It was The Game. Harvard vs. Yale. 1968.
It has now become legendary. It was one of the greatest finishes in college football history.
It was also perhaps the final chapter in the history of big time Ivy League football. The Ivy League was founded in 1954 and was comprised of the eight finest universities in the United States: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania and Yale. These schools are ancient and provided the basis of higher education in the American Colonies. The schools that eventually comprised the Ivy League won or were in the running for the national championship from 1869-1939. By the 1960's, the world was changing and the emphasis on football in the Ivies had waned. But, in the final game of the 1968 season, the Ivies stepped out of the national limelight with a tremendous bang.
December 02, 1968
Unbeatens Met, And What Happened Beats All
With tickets selling for $125 apiece, Harvard and Yale undefeated and the Ivy League in a dither, there seemed no way for the contest to match the buildup. Then Harvard sent in Frank Champi
The first half was dying, and so was Harvard. The offense was going backward; the defense was going out of its mind playing Chinese tag with Brian Dowling, that crazy-legged quarterback from Yale who throws balloons for touchdowns. The plan had been to keep Dowling in a pocket, but Harvard was having trouble keeping him in Cambridge. Yale led 22-0, and what was supposed to be a classic in the annals of The Game and an epic battle of unbeatens for the Ivy League championship was a laugh-in, an embarrassment, a Harvard humiliation (video). Finally, desperately, John Yovicsin, the Harvard coach, turned to Frank Champi, his second-string quarterback, and said, "O.K., you try it for a while." The 10,000 Men of Harvard paled. Frank Champi? Frank Champi? Why all season he's completed exactly five passes. Please, not Frank Champi. Even out on the field the Harvard men were saying Frank Champi?
"We knew Frank had the arm," said Tom Jones, a 200-pound actor who plays left guard, "but we felt he was a little inexperienced for the job. He's a junior and he's sort of been nervous all year."
"Frankly, we were surprised to see him," admitted Harvard Captain Vic Gatto. "He hasn't played a whole lot this year, and confidence is something you get by playing, not by sitting on the bench. But we needed to be shaken up and he did it."
For an opening shake, with 39 seconds left in the half, Champi flipped a pretty 15-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Freeman, a sophomore split end. A poor snap from center betrayed the attempted conversion, but six points is better than none, and 22-6 is not quite as depressing as 22-0.
"At halftime I knew we could win," Yovicsin was to say late that afternoon. "I told our boys that all we had to do was shut out Yale while getting two touchdowns and a field goal. I was sure we could do it."
"Oh, sure he was sure," said one of the Harvard team's 22 seniors with surprising emotion when he heard of the quote that evening. "Listen. Yovicsin had given up on us. All he wanted us to do was go out there and get the rest of the afternoon over as quickly as possible. But we weren't playing for him and we weren't playing for the school, we were playing for ourselves. We were the ones who knew we could still win.
"Before this season the majority of seniors on this team almost walked out. We'd been the forgotten guys on this club. Ever since our freshman year we'd been ignored. We changed our minds about walking out after Gatto was elected captain. We held a meeting in January and decided to rally around Vic, to play for ourselves. We wanted to show the school, the coaches and the experts that we were a lot better than any of them gave us credit for. And we have."
When the second half opened, George Lalich, Harvard's regular quarterback, returned for three plays. He had been as instrumental as anyone in bringing Harvard into the game with an 8-0 record, but his passing had soured at mid-season and it was not improving against Yale. The three plays gained nothing, and Harvard punted.
But Yale was now struck by a series of fumbles. It began with the punt, which Harvard recovered on the Yale 25. Once more in came Champi, a balding 20-year-old history major who can throw a football 85 yards with his right arm and 50 yards with his left and who was the best javelin man in Harvard history until he strained a muscle last spring. Harvard scored in three plays, with Fullback Gus Crim getting the touchdown.
The conversion made it 22-13, and the 40,280 fans—at least one of whom paid $1,000 to a scalper for a block of eight seats—began to stir. Perhaps the game would, after all, turn out to be worth the price. Up to this point the best game probably had been the scalping. As one Yale student said in New Haven on Wednesday, "I found my turkey for Thanksgiving. He's fat and Old Blue and rich."
Of the tickets available—at $6 each—15,000 were shipped down to Yale, where the majority were doled out at the rate of four per student. "The rest," said Jack Blake, who handles such things at Yale, "went to the alumni—only two per person." He smiled and shook his head. "For three straight days my phone never stopped ringing. They were demanding to know why they ordered six or eight and only got two. This is the first time such a thing ever happened."
Home-team Harvard did things differently. It gave out 9,000 tickets to undergraduates—the highest student ticket demand ever. It filled its alumni orders by starting with the oldest class. When officials got to the class of '49 they ran out of tickets and quit. "I just avoided phone calls," said Ticket Manager Gordon Page, who, if nothing else, helped Harvard set the NCAA record for the team cheered by the largest number of Golden Agers.
And how they cheered when Crim's run cut Yale's lead to nine points in the third quarter. Then a strange thing happened: Yale had scored in 22 straight quarters, but in this one it didn't, primarily because it gave up two more fumbles to Harvard.
"Enough of this nonsense," or some such thing, said Brian Dowling. It is claimed by Yale fans that Dowling once walked from New Haven to Long Island—straight across the Sound. "At most universities the bag is saying God is dead," said a Yale undergraduate. "We think He's wearing No. 10."
Stung, perhaps, by the ending of the scoring streak, Dowling needed just eight plays in the fourth quarter to begin a new one, rolling five yards around right end himself for the touchdown, his second of the game. He had passed three yards to Calvin Hill and five to Del Marting for the others.
Now Carmen Cozza, the Yale coach, glanced at the scoreboard: Yale 28, Harvard 13, and 10 minutes and 44 seconds to play. Cozza shrugged and waved in Bob Bayless to kick the extra point, which he did. Following Yale's third score Cozza had ordered a two-point conversion, which Dowling had picked up on a pass to Marting.
"After the third touchdown," said Cozza, "I figured two points would put it out of reach. After the fourth one, I figured what difference does it make? There was no way they could come back. No way they could win."
The Cozza Theory of Conversions While Enjoying a 15-Point Lead held up for 10 minutes, which was slightly less than it should have. With Yale rooters waving handkerchiefs and screaming across the field, "You're No. 2," Champi rallied his troops. "When they started waving those white hankies and yelling," said Gatto, "it got to us." Harvard drove downfield, and with 42 seconds left Champi threw a 15-yard scoring pass to Freeman. A Yale penalty gave Harvard two tries at the two-point conversion, and Crim got it the second time on a run. Bedlam! Everyone in New England now screamed, "Onside kick." Everyone, that is, but the Yale thinkers, for out trotted the usual kickoff-return team and up front went the big lumbering blockers. So, of course, Harvard's Bill Kelly wound up with the ball on the Yale 49.
With Champi running for 14 yards and getting 15 more when his face mask was grabbed, Harvard eventually reached the Yale eight. Now there were three seconds left. Champi scrambled back, forward, back, twirled and hurled. Suddenly the afternoon was reduced to a prayer meeting. Does He wear a blue or a crimson tie? The ball sailed, time ran out and Gatto gathered in the pass. Touchdown! Crimson cravat!
"What should we do," screamed a delirious Harvard fan, "go for the two points and a tie or settle for one point and a loss?"
"Are you crazy?"
"Yes. Yes. Yes."
"By this time," said Champi, "I was so tired I wasn't even nervous." And so, tiredly, he passed to Pete Varney for two points and a 29-29 tie (video).
Later, in the Yale dressing room, no one spoke. Fred Morris, the center, sat on the stairs, his head cradled in his arms. He was still wearing his helmet. Slowly the team undressed, showered, then dressed. Still no one spoke. Finally an outsider said, "You guys didn't lose. You're still undefeated. You're still the Ivy League co-champions."
Bruce Weinstein, a giant tight end, looked over. "No," he said softly, "when you've done what we just did you've lost. It's the same as a defeat. We don't feel much like champions."
And downstairs, in the madhouse that was the Harvard locker room, Champi, the second-string quarterback, sat and wondered where he was, if he really was a hero.
"It's been a strange day from the beginning," he said. "I'm an intuitive guy, and when I woke up this morning I was sort of in a dream. It felt like something great was going to happen to me. Then when I got here I still felt strange. It didn't feel like I was here but someplace else. I still don't feel like I'm here. It's all very strange. "
Frank Champi the hero of the greatest day in the 94-year history of The Game? Very strange, indeed.
Contemporary record album commemorates The Game.
The Garry Trudeau Connection
Yale quarterback, Brian Dowling, has been featured in the Garry Trudeau comic strip, Doonesbury, since the 1960's in the character B.D. Trudeau, a sophomore at Yale in 1967, featured the quarterback in his strip which appeared in the Yalie Daily. Trudeau's B.D. wore Dowling's No. 10 jersey. Dowling would become a hero in that 1967 season, leading Yale to a come-from-behind victory in the season's final game with Harvard. In that contest, Dowling struck with a 66-yard TD bomb late in the game to stun the Crimson.
Trudeau made B.D. (Dowling) a legend. And, B.D. has remained in the public eye for 40 years.