40 years later, Harvard still 'beats' Yale 29-29

Updated: November 20, 2008, 4:41 PM ET
Associated Press

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The scorekeeper said it was a tie. Everyone else knew otherwise.

"Harvard Beats Yale 29-29," the student newspaper trumpeted after the Ivy League rivals' 1968 epic, and 40 years later in a documentary of the same name the players still have trouble getting it straight.

"Over the years people have asked me, 'What did that game mean to you?' And I said, 'Well, It was a wonderful character builder. I'm glad that we lost,' Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren says in the film. "Because if we had won I probably would have had more difficulty becoming just a regular person, becoming a person who understands that all in life is not fair, that you can't win all the time, and it's good to be humble."

Football is an unusual choice for filmmaker Kevin Rafferty. His previous works included The Atomic Cafe, a 1982 collection of government propaganda films designed to calm Americans' fears about nuclear war, and Blood in the Face, a look into white supremacist groups that Michael Moore credits for giving him his first break in movies.

But when Rafferty's daughter was accepted at Yale, he thought back to being in the Harvard Stadium stands on Nov. 23, 1968.

"In 1968, I wasn't really focused too much on sports," Rafferty said. "I was more likely to be at the Chicago (Democratic National) Convention demonstrating somewhere. Because that was the year the country was falling apart. In the midst of that, here comes this game."

Harvard safety Pat Conway, six months removed from combat in Vietnam, discusses sharing a locker room with war protesters. Others talked about the sexual revolution that was coming of age. Crimson coach John Yovicsin was just another authority figure shunted into irrelevance by his players.

"People's lives were changing by the minute," said Harvard lineman and Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones. "Ideas were flying around like bullets."

But on the field, prep school products and blue-collar locals on both sides put their differences aside to lead their teams to undefeated records -- a bit of a surprise for Harvard, but expected in Yale's case.

Three members of the '68 Yale team would be drafted the following spring, including running back Calvin Hill, who would go on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yale captain and quarterback Brian Dowling hadn't lost a game since seventh grade, earning the nickname "God" on campus and a role, as "B.D.," in the comic strip that grew into the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doonesbury.

"Women hadn't been invented yet," Yale safety J.P. Goldsmith said in the film, noting that the school was still all-male, with coats and ties required at meals. "It was a pretty boring place, you studied, you drank a little, and you watched Brian Dowling and Calvin Hill play football.

"You had the on-strike, let's-shut-it-down '60s protesters, and you had the Wall Street bankers. They didn't want anything to do with each other except on Saturdays in the fall, and everybody called a truce and said, 'Let's see Brian Dowling and Calvin Hill work their magic this week."

Other luminaries seem to wander into the movie as if they were offered cameos.

Jones, then a Harvard lineman, contributed stories about his roommate, Al Gore. Actress Meryl Streep was a Vassar student dating Yale fullback Bob Levin, whose fumble with 3:34 helped start the Harvard comeback. Yale tackle Ted Livingston was roommates with George W. Bush -- who happens to be Rafferty's cousin, a fact the filmmaker only reluctantly acknowledged in the second of two phone interviews.

Rafferty was the Harvard class of 1970, but he's got ties to both sides of the ball. His father played for Yale and his grandfather, Charles D. Rafferty, was the captain of the 1903 football team.

So Kevin Rafferty's decision to attend Harvard over Yale was a bit controversial in his family, and his father had to be told twice before it registered.

"He pretended he hadn't heard me correctly. He said, 'I'm sorry did you say Hartford University?" said the filmmaker, who hadn't been accepted anywhere in his first round of applications, forcing him to spend a year in England burnishing his credentials. "The fact that I had gotten into any school ... I just saw an opportunity.

"I knew I had gotten into Harvard on my own, because we had no connection to the place. I wanted to break away from the syndrome, which involved a certain amount of surveillance, also," he said. "These Raffertys are well-known in New Haven."

And now in Cambridge, too.

The 104-minute film is sparse in a way that melds well with the graphics and production qualities of the 1968 footage; the one adornment Rafferty allows himself is to use red and blue lettering when identifying the players' positions. He intersperses extensive game highlights with shots of players discussing the game, the '60s, and their lives before and since.

He took as his title the legendary Harvard Crimson headline, figuring the drama of the game would compensate for the fact that he was giving the ending away.

"I thought about it for about 10 seconds," Rafferty said. "I just knew it was the title. It's the signature of the game."

That he does, because as Yale jumps ahead 22-0 and still leads 29-13 with less than a minute left, even those who know how the game ends can wonder how Harvard will do it.

As the clock ticks down on the expected Yale victory, Eli fans at Harvard Stadium changed their chant from "We're No. 1!" to "You're No. 2!" The Yale band played the "Mickey Mouse Club" theme song, angering the Harvard players.

Harvard did its best to go down quietly. Quarterback Frank Champi, coming off the bench as a backup, fumbled in the backfield but tackle Fritz Reed picked it up and ran deep into Yale territory. After a touchdown made it 29-19 with 42 seconds left, the Crimson missed a 2-point attempt but got a reprieve from a phantom pass interference penalty and converted the second try.

Harvard was still eight points down, and its only chance was an onside kick. Yet Yale coach Carm Cozza, a member of the college football Hall of Fame, did not send out a team that could defend against one; they didn't have such a formation. Rafferty's interview with the kicker revealed that the ball didn't do what was expected, but Harvard came up with it anyway.

Again Champi was nearly caught in the backfield, but he scrambled free and a face mask penalty put Harvard 20 yards from the goal line. With three seconds left, Champi threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Vic Gatto, who had left the game earlier with an injury.

Fans who stormed the field had to be cleared away; Harvard hadn't accomplished anything yet.

Announcer Don Gillis had the call on the 2-point conversion to Pete Varney with no time left:

"Hang onto your hats, boys and girls. Let's just watch. ... Champi ... He's got it! He's got it to Varney! And it ends 29-29! What a finish!"

The fans stormed the field again, this time for real.

Forty years later, Harvard is out for another tie.

With a victory on Saturday in the 125th edition of the rivalry, the Crimson would tie for the Ivy League title with Brown, which won the head-to-head matchup 24-22 in September when Harvard missed an extra point early and then failed on a 2-point conversion with 63 seconds left in the game. Harvard would win the league outright if Brown loses to Columbia.

Coach Tim Murphy said this week that he will talk to his players about the history of the rivalry. But only as a message that they can use on Saturday.

"Focus: that's how you win football games," he said. "We'll talk to them about the 29-29 game, but the focus is on the '08 game."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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