Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 Wraps Up the Boomer Era


Pundits agree: The 2008 election has finally and forever rung down the curtain on America’s longest-running psychodrama, namely the Boomerography, a/k/a the Sixties. The long, strange trip is finally over. Still, a few stories remain to be told or retold: This week brings an evocative and affecting pair of interview-driven, time-traveling documentaries that, back during the Clinton administration, might have been grist for Oliver Stone’s mill.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 marks a particular 40th anniversary—not Richard Nixon’s election, but the scarcely less astonishing event that occurred a few weeks later in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the undefeated Harvard football team met undefeated Yale and, trailing by 16 points with 42 seconds left in the game, scored twice to confound its arch rival with a tie. Filmmaker Kevin Rafferty, then a Harvard undergrad, was an eyewitness—along with his father, a former Bulldog—to this famous edition of The Game, as the annual Harvard-Yale matchup is dubbed. Taking its title from the Crimson‘s next-morning headline, his account is enjoyably steeped in ambience and ambivalence.

Mysteries of the Ivy League revealed: New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte characterized The Game as “an upper middle-class picnic,” signifying “Eastern snobbishness or poor football [or] unreachable ‘class’.” As interviewed by Rafferty, however, the Crimson are definitely more salt of the earth—or at least less preppy—than the Bulldogs. One guy survived Khe Sanh; another, admitting to long-ago Progressive Labor Party tendencies, maintains that the Crimson essentially coached themselves—”In the spirit of ’68, we took over the team.” At Yale, where Young Americans for Freedom had more clout than Students for a Democratic Society, football forestalled protest, particularly as the team featured campus godlings like Brian Dowling, a quarterback who hadn’t lost a game since junior high school, and the highest scorer in Yale history, future NFL Hall of Fame halfback Calvin Hill.

Yale’s supermen were subject to a certain amount of joshing from their classmate Garry Trudeau, who incorporated Dowling and others into his undergraduate version of Doonesbury, and some remain sensitive. Dowling, in particular, still seems incredulous that Yale failed to win the ’68 Game, while Hill, perhaps sick of talking about it, could not be cajoled to appear. Rafferty does, however, deliver a few bona fide stars. Harvard lineman Tommy Lee Jones is on hand to intone the requisite ’60s clichés with exquisite sanctimony—acting!—and a very young Meryl Streep makes an unexpected cameo, albeit in a photograph. (Then a Vassar undergraduate, she was dating one of the few political activists on the Yale team.)

Footnotes to the Boomerography: Jones is prodded to comment on his erstwhile roommate Al Gore. He grudgingly reveals that the future vice president and Nobel laureate figured out how to play Dixie on a touch-tone phone, thus providing Rafferty with end-credit music, as well as priceless color commentary. Meanwhile, Bulldog cheerleader George W. Bush is evoked by a former roommate, with reference to the previous year’s drunken escapade ripping down the goalposts at Princeton (a major scene in W.).

The talking heads mainly are intercut with The Game—an excellent way to watch it, especially as the first half consists of Yale crushing the vaunted Harvard defense. The halftime score is 22-0. The Crimson change quarterback and their luck; still, the Bulldogs enter the fourth quarter up by 16. With the Yale band taunting their rivals with The Mickey Mouse Club theme and Yale fans rudely chanting “You’re number two,” Rafferty settles into The Game’s astounding finale, albeit annotated by players’ total recall of old grudges and expression of fresh regrets. Yale draws a few penalties, calls a bizarre time-out, and fails to adjust for an onside kick, but it’s a disputed instance of pass interference that cues the movie’s Zapruder moment and the sense that a “weird force” had taken control. (Perhaps that’s why the suspense remains fresh.)

The last 42 seconds are an eternity. Yale was the perceived loser, although the most philosophical interviewee believes that everybody won—The Game of Games insured their immortality. This may or may not be the greatest instance of college football ever played, but Brian’s Song, Jerry Maguire, and The Longest Yard notwithstanding, Rafferty’s no-frills annotated replay is the best football movie I’ve ever seen: A particular day in history becomes a moment out of time.