafferty that was an unlikely hit at the recent Toronto Film Festival, not the kind of event where people tend to get carried away by old-time Ivy League football. Rafferty (Harvard, Class of ’70) is an unreconstructed hipster and rebel, most famous for The Atomic Cafe, an anti-nuclear documentary that has become a cult classic, and works out of what must be the dingiest basement in all of Greenwich Village. If only the lighting were a little better, it could be the setting for the next installment of Saw. But he has, it turns out, a distinguished football heritage -- both his father and grandfather played for Yale -- and though he's hardly a rah-rah type, he saw the ’68 game and it made an impression on him. "My father watched from the other side," he told me recently, "and afterwards I said to him, 'Dad, how did you like the game?' This was a guy who had been at Guam and Iwo Jima. He looked me in the eye and said, 'Worst day of my life.'"
A year ago, Rafferty bought a used car for $4,000 and put 16,000 miles on it, driving around the country and interviewing people who had played in that game. He did all the filming, editing, and sound work himself. The result is a no-frills but thoughtful documentary that combines talking heads with extensive footage from the telecast of the game on the Boston station WHDH. The film is part straightforward football reminiscence and part essay about the passage of time. The game footage has faded a little -- it has the sepia glow of a bygone golden age -- and the broadcast, by the veteran sportscaster Don Gillis, is so professional it makes the Ivy League broadcasts of today look and sound like something on your local cable channel. Watching it, you can't help thinking that this may be the last moment when people actually took Ivy League football seriously.
The players, too, have inevitably aged, though as a group they don't look so bad. Vic Gatto, the Harvard running back, must be taking the secret sheep-gland extract. He could pass for 40. Tommy Lee Jones, on the other hand, looks tired and grizzled and speaks so slowly and with so little affect that you wonder whether he didn't practice without a helmet sometimes. (He says that he and his roommate Al Gore had "too much fun," and gives as an example listening to Al play "Dixie" over and over on the keypad of a touch-tone phone.) If you didn't know already, you would never guess that this guy was an Oscar-winning actor as well as an all-Ivy tackle. You also might not guess that the roster of players interviewed includes distinguished educators, a well-known pediatric neurosurgeon, and a couple of guys who have made vast fortunes. Identifications, beyond their names and what position they played, wouldn't have hurt.
They all remember (or, in one case, misremember) the game even more vividly than I do. A few of the Yalies, so heavily favored to win, still haven't got over it. Several of the players also talk about what it was like to be a young person back in 1968, when there was so much going on besides football: the first stirrings of the feminist movement and sexual revolution, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, which hung threateningly over all of us, dividing faculty and students, friends and classmates and even teammates. Pat Conway, who played defense for Harvard, was a newly returned Vietnam vet on a squad where many of the players were outspoken opponents of the war. Football brought them together, he says, and Del Marting ’69, the great Yale end, recalls that it did the same thing for the Yale community as a whole. "The team's success had a role in keeping the campus focused on something else," he says. "Everyone went out to the Bowl on Saturday." At a time when the Bowl is more than half empty on most Saturdays, that too seems a glimmer from an era that, for all its shadows, was also simpler.
Mike Bouscaren ’69, the Yale linebacker who drew a costly, last-minute penalty trying to knock the Harvard quarterback out of the game, still seems tortured by that afternoon. "I'm glad we lost," he says in the film, not entirely convincingly, "because if we had won I would have had more difficulty becoming a regular person." But in fact by tying the way they did, the Yale players became more famous than they ever would have as victors. Does anyone seriously care anymore who wins the Yale-Harvard game? But that one afternoon 40 years ago, so singular, dramatic, and unrepeatable, lingers in our memories, even the made-up ones.