correction: An earlier version of this review contained a photo caption that incorrectly said that Harvard Stadium is in Cambridge, Mass. It is in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. The caption has been corrected.
Jonathan Yardley was the book critic of The Washington Post from 1981 to 2014. His own books include a biography of the first great sportswriter, Ring Lardner.
When Harvard played Yale on Nov. 23, 1968, in historic old Harvard Stadium, the result certainly was not the greatest football game ever or the most important, but it was, as George Howe Colt writes in this compelling and affectionate account of it, “one of the most unbelievable football games” in the sport’s long history. Both teams came into it undefeated and tied for first place in the Ivy League, although Yale, a certifiable powerhouse, was a heavy favorite. Indeed, with 42 seconds remaining and Yale ahead 29-19, the outcome seemed inevitable. Instead, in 42 seconds that no one who was there ever will forget, Harvard miraculously scored 10 points. The headline in the next day’s Harvard Crimson — maybe the best sports headline ever written — read simply: “HARVARD BEATS YALE, 29-29.”
I know because I was there. Neither Harvard crimson nor Yale blue courses through my veins — I am an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — but I was at Harvard for the academic year 1968-69 on a Nieman Fellowship, awarded each year to a dozen American journalists in the hope that using the university’s vast resources may help them improve their professional skills. I studied American literature and biography, the first step in my long career as a book reviewer. I have often thought, though, that the best thing about that wonderful year was the ticket the Nieman office gave me (and several others in my class) to The Game, as the annual matchup had long been known.
Fifty years have passed and my memories of that game are almost as vivid as they were when I walked home after its uproarious conclusion. Many other half-century anniversaries from 1968 coincide with that one: the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the dreadful Democratic National Convention in Chicago and, at Harvard itself, the trashing of Harvard Yard by student radicals and the police bust that routed them. It was a tough year, and Colt places the football game in that context, but as he writes:
“As time went on, it would be remembered as . . . a rare moment of grace in a tragic and turbulent year. At an intensely polarized time, in which the country seemed irrevocably divided — dove vs. hawk, black vs. white, young vs. old, student vs. administrator, hippie vs. hard hat — the tie between archrivals seemed a kind of truce. Indeed, the teams had unwittingly combined to create something like a work of art that would take its place in the iconography of the era.”
That’s placing a lot of thematic weight on a game between two schools whose teams were well below the best in the nation, but I think Colt is right. That afternoon was magical at a time when a bit of magic was badly needed. As it happens, Ivy League football was just about to vanish from the front pages of the national sporting universe, so the game was a last hurrah of sorts. It was played by young men of exceptional decency and determination, as Colt portrays them, most of whom were not WASP aristos of Ivy League cliche but sons of middle- and working-class families for whom Harvard and Yale were the first rungs on the ladder upward.
One by one, Colt portrays them in sympathetic and admiring terms: Brian Dowling, the Yale quarterback and captain, brilliantly gifted but “a throwback: a soft-spoken straight arrow who never sought the limelight, though it often sought him”; Vic Gatto, the Harvard running back and captain, all 5 feet 6 inches of him, “exceptionally strong, with a low center of gravity that made him hard to bring down”;Calvin Hill, Yale’s multitalented running back, “bigger and stronger than most linemen, yet faster than all but a few defensive backs,” soon to join the Dallas Cowboys as one of the most accomplished and respected players in the pro game; and Frank Champi, Harvard’s second-string quarterback, “a balding, bespectacled young man from the working-class Boston suburb of Everett, [who] was self-conscious and unobtrusive to the point of invisibility.”
But, as Colt then adds, “you didn’t notice him — until he threw a pass.” Champi’s right arm was a cannon, although he “had thrown only twelve passes for the varsity all year” when he was sent onto the field “with five minutes left in the [first] half and Harvard trailing by 22 points.” The starting quarterback, George Lalich, couldn’t get the team moving early in the second half, so John Yovicsin, Harvard’s coach, pulled him in favor of Champi. Champi got off to a slow start, but he came alive, and brought his teammates with him: Champi “had entered the kind of exalted state that Dowling seemed always to inhabit — the kind of state in which time seemed to slow down, the kind of state that a later generation of athletes would describe as being ‘in the zone,’ the kind of state Champi hadn’t been in since his senior year in high school. He would never be the charismatic type, but there was no doubt who was leading this team.”
As a Yale player put it many years later: “You just got the feeling that the universe had shifted somehow and that something significant — portentous — was taking place. Some kind of weird force that had descended upon the stadium.” Thus it was that, with no time left on the clock and Harvard down 29-21, Champi hit Gatto with a touchdown pass and then hit 6-foot-2 end Pete Varney for the game-tying two-point conversion. Pandemonium reigned, even in the press box, where we Nieman Fellows had been given seats and where we violated the hoary rule of sports, “No cheering in the press box.” Coming to the end of this terrific book, I felt like cheering all over again.
By George Howe Colt
Scribner 386 pp. $28