It’s not as pure as it was when players hailed from New England, wore leather helmets, and folks in raccoon coats exhorted them to “fight fiercely,” and “demonstrate your skill.’’ These are no longer the days of Ted Kennedy catching a touchdown pass and George W. Bush carrying a megaphone. But Harvard-Yale is still a nice break from the hideous big-time money machine that masquerades as college athletics, blighting and corrupting our sports landscape.
When you’re talking Harvard-Yale football (as opposed to Florida State football or Kentucky basketball, for example), most of the cash lives in the stands rather than in the closets and kitchens of the “student-athletes.”
Saturday at Harvard Stadium, the well-heeled fans of Crimson and Boola-Boola were rewarded with one of the best games in a rivalry that has spanned three centuries. In their 131st meeting, Harvard beat Yale, 31-24, in a game that was not sealed until Harvard safety Scott Peters intercepted a Morgan Roberts pass at the Harvard 15-yard line with 10 seconds remaining. The victory clinched the Ivy League title for Harvard and enabled the Johnnies to secure their 17th perfect season and first since 2004 when Ryan Fitzpatrick was captain. The victory also gives Harvard eight straight wins over Yale, a streak unseen in the rivalry since 1880-89 when Yale won eight straight.
When it was over, fans scaled the cement walls of the ancient coliseum and surged toward the Ivy champs.
“It was an unreal experience,’’ said defensive end Zack Hodges. “Harvard-Yale is the biggest game of my life. It’s very special to have the older guys come back, guys who helped me get through my sucky freshman year. It’s something special for us to be able to share that with one another.’’
“It’s a special tradition of Harvard football and you can’t really explain that feeling,’’ added senior captain Norman Hayes.
“I don’t think it will get more exciting than this one,’’ said coach Tim Murphy, who has won eight Ivy championships in his 21 seasons at Harvard.
ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” came to Cambridge-Allston for the weekend, an appearance that vaulted The Game into prominence probably not seen since Harvard won the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1920. The highly rated television program reminded folks that there was a time when Harvard-Yale really was the biggest game in the land.
In some ways Harvard is the cradle of all football. Harvard is the reason football fields are 53⅓ yards wide. Back in 1906 the Intercollegiate Football Conference (forefather of the NCAA) wanted to made the fields wider, but President Teddy Roosevelt, a Harvard man, blocked the change because his school had a new concrete stadium (built in 1903) that could not accommodate an expansion. The committee opted instead to approve the forward pass, a decision that Tom Brady is still applauding. He can thank Harvard. You can thank Harvard.
The “College GameDay” folks were wondering where all the people were on Friday when they broadcast from their set in Dillon Quad. Harvard ignores sports heroes unlike any institution. It’s the reason Bill Walton chose to live in Cambridge when he played for the Celtics. On any given Sunday, you could parade Walton, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James through Harvard Square and no one would pay any attention. Just three tall people. That’s it.
And so the TV folks’ show had little commotion when they broadcast Friday afternoon from the quad, just a random sampling of bored undergrads walking to the Gordon Track or Blodgett Pool.
It was different Saturday morning when “GameDay” came on the air at 9, reminding folks that they were broadcasting from a college born 140 years before the birth of the United States of America. Face-painted undergrads came to the quad singing songs and carrying signs. A favorite: “Yale Cites Wikipedia.’’ Long before noon, parking lots surrounding the stadium were peppered with fur coats and chardonnay.
Kickoff was at 12:30 and a spectacular game unfolded. Harvard’s potent offense was stymied in the first half, which ended with Yale leading, 7-3. The Crimson exploded for 21 points in the third quarter, a spree that included a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Connor Sheehan. Harvard led, 24-7, after three, which seemed pretty safe.
Not in this rivalry. Books have been written and movies made about Harvard’s comeback from 29-13 in the final minute of the 1968 battle of unbeatens. Harvard scored 16 points in 42 seconds to tie that game. Saturday, Yale scored 17 straight points in the final quarter to tie things with 3:44 remaining.
That was no problem for Harvard senior quarterback Conner Hempel, who connected with Andrew Fischer on a 35-yard touchdown pass with 55 seconds left on the clock.
“Honestly, this game makes my career,’’ said Hempel.
That’s the way it is for just about every player in The Game. There is no tournament. No BCS. No wait for the polls. There is no NFL on the horizon. There is no proverbial “next level.’’
This is it. College football. The final game of your senior season is the final game of your life. And if you beat your historic rival, it makes your career.Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy