The Game, as its followers call it with upper-case reverence, essentially was over. Yale was ahead by two touchdowns with less than four minutes to play and was driving for another.
“We were getting our butts kicked,” Harvard fullback Gus Crim observed.
And suddenly Harvard Stadium turned upside-down as dusk fell in 1968 amid an implausible succession of fumbles, penalties, bounces, and clutch plays that produced the most remarkable outcome in this storied rivalry.
“HARVARD BEATS YALE, 29-29,” the student newspaper proclaimed after the hosts scored 16 points in the final minute to derive victory from a deadlock that produced both a winner and a loser despite the score.
“It was as if we had lost the World War, just a terrible feeling,” Yale coach Carm Cozza (who died earlier this year) observed years later. “And it was a tie. We did not lose that game.”
Had Yale won it, that varsity would have joined nearly a dozen others in the pantheon of pigskin perfection in New Haven. But by “losing” a draw and bearing it with grace, the Bulldogs stand apart.
These two 19th-century archrivals hadn’t had an encounter end in such unimaginable fashion since they first met in 1875, haven’t since, and won’t again.
“I am asked about that game more than any other game,” Cozza mused after four decades had passed. “We beat the Air Force, we beat the Naval Academy, we won 10 Ivy championships. I don’t hear about that. I hear about the 29-29 tie.”
The circumstances had everything to do with the enduring significance of the 1968 showdown. Both teams coming into the finale unbeaten for the first time since 1909, the ancient horseshoe by the Charles packed to overflowing, and a game turning from a rout to a resurrection in a matter of minutes.
“The interesting thing that’s been captured about this game is how the comeback and the spirit of it fit with the times,” says Vic Gatto, who captained Harvard and caught the tying touchdown pass with no time on the clock. “There’s that sense that the way the thing played out was emblematic of what the late Sixties were.”
Under the current format, the game could not have ended as it did. The teams would have played on in darkness until a victor emerged, as they did in 2005 when the Crimson won in triple overtime at Yale Bowl. Gatto reckons that the winner likely would have been Yale, given the Bulldogs’ superior firepower.
“It’s hard to think that we could have been able to stop them in the way it’s done now, with the ball at the 25 and you’re going in,” he says. “They just had too many weapons. I think the overtime would have really favored Brian [Dowling] and Calvin [Hill] and those guys.”
Yale, which had won 16 in a row, had put together the more impressive campaign, outscoring rivals by three touchdowns a game.
Harvard’s formidable defense, dubbed the “Boston Stranglers,” had held six opponents to a touchdown or less. But by the second quarter, the Crimson already had conceded three as Dowling, a gifted scrambler and improviser, had run for one score and thrown to Hill and Del Marting for two more.
“We hadn’t had anybody move on us all year,” says Gatto. “We weren’t used to having that happen. I was used to trotting out after three downs and catching a punt. That was what we were expecting. That wasn’t happening much in that game with Yale.”
After the Bulldogs piled up a 22-0 lead, Harvard coach John Yovicsin replaced quarterback George Lalich with Everett native Frank Champi, who’d spent almost all of the season on the bench.
“I was a little angry,” Champi recalled decades later. “I felt, hey, I haven’t played all year and suddenly I’m being thrust into this situation? But maybe that was a good feeling because it allowed me not to focus so much on failure.”
Champi, a superb javelin thrower who could fire a football through the goalposts from 90 yards away, tossed a touchdown to end Bruce Freeman just before halftime, and a path to victory appeared, provided that the defense could hold Yale scoreless for the rest of the day.
“I figured we could score two touchdowns and I thought Richie Szaro would kick a field goal for us and we could win, 23-22,” Yovicsin (who died in 1989) said later.
When Crim bulled in for another touchdown in the third quarter to bring his mates within reach, the Crimson believed they had a chance. But after Dowling scampered in for Yale’s fourth score in the fourth quarter, the outcome appeared settled at 29-13.
Had Yale gone for a 2-point conversion, as it had after its previous touchdown, the issue likely would have been settled.
“I didn’t think there was any way Harvard could get back in the game,” Cozza said.
And had the Bulldogs not turned over the ball seven times — three of them inside the Crimson 15 — they could have named their margin. Even so, with less than five minutes to play and thousands of the 40,000 spectators already heading back across the river for sherry and chitchat, Yale had the ball and was on the march for a fifth score.
Had Yale milked the clock on the ground, Harvard wouldn’t have had enough time to mount a comeback. But incomplete passes put things on pause, and when fullback Bob Levin (actress Meryl Streep’s burly boyfriend) fumbled on a screen play on the Harvard 14 with 3½ minutes remaining, the hosts had time to pull off a stunner, provided that everything broke their way.
So it did — every penalty, every fumble, every bounce, every call, a dozen in a row.
“There was a lot of stuff that had to happen,” says Gatto, who’d been sidelined with a hamstring injury since the early going. “You look at each one individually, I don’t feel that there was anything where Yale got screwed. But they had so many breaks go against them that you had to feel the football gods were thinking that this was what they wanted to have happen.”
A sack of Champi was wiped out by a holding call downfield, moving the ball from the Harvard 17 to the Yale 47. Champi’s fumble off another sack was ruled a lateral, with lineman Fritz Reed scooping up the ball and rumbling to the 15. On the next play, Champi threw another touchdown pass to Freeman, drawing the Crimson within 29-19 with 42 seconds to play.
“Maybe this thing’s possible,” Freeman thought.
All Harvard had to do was add a 2-point conversion, recover an onside kick, then score another touchdown and another 2-pointer. Had Yale not been tagged for interference on the first conversion, the miracle would have ended there. Instead, the ball was moved halfway to the goal, Crim busted in, and it was 29-21.
Harvard, which hadn’t tried an onside kick all year, had no choice.
“Everyone in the Stadium knew they were going to kick it,” Levin told documentary filmmaker Kevin Rafferty. “Except us.”
Ken Thomas’s squibber bounced off Yale lineman Brad Lee, Bill Kelly fell on the ball at the Yale 49, and the craziness continued. Champi scrambled to the 35, Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren yanked his face mask, and Harvard suddenly was on the 20. After two incomplete passes, the Crimson tried a fullback draw, the same play that had backfired a year earlier at the Bowl and ended Harvard’s late comeback.
This time Crim went up the middle untouched to the 6 with 14 seconds left. Somehow Harvard still had a timeout, which it used after Champi was sacked on the 8 with three seconds left.
One chance remained, and when primary target Crim was covered, Champi had to extemporize with zeros on the clock and white jerseys all around him.
“I was running for my life,” he recalled. “I was just looking for anybody.”
Champi found Gatto, who’d run across the end zone from right to left and had his hand up, and zipped the ball to him.
“Once I caught the touchdown pass, it became inevitable,” Gatto said. “There was no way that game was going to end up 29-27.”
Champi hit Pete Varney, his huge tight end, in the numbers for the conversion, and the comeback was complete.
“It’s true, it’s there, it’s official,” thought Harvard lineman Bob Dowd, peering at the scoreboard at the opposite end of the gridiron. “In bright lights.”
Half a century later, those Harvard and Yale squads remain entwined, and the final 42 seconds still play out the same way, defying reason.
“It’s been a critical life lesson,” says Gatto, who preached it to his players during his coaching days at Bates, Tufts, and Davidson. “You keep working. You never give up, even though it looks bleak. There’s no reason not to take the next step.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.