Harvard-Yale Game Film a Morality Tale

"It was only a game," several of the players say at the end of the film, "Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29," but they don't mean it. One of the players suggests that this particular game was better than sex, which, judging by the accounts of several of the players, had recently been discovered in the autumn of 1968.

That was the year that Kennedy and King were shot, the college campuses blew up and an undefeated Yale football team met an undefeated Harvard team in one of the weirdest and most memorable games ever played. As brought to the screen by Kevin Rafferty, the 1968 edition of "The Game," as the Harvard-Yale game has long been vaingloriously known by alumni of the two schools, is much more than a game. It is a morality tale, a documentary of a strange time, and oddly moving. Improbably, given that the movie is built around grainy footage of a long-ago Ivy League football game played by small slow white guys (exception: Calvin Hill, a Yale halfback, later All-Pro), it is also thrilling.

The Yale team is cocky, almost smug, sure of its chances. Its quarterback, Brian Dowling, has never lost a game he has finished—ever. To the Yale fans, he is known as "God." (To a young cartoonist for the Yale Daily News named Garry Trudeau, he is "B.D."—later, the hero of the comic strip "Doonesbury.") The Harvard team dislikes its coach and has a quarterback who calls himself "Big Hole," after the preseason newspaper stories announcing a "big hole" at quarterback for the Crimson that year. The Yale team runs up a 22-to-zero lead and is still leading 29-13 with less than three minutes to go….

And then bizarre things begin to happen. Filmmaker Rafferty cuts back and forth between game film and interviews with the players, all now about 60 years old, as they talk about the game and their time in college. The revolution was just arriving on campus, and there is a hilarious scene of a former Yale tackle trying to delicately explain how women's birth control changed everything. Harvard's all-Ivy guard, Tommy Lee Jones (then the roommate of Al Gore, Harvard '69) uses his acting skills to make the game and its players sound like a drama in ancient Greece. Other players seemed filled with wonder or still on the verge of tears. Two Yale defensive ends, the Gallagher brothers, can barely hide their contempt at the outcome—40 years later.

The most intriguing character—outrageous yet somehow sympathetic—is the Yale defensive captain, Mike Bouscaren. At the outset of the film, he announces himself as a scion of Old Blues, and he has the haughty air of a preppy barely disdaining to talk to the common folk (a chum of George W. Bush, Yale '68; Bouscaren describes how the two traded visits at their Maine summer homes). But there is something slightly off about Bouscaren; he has the 1,000-yard stare of a soldier whose bunker has been overrun by the enemy.

Bouscaren admits to being the villain of the tale. He takes pride in intentionally trying to injure Harvard's fleetest halfback, Ray Hornblower, and admits that he tried to put Harvard's star—its backup quarterback Frank Champi—out of the game with a clothesline tackle to his face. (Instead he got a crippling face-mask penalty that kept alive Harvard's last drive.) By this time in the film, Bouscaren looks like a man who has been in therapy for the past four decades and is still slowly working it out.

The hero, quarterback Champi, remembers being painfully shy. When he came into the game to replace Big Hole at QB in the second quarter and called his first play, the players couldn't understand what he was talking about. But the football gods were smiling on Frank Champi that day, and any viewer who does not feel exhilarated by the movie's depiction of the final 42 seconds of the game has either never seen a football game or went to Yale. (The movie's title is taken from the giddy headline of the student paper, The Harvard Crimson.)

I went to Harvard the next fall. I only got to see Frank Champi play one game. He quit the team to write poetry. There was no point in him playing any more.