It’s a good news, bad news situation for Ryan Fitzpatrick this week.
“Fortunately, I’m still playing in the NFL,” the Houston Texans’ backup QB said by phone this week. “Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it back for The Game.”
It’s been 10 years since Fitzpatrick led Harvard to a perfect 10-0 season in 2004, and the well-traveled signal-caller has been able to make it back to campus for only one Harvard-Yale matchup since.
And while he’s glad he’s been able to play as many years in the NFL as he has, with the St. Louis Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and now the Texans, he misses the atmosphere and the buzz that accompanies the yearly season-ending matchup with the Bulldogs.
“It’s a lot different,” he said. “The fact that the stadium’s gonna be sold out and packed, and there’s so much history surrounding the game [makes it special].”
The Crimson are ranked No. 14 in the FCS coaches poll and No. 15 in The Sports Network poll, they’ve already clinched at least a share of the school’s 16th Ivy League title and at 9-0 (6-0 Ivy) are seeking the 17th perfect season in school history. But that’s not all that’s on the line, as 8-1 Yale can clinch a share of the Ivy League title with a win.
If Harvard wins, it takes the title outright.
And add to that the national spotlight that descended on campus when ESPN’s “College GameDay” announced it will broadcast its Emmy-winning pregame show from the Dillon Quad and The Game may never have been bigger.
“I think that’s awesome,” Fitzpatrick said of “GameDay” coming to Cambridge. “Obviously it’s a big game for a lot of reasons, because of the history and because both teams are the class of the Ivy League. That only adds to it.”
Corey Mazza was a wide receiver on the 2004 undefeated Crimson team. He remembers watching the first “GameDay” trip to the FCS level, to Penn for Crimson-Quakers in 2002.
“I remember watching that and thinking how cool it was and hoping that, you know, they’d come back again while I was playing [at Harvard,]” he said. “Obviously there’s a lot of great rivalry weeks the week we play Yale, for these guys to have this opportunity, I’m excited for them. I’m excited as a fan.”
After graduating, Mazza played a year of professional football in Italy for the Parma Panthers before joining the Marines and leading a platoon in Afghanistan. These days, he’s working toward an MBA at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business.
He and his wife, Kathryn, will put a Harvard jersey on their son, 10-month-old Caleb, and sit down Saturday to watch The Game (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network).
“I think every single one of us on the field in the Ivy League wishes they could play in front of 100,000 people every home game,” Mazza said. “That said, to play in a game when the alumni from both schools take it so seriously, you feel the importance from the first day of the week. All the way up. Kinda like a slow build.
“Getting the opportunity to play a game that’s kinda like the culmination of the season, the culmination of your career it’s really special because that last game is against your biggest rival in front of the biggest crowd you’ve ever played in front of.”
Fitzpatrick’s played in front of bigger crowds since, but that doesn’t diminish the hold The Game has on him.
“It’s probably the last competitive football you’ll play in your life,” he said. “It means a lot to all of us, the fact your whole football career has led up to this moment.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Fitzpatrick’s favorite moment from The Game wasn’t of the 2004 capper to the undefeated season. It was his sophomore year, when he came into the game off the bench on a windy day and used his legs to help the Crimson to a win.
And once the game was in hand, senior Neil Rose went back in at quarterback to finish it off.
“To be able to go in and help get the team a win and then send him in to take a knee,” Fitzpatrick said, “to be able to contribute to that was pretty cool.”
What memories will be made on the field in Harvard Stadium on Saturday? No one knows. But one thing’s for sure: Whatever happens, it’ll be remembered.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.