The 1968 Harvard-Yale game was a curious classic. Both teams were undefeated, and as it was the last game of the season, the Ivy League championship was at stake. Yale, led by quarterback Brian Dowling and halfback Calvin Hill, both of whom would go on to NFL careers, was heavily favoured. In the first half, Yale lived up to expectations, rolling up a 22-0 lead. After calling on backup quarterback Frank Champi, Harvard got back into the game, but with a score of 29-13 going into the last minute, it still seemed hopeless. Amazingly, Harvard scored two touchdowns, both with two point conversions, and the game ended in a 29-29 tie. The Harvard student newspaper published a broadside with the headline “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” that summed up perfectly how fans on both the Harvard and Yale sides of the field felt (personal disclosure: I was on the Harvard side).
Documentarist Kevin Rafferty’s telling of this story had its world premiere last Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Film Festival’s program, inferring from Rafferty’s background in political documentary, and attempting to broaden the film’s appeal beyond Harvard and Yale alums, spins it as being about The Sixties. I disagree. The Sixties (Vietnam, student activism, the pill) are there only as context; the Harvard team included both a Vietnam vet and members of the far-left Students for a Democratic Society, but the players interviewed pointed out that success on the field required suppressing their politics. Indeed, at a politically fraught time (November 1968, a few weeks after the election of Richard Nixon and a few months before Harvard’s own student upheaval), people at both universities put aside their politics for The Game.
The narrative structure of the film is built by interspersing the game’s highlights shown chronologically — digitally enhanced and incorporating slow-motion replays — with retrospective interviews of some fifty of the players, all of whom come off as thoughtful, articulate, and sometimes hilarious. Though it was only a game, it meant a great deal to them, and their memories are extraordinarily vivid, whether what they did was heroic (throwing the pass, catching it, or picking up a fumble) or ignominious (fumbling the ball, missing a tackle, getting a stupid penalty). These memories are most compelling for the last minute of the game when, as players on both teams recalled, Harvard had an unstoppable, almost other-worldly, momentum. For example, Harvard quarterback Frank Champi described the tying touchdown pass as “finding receiver Vic Gatto and throwing into a tunnel leading right to him” and Gatto remembered the ball as being as large as a watermelon.
As a study in recollection of a suspenseful outcome, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, is superb. It isn’t just inside football. One needn’t have been there, or needn’t be a football maven, to enjoy it. Congratulations to Kevin Rafferty for making a great film about this curious classic.