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Versus.com: Harvard-Yale: 'The Game' Says It All

Pete Varney celebrates his game "winning" two-point conversion in 1968's infamous game.

Harvard-Yale: ‘The Game' Says it All

By Craig Haley
November 18, 2009
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Fullback Bob Levin had played with a back injury for 56 minutes of action and Yale football coach Carm Cozza was ready to make his move. What harm could it do to put in Levin's backup, Bill Primps, with the Bulldogs firmly in control of Harvard in the waning minutes of their game?

Cozza turned to Primps, then a 19-year-old sophomore, on the Yale sideline, and, as Primps remembers today, said, "Billy, you're going in on the next play."

Primps never got onto the field. On Levin's final play of that fateful 1968 game, he caught a screen pass deep in Harvard territory, made a nice run and then turned the ball over on a fumble at the 14-yard line with 3:34 left, with Yale leading, 29-13. Of course, in the most famous game played between the two Ivy League rivals, backup quarterback Frank Champi helped lead Harvard to a stunning comeback. In the game's final 42 seconds, the Crimson scored on a Bruce Freeman reception, got a 2-point conversion from Gus Crim, recovered an onside kick, scored on Vic Gatto's 8-yard reception with no time on the clock and got another 2-point conversion from Pete Varney on a reception in the front of the Yale end zone. It all added up to 29-29, but it hardly felt like a tie as delirious Harvard fans stormed the field in celebration and the Harvard Crimson student newspaper explained two days later in one of the most famous, and brilliant, headlines in American history: "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29". 

The fascination with the 1968 game helps to fuel the longstanding Harvard-Yale series that is known as The Game. The series is the oldest in college football history (dating to 1875) and the third-most played behind Lehigh-Lafayette and Princeton-Yale, with Yale holding a 65-52-8 series lead heading into the 126th meeting on Saturday at venerable Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn. (noon kickoff on VERSUS).

 
The Ivy League doesn't allow its football teams to participate in the postseason, so the annual showdown occurs in each team's final game, the weekend before Thanksgiving Day. Interest multiples from earlier in the season as alumni return in force for reunions, networking and rooting for their alma mater. After Ivy teams play in front of small-school atmospheres for much of the season, The Game sells out Harvard Stadium and its 30,323 seats and draws over 50,000 to the 61,446-seat Yale Bowl (the last five there have averaged 53,543).

"It's a very intense experience," says Primps, Yale ‘71. "Both teams really go out on the field and really lay it all out on the line. You know, last game, there's no postseason in the Ivy League. When you come right down to it, Yale-Harvard, that's the closest thing we have to a bowl game in terms of the crowds, the enthusiasm, all of that. It's a very big event.

 

"I think the only real comparison is Army-Navy, where one game totally decides the whole season. Maybe Michigan-Ohio State, but with the bigger schools, obviously, they always have their eye on some kind of bowl game or national championship. When you leave, you look at those four years and the record in that game kind of determines where you stand."

The way the 1968 game ended didn't allow Primps to get into The Game that season, but a year later he rushed for the only touchdown in Yale's 7-0 win. A feat like that often stays with a former player throughout his life. So many other people surrounding The Game don't let the heroics be forgotten.

"Many of the players on the field will be the future leaders of America," says Rich Diana, Yale '82, a running back who went on to play for the Miami Dolphins. "The results of that day will follow them forever. Their future careers may be more important than anything they do on the field, but the results of the game or those games will be celebrated or will torment them for the rest of their lives."

"It's a real gut-check of, can you handle that pressure?" Primps says. "Frankly, over the years, there's been some pretty big-name players, even guys who went on to play in the NFL and got Super Bowl rings, who basically didn't rise to the occasion and didn't play their best in The Game."

For the players, the competition energizes them unlike anything else. They know they're playing in something special and there's respect for the opposition. In the future, their lives may intersect with some of the players across the line of scrimmage. Gatto, the Harvard captain whose touchdown with no time left pulled the Crimson within 29-27 in the 1968 game, wound up announcing future television broadcasts with Brian Dowling, the Yale quarterback he faced off against, after their careers ended. On Saturday , they'll reunite in New Haven for a book signing.

There are even those like Joel Lamb, Harvard '93, a former Crimson quarterback who wound up working as an assistant coach at Yale for nine seasons before he returned to Harvard, where on Saturday he will coach in The Game as the Crimson's third-year offensive coordinator.

"My second year coaching at Yale, when the game was played at Harvard in 1998," Lamb remembers, "it was a much different feeling walking into Dillon Fieldhouse and going upstairs to the visitors' locker room as opposed to staying on the ground floor and heading into the home locker room.  It was very emotional for me.  After coaching at Yale for nine seasons, in 2007, when I returned to Yale for the first time while coaching at Harvard, again it was somewhat emotional going into the Yale fieldhouse and going downstairs to the visitors' locker room as opposed to going upstairs. In both instances, it did bring back a lot of great memories from my time both playing at Harvard and working at Yale."

"You realize," says Brian Hehir, Harvard '75, an offensive lineman who was the Crimson captain in 1974, "that we probably have more in common with many of the guys that played football at Yale than with anybody else. It's a terrific group of men."

The world has changed so much since Harvard and Yale first met Nov. 13, 1875, when Harvard triumphed in New Haven, 4-0, by scoring four touchdowns and four field goals under a scoring system not even recognizable today. Most recently, the Crimson posted a shutout again, 10-0 last year in Cambridge. The Crimson have won two straight and seven of the last eight meetings heading into Saturday's anticipated 126th meeting.

No matter what side you're on, whether you win or lose - and that includes Harvard's "win" in 1968 - The Game leaves people wanting more. It's that good.

"The thing about Harvard and Yale," Gatto says, "a lot of the good feeling that we had went away when the whistle blew, but everybody had a lot of mutual respect. So it was that kind of thing, it was a very good, positive rivalry."

"What's special to me," says Greg Hall, Yale '77, a tight end for the Bulldogs, "is that at a time in my life when everything seems to change all the time, like technology, the way we get news, books online, etc ..., that The Game never changes. Great tradition. Each team has one captain and one only. Each team features an ancient stadium. No gimmicky changes to the uniforms, no all-blue or all-crimson uniforms. It's always the last game. No playoffs for Ivy teams, so seniors know this is it. From here, it's law school, med school, Wall Street, whatever. But this is the end of football, so there is a real sense of finality to this game."

Freelance writer Craig Haley has covered Ivy League football since 1999.