Tonight I ventured forth bravely to Haight Street, off to the Red Vic theater to watch the documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29. I had an opportunity to see it when I lived on the sunny side of the Bay, but never got around to it.
It is about one of the most famous college football games in history, when Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds of the game to tie Yale 29-29. So, in fact, nobody won. But Harvard was such a major underdog and was behind handily most of the game (22-0 at one point) that it felt like they won. Both teams came into the game undefeated, and left that way too.
This was 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. By November of that year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had both been shot dead. Harvard's team included a Vietnam veteran, a member of the ROTC, and many fervent protesters of the war. Yale's team, at least as depicted in the movie, mostly included Northeast blue bloods who had easily won every other game that season. So I found myself rooting for Harvard, because in this one particular situation Harvard was actually an underdog.
For trivia buffs: Tommy Lee Jones played for Harvard. And members of the Yale football team were Garry Trudeau's inspiration for what became Doonesbury.
The film mixes recollections of players from both teams with generous footage of the game (sometimes annotated by filmmaker Kevin Rafferty.) The instant replay is amusingly primitive by today's standards, and the field goal posts are a lot shorter. But otherwise it's good ol' American football.
The game hinged on turnovers and controversial calls by the referees. Harvard needed to make two 2 point conversions in that final minute, and didn't make the first. But they got another chance because the referees flagged Yale for pass interference, and punched it in the second time. Yale players, to this day, insist there was no interference. At the Red Vic tonight you could tell the Harvard and Yale fans by how they reacted to footage of this play. I wanted to believe it was pass interference, since that helped Harvard, but didn't really see it.
You might be thinking, "Geez...this game was more than 40 years ago. Can't these guys get over it?" Don't worry. The players are middle-aged now, and know--of course--that it was just a football game. Any statements about what the game meant during a turbulent time--how it was the one thing that everyone could agree was worth watching, however much they might disagree elsewhere--are always phrased with caveats and caution.
The point isn't to relive the glory days, which would be boring to everyone watching. Rather, we discover how this seemingly routine event transformed people's image of themselves. One Yale player (the villain of the film, who keeps trying to injure people when he plays defense) notes that the tie made him more humble than he otherwise would have been. His statement to that effect redeems him, somewhat.
If sports aren't your thing that's fine; usually I could care less about any of it. But sometimes it's fun to be swept away by all the excitement, especially if something meaningful emerges in the end.