Book Review by Budd Bailey
It seems difficult to grasp the idea that one of the most famous games in college football history – and one that doesn’t date back to antiquity – took place in the Ivy League.
In 1968, Harvard and Yale both went into their season-ending rivalry game with undefeated records. It looked bleak for the host Harvard team as it trailed by a good-sized margin. But the Crimson scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to earn a 29-29 tie. The school newspaper came up with a headline later that summed up the game perfectly (from the school’s standpoint): “Harvard beats Yale, 29-29.”
That’s the starting point for George Howe Colt’s book, “The Game.” But, naturally, it’s a lot more than that.
Begin with the fact that Colt has an interesting group of people that were involved in the game. Some of our best and brightest come out of Harvard and Yale, two of the top universities in the country. So we know from the start that they will have a lot to say, and that they will say it well.
Then we mix all that with the times. You might have heard about the Sixties, when many of our certainties turned to mush. It was a time of movements – the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war (Vietnam) movement. They were pushing America in different directions.
You can imagine how that all went over at Harvard and Yale, the most conservative of our educational institutions. They had been happy in the past to teach the children of alumni and top prep school graduates to move into the useful places among the elite of society. All of a sudden, that wasn’t good enough. The schools had to reach out to those who didn’t fit the old stereotypes, and slowly include them. That meant everything from the start of a black studies program to taking the initial steps of making women full partners in the experience.
But all of that, as of 1968, had to take something of a backseat to the Vietnam War. The students at both schools were looking at the military draft once their undergraduate education was completed, and thus their concerns and questions about America’s participation in the conflict in Southeast Asia were immediate. Could anyone concentrate on a mere football game under those circumstances?
Indeed they could. Harvard and Yale still could have an impact on the national sports media in those days, perhaps out of habit. The idea of those teams playing for a conference title while both of them were unbeaten was too irresistible to ignore. Part of the attraction was that the Bulldogs had two stars on offense that were almost too good to be true. Brian Dowling was the All-American boy as a quarterback, a kid out of Cleveland who hadn’t even lost a game since he was in seventh grade. Fullback Calvin Hill could have played anywhere in the country, and a coach once said he could have played at any of the 22 positions on the field. Hill became a first-draft draft choice of the Cowboys and had a fine pro career; you may have heard of his son, basketball Hall of Famer Grant.
Colt takes us through the season nicely, introducing us to the players and their circumstances along the way. The Harvard team is a bit more anonymous because of the lack of star power, unless you could a future movie star – Tommy Lee Jones. (Meryl Streep also has a cameo role in the book as the girlfriend of Harvard player Bob Levin.) The coaches – John Yovicsin of Harvard and Carm Cozza of Yale – also receive their share of attention.
Finally, the game arrives, and Colt – who was there and still has the ticket stub – makes the game come alive nicely. He combines observations of film with personal recollections. It’s striking just how much had to go right, in the form of breaks like fumbles and officials’ decisions on 50-50 calls, in order for Harvard to pull off the miracle. He ends the book with a non-football event, the student strike at Harvard in 1969 that could be described as a university having a nervous breakdown. The epilogue brings us up to date on what happened to the rich cast of characters after graduation.
The author has a trick, or at least a technique, up his sleeve along the way. Until that epilogue, the story is immersed in the time it happened. The interview questions must have been more “What was it like?” than “What does mean?” It really adds to the feeling of the reader of what it was like to be a part of that turbulent era.
There will be those who don’t want to go back and read about any Ivy League football game from more than 50 years ago. That’s their loss. “The Game” is a rich mixture of sports and culture that has plenty to teach us about both.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)