November 17, 2014
Harvard Beats Yale
Maybe the title should be "Social Advice For Those Who Refuse To Watch The NFL."
If you are one of those people who can't stand watching NFL football, but have been socially ensnared into a group of friends that do that and you don't have the spine or cojones to abandon your friends, then my suggestion may be for you. Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 is a movie about football (and Vietnam and the Ivy League and "Doonesbury" and Meryl Streep as a college girl and even Tommy Lee Jones) but it is not about the NFL. Not at all. Maybe the NFL gets mentioned once.
It's a documentary with a lot of talking heads. But they are Harvard and Yale graduates who are the talking heads, so they know how to complete sentences and synthesize abstract comparisons and otherwise display their skill in using multiple brain cells simultaneously. Like I said, it's not about the NFL.
But in addition to the talking heads they've got good film of the game. The game where Harvard and Yale played to a 29-29 tie, that is. The Wikipedia article for the film says that the game footage "was a color kinescope of the WHDH telecast." I would guess that the kinescope was made at the time the game was broadcast, or shortly thereafter and the kinescope was recorded on Kodachrome film, because the colors are very good. The film includes instant replays and they appear to be genuine, so either WHDH used videotape or the producers of the film faked them up very well. Then there is the play-by-play dubbed over by Don Gillis, an actual sportscaster who was with Boston's WHDH (and WCVB) from 1962 to 1983 - and after that he continued to host their candlepin program through 1996. In case it needs explaining, "candlepins" is not a different New England name for bowling. It's actually a slightly different game. I never played it, so all I know is that the pins are a lot skinnier than bowling pins.
The setup is this: Harvard and Yale have their "crosstown rivalry" going in New England. It's 1968, the Tet offensive was earlier in the year, Harvard and Yale are both undefeated. The Yale quarterback Brian Dowling, incidentally, had not played in a single losing game since he was in 7th grade. This is the last game of the season. Harvard had a weak coach and a mostly inexperienced team, having lost many of its experienced players to either graduation or the war. The Harvard quarterback that actually brought them to the tie, Frank Champi, was 25 years old and had already served in Vietnam.
Everybody knows how the game turned out because it's right there in the title, but it's how they got there and people's reactions to it (then and still today!) that make the film. I hope it's not a spoiler to tell you that with 42 seconds remaining in the last quarter Yale was ahead with a score of 29-13.
What makes the film work for me is that when they show game footage, all you see is football. There's grass (grass!), two teams, the crowds on the sidelines and the crowds in the stadiums. There are no commercial signs anywhere. Nothing at all is sponsored by Coca-Cola or Marlboro or Chevrolet. There is not even an ad for Narragansett lager. There is no jumbotron. No electronic markings appear magically on the field. There is no ticker running at the bottom of the screen. The fans do not do "the wave." There are no stupid announcers. Just one knowledgable announcer. It's like, you know, watching football. All that and what seems to have been a genuine, life altering, spiritual transformation that affected both teams and still affects them now.
Some info for those who did not walk the earth with the dinosaurs: there was a time when football games could end in a tie, and in 1968 college football did have the two-point conversion after touchdown.
If your friends insist that you have to watch football with them, you can get yourself off the hook by showing them this film. They might even thank you.
Addendum: 1968 was the "good old days" for some people, and that may mean less commercialism and more sportsmanlike behavior. But the other aspects to the "good old days" are clear in this film too. Both teams are all white, as far as I can tell, and both schools were still men only. Yale went coed the next year, 1969, but Harvard didn't go coed until 1977.