Only Game That Matters: The Harvard/Yale Rivalry

Only Game That Matters: The Harvard/Yale Rivalry

by Bernard M. Corbett, Paul Simpson

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As Harvard graduate Roger Angell once said, “The Game picks us up each November and holds us for two hours and...all of us, homeward bound, sense that we are different yet still the same. It is magic.”

For hundreds of thousands of alumni and fans, the annual clash between Harvard and Yale inspires a sense of nostalgia and pride unequaled anywhere

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As Harvard graduate Roger Angell once said, “The Game picks us up each November and holds us for two hours and...all of us, homeward bound, sense that we are different yet still the same. It is magic.”

For hundreds of thousands of alumni and fans, the annual clash between Harvard and Yale inspires a sense of nostalgia and pride unequaled anywhere in sports. For much of the year Ivy League football is overshadowed by powerhouse programs such as Miami and Michigan. But not on the third Saturday of November, when all eyes turn to New England for the legendary battle between the Crimson and the Blue. In The Only Game That Matters, Bernard M. Corbett and Paul Simpson explore what makes this iconic rivalry so revered, so beloved, and so pivotal in college football history.

Known simply as “The Game,” this tradition-soaked Ivy League feud began in 1875, and it has been leading the evolution of college football ever since. Although the Ivy League hasn’t had a national champion in decades, The Game still stands alone in the college football pantheon. It is a living history, its roots reaching back to a time when young men took to the field for the sake of competition, not for a chance at a million-dollar pro contract. The Game, then and now, features the true student athlete.

Of course, it also features bloody brawls, ingenious pranks, and breathtaking comebacks. The Only Game That Matters recounts the 2002 season through the eyes of players and coaches, interweaving the modern-day experience with great stories of classic games past. By tracing this venerable competition from its inception—looking at such legendary games as 1894’s Bloodbath in Hampden Park and Harvard’s 29–29 “win” in 1968 and such influential coaches as Yale’s Walter Camp, the father of football as we know it—the anatomy of a rivalry emerges. Culminating in the thrilling 2002 contest, The Only Game That Matters illuminates the unique place this storied feud occupies in today’s sports world. To the game of football, to the spirit of rivalry, to the Crimson and Blue faithful, The Game is the only game that matters.

“In this book about the remarkable football rivalry between Harvard and Yale, Bernard M. Corbett and Paul Simpson capture the unique intensity of this famous game, as felt by the teams who go all out on each play, and by the families and the alumni in the stands who live and die by each touchdown.”
—From the Foreword by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Harvard ’56

The Only Game That Matters does a great job of explaining why Yale/Harvard is The Game – one that does matter, and should matter more. It is a shining example of what college football and amateur sports should be.”
—From the Foreword by Governor George E. Pataki, Yale ’67

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Chapter 11

The Tie That Binds

THE COLD STING OF a brisk New England morning slapped Neil Rose in the face as he exited Dillon Field House. His breath caught a little as the icy air numbed his lungs. He had no doubt that the crisp football field would be near empty save for himself, fellow Harvard quarterback sophomore Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Todd LaFountaine, a freshman quarterback who'd followed Rose from Honolulu to Harvard. Even after four years in Cambridge, Rose still wasn't used to these hellish winters. The native Hawaiian sure wouldn't miss the weather when he returned to Oahu after graduation.

As cold as it was, Rose had no intention of changing the pregame ritual that had brought him so much success on the gridiron. He wore only mesh crimson shorts and a white T-shirt, and when he reached the field he kicked off his socks and shoes. Growing up in Hawaii, the kids always played football in the schoolyard barefoot. Rose needed to feel the grass and dirt with his bare feet, even if it crackled and crunched underfoot.

As far as football went, this was it for Rose. The 6'2¾, 220-pound quarterback appeared on the tail end of some draft lists after leading his team to perfection in the 2001 season, but the NFL wasn't really a consideration. Intelligent and creative, Rose had other aspirations and though he loved the game, he wasn't sure that football alone would fulfill him. Nonetheless, he wasn't eager to see the last seconds of the fourth quarter dribble off the clock in the 119th playing of the Harvard-Yale game. He didn't want to hear the referee's whistle signaling the end of his playing days.

Rose looked high to the stadium roof at the three flags flapping and snapping in the steady November wind. The first, atop one side of the horseshoe, bore a white H outlined with a thin black band against a field of crimson. The second, in the middle of the horseshoe's curve, was the American flag, the flag at which he would be staring during the national anthem as he reflected on his football career and made final mental preparations for the game. The third flag, directly opposite his school's on the other side of the horseshoe, was that of Harvard's archrival, the Yale Bulldogs. A simple white Y on a dark blue background. Both Ivy, both elegant. The wind whipped the flags taut on the flagpoles, causing them to snap straight as if they had been dipped in the icy waters of the Charles River and left to freeze overnight.

The three flags collectively signified an incredible history. Long before the founding fathers turned back the redcoats so that they could proudly fly the red, white, and blue over a sovereign nation of their own, Harvard and Yale nourished a budding rivalry that had exploded onto the football field in 1875 and became the most important in the sport. Every player, coach, and fan that looked toward the sky today would be reminded of the more than century-old skirmish that they held dear. If the wind continued its violent thrashing, the flags might be reduced to a few frayed threads by game time. It would not be a good day for throwing the pigskin, and that didn't bode well for the Crimson's all-time pass-leader on a day when he needed to be his sharpest. The weather didn't matter to Rose, though. The team had always performed well in bad weather. They were better than the weather.

Rose threw some passes to LaFountaine, testing the wind. He sent the freshman on an outside hard post-Rose's favorite route-and dropped back in slow motion, counting out his footsteps. One, two, three, four, five. Plant the back foot. Fire. Rose hit LaFountaine twenty yards out amid a visualized Yale defense. The defense always gave up something against Harvard's multiple-threat offense, and Rose exploited the weakness. He'd stare down the free safety and watch him cheat just a little left or a little right, reluctantly providing the ideal situation for a completion, especially if the intended receiver was Carl Morris. LaFountaine tossed the ball to Fitzpatrick, and Fitzpatrick mapped his own steps before hurling it back to Rose. The sophomore needed to test the wind himself in case he had to relieve Rose at quarterback.

Rose would miss the pregame routine more than anything else about being a football player. In the still of an empty stadium, with the grass between his toes, Rose was never more at peace with himself. Never more confident in his abilities or more certain of what was to come. Rose prolonged this final ritual for fifteen minutes before the trio headed back to the locker room to avoid hypothermia. The senior settled into one of the metal hot tubs in the training room to take off the chill and warm up his fragile back muscles. He prayed that his frequently injured back wouldn't betray him in his last game.

While Rose warmed in the hot tub, Yale senior captain Jason Lange got off the team bus and sauntered to the visitor's locker room. On the way he glanced overhead, getting his playing instructions for the day from those same three flags flying high above the stadium. The Bulldogs' coaching staff had prepared two defensive game plans-one for Harvard's passing quarterback, Neil Rose; the other for Harvard's scrambler, sophomore Ryan Fitzpatrick. Lange, a nearly three-hundred-pound nose tackle, was the anchor and heart of the Yale defense, and he realized that the wind was sending him into a fight against an attempted ground attack by the Crimson. He would spend the day bulldozing his way into the backfield, clogging and collapsing holes in the defensive line, and trying to wrap his arms around Harvard's slippery and elusive running back, Nick Palazzo. At 5¢4¾ with a low, balanced center of gravity, Palazzo darted like a cat-often streaking past a stunned defensive line before it could react and leaving the tough tackling job for the secondary. Palazzo missed the 2001 game with injuries, so Lange had not had the chance to face him prior to this last game for both young men.

At least Harvard's defensive line would be able to sympathize with Lange. Yale also had a sensational running back who wore the number 22, the same as Palazzo. Sophomore Robert Carr had proven early in the season that he was a big-game player, and there was no game bigger than Harvard-Yale. At 5¢6¾ and with blazing speed, Carr often left opposing defensive linemen staring at the back of his uniform. The Crimson had just as much, if not more, to worry about in terms of defending the run. And if the winds let up, the Harvard defense would have to be concerned with Yale's passing game as well. Quarterbacks Alvin Cowan and Jeff Mroz combined for sixteen touchdown passes on the year, the same as Harvard.

The weather didn't bother Lange. He grew up playing outside of the Windy City in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. Cold, rain, and wind gave Lange a mental edge. Players unaccustomed to intemperate conditions lost their focus in bad weather, and Lange took advantage of it.

The senior was ready for anything or anyone Harvard could throw at him. He welcomed a challenge, and not just on the football field. Lange was planning to take the spring semester off from school to work full-time in Yale's development office. He also had his sights set on earning a spot on another fabled Yale team, the singing troupe known as the Whiffenpoofs. He thought maybe his tenor could take him around the world. He would get to the West Coast by bike, though-for the following summer Lange had scheduled a biking trip across the country with two teams of college students to raise money for Habitat for Humanity International. However, for the time being Lange focused on the challenge at hand, the biggest and last game of his football career, and how his defense would stop the Crimson offense.

Lange prepped for the Harvard game as he had for all of his others. He slept for precisely eight and one-half hours. He fortified himself with eggs, bacon, French toast, two bowls of raisin bran, and some fresh fruit. He let head athletic trainer Chris Pecora tape his delicate, injury-prone ankles. (Lange's right ankle had weathered five sprains and his left ankle seven.) He dressed in the same order, starting with his socks (left foot first, then right) and ending with his number 97 jersey. Finally, until the call to stretch he listened to music that got him pumped up for the game, Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and Drowning Pool's "Bodies." Only then was the captain ready.

When Yale's defensive coordinator Rick Flanders saw the flags at the stadium, he knew unquestionably which defensive scheme the Bulldogs would use. The forty-four-year-old veteran coach breathed a little easier-the wind indicated that Harvard's prolific pass attack would take a backseat to the run, and Flanders liked his chances of stopping the ground game. Even so, Flanders remained worried and wary. The coordinator had developed Yale's secondary into a solid unit, but his defensive backs had found mixed success earlier in the 2002 season against challenging receivers like Cornell's dependable Keith Ferguson, Brown's playmaker Chas Gessner, Princeton's track star speedster Chisolm Opara, and powerhouse Penn's Rob Milanese. They had yet to see their biggest challenge: Harvard's record-breaking receiver and defending Ivy League Player of the Year, Carl Morris, who would be playing his last college football game on this blustery day. Morris was remarkable, plain and simple, and Flanders nursed private fears over what kind of antics the Morris-Rose combination had saved for their farewell home performance. Flanders hoped for continued gusts. He was counting on the stubborn cold front and favorable jet stream to foil the Crimson aerial assault.

The fierce gales didn't take sides, though. Strong winds struck fear into the heart of both special teams units. Harvard's placekicker Anders Blewett and punter Adam Kingston and Yale's placekicker John Troost and punter Ryan Allen were sure to play a major role in the game, and the weather conditions were killing their confidence. As kickers they had a relatively thankless position. Aside from a sparse opportunity to boot a game-winner as time expired, like Harvard's Mike Lynch did in the 1975 Harvard-Yale game, there was little chance for glory. Solid punts, long kickoffs, and chip-shot field goals were taken for granted at times, mostly by fans but sometimes by coaches and teammates as well. On a frigid, blustery day that featured the most important game of the year, however, all bets were off. It didn't take an Ivy League scholar to realize that the goat-to-hero probability ratio leaned conspicuously in favor of the former under toe-numbing, windswept conditions. The impending ground game ahead of them posed more challenges to first downs than the preferred pass-filled contest, and Kingston and Allen would be faced with a good number of fourth downs where they would be responsible for establishing starting field position for their opponent.

Possibly the only factor unaffected by the categorically seasonable weather was the attendance figure. Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail ever kept fans from their precious Harvard-Yale game. By ten o'clock in the morning the Friends of Harvard Football parking lot just outside the stadium's ivy-covered walls was a sea of celebratory cooking. Although the casual fan got by with a simple spread (hot dogs and burgers cooked over the glowing coals of a hibachi, washed down with ice-cold Budweiser drawn from a quarter-keg), the most dedicated tailgaters had lugged lavish four-star comforts to the pavement: card tables draped in white linen, dainty candelabra, spiral-cut glazed ham garnished with pineapple slices and maraschino cherries, cold cuts, calzones, and rolls, and a beverage buffet of red and white wines, fresh juices, soda, and coffee.

Fans of all stripes lined the lot. One group slowly sipped steaming coffee and huddled around the bed of a pickup truck, trying to keep out the chill. They were parked next to a showroom-clean black Saab with physician's plates, which sported a Harvard 1957 banner on the dashboard next to a softball-size button that shouted "Go to hell Yale!" A trio of Yale supporters passed by the car and chuckled at the button's message. They didn't return the sentiments; after all, they were deep in Crimson territory.

Most of the Yale fans warmed their insides in the parking lots near the outskirts of campus. The host team always got the prime tailgating real estate, and the Yale faithful happily deferred. They'd have their day at the Yale Bowl next year and show the Harvard fans how tailgating was done. After all, Yale football fans invented tailgating-though Princeton and Rutgers folk think that the honor belongs to them-and they thought they had the festivities down pretty well by now.

The London family, however, would stack their tailgate against that of any Yalie.

The long London family love affair with Harvard football started with Lauren Cohen. Cohen wrote letters to his nephew Abe London while serving in World War II, mesmerizing the child with stories of 1930s legends like Harvard star quarterback Barry Wood and his equally talented counterpart at Yale, Albie Booth. Cohen promised to take the boy to the Harvard-Yale game when the war ended. Cohen kept his promise, and Abe London fell in love with Harvard at first sight. London graduated from Harvard in 1957, eventually becoming a doctor with children of his own.

Dr. London passed on his love of Harvard football to his son Jon. "He begged me to take him to the football games as soon as he started speaking," Dr. London recalled years later. The doctor finally relented and took young Jon to a game versus Columbia in 1973. Like his father, Jon fell under Harvard's spell, and as a six-year-old held his first season ticket. Jon followed his father's path to Cambridge and graduated from Harvard in 1988. He wed and had children as well, and continuing in the family tradition Jon's daughters, ages three and five, became season ticket holders for Harvard football.

After Jon graduated, he and his closest friends from Quincy House decided to make the Harvard-Yale game the backdrop to an informal reunion. Harvard didn't have an official homecoming and they all planned on attending the game every year Harvard hosted Yale anyway, so it was a natural fit. Three or four of London's housemates and twenty or thirty friends attended the first biennial London tailgate in 1988.

At least seventy people were expected in 2002. At half past seven in the morning Jon arrived to set up the feast in the parking lot, assisted by a few of his housemates who flew in from Seattle, Miami, and California. Although London planned well (he organized the contents in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to make sure he didn't forget anything), it took them about ninety minutes to arrange the buffet. Tablecloths, turkey breasts, and tenderloins. Cheese, crackers, chili, and chowder. M&M's, mustard, mayonnaise, and Maalox. With so many years of experience, London and company came prepared. For its attendees, the London tailgate at the stadium every other year is a can't-miss event, though sometimes other obligations keep one or two of the housemates out of the lineup. Those that do miss their biennial chance to catch up with friends had better have a damned good excuse, as Steve Bilafer discovered the hard way.

From the Hardcover edition.

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