Reflections on a legendary Y-H Game on the cusp of its 50th anniversary

Cover of "The Game" showing the final scoreboard
George Howe Colt's book looks at the legendary football game within the context of the divisive cultural era in which it took place.

George Howe Colt — author of “The Game: Harvard, Yale and America in 1968” — says it was more than a 29-29 tie that made the Yale-Harvard football game of 1968 go down in history as one of the greatest college sports moments: It was the cultural era in which that tied game lived, a time of immense polarization not unlike the current one we occupy.

We were more divided in ’68 than any time since the Civil War,” says Colt, bestselling author, journalist, and Harvard alum (his wife, Anne Fadiman, is the Francis Writer in Residence at Yale). “The question of the era was ‘Which side are you on?’ In the midst of this, came a very unwitting truce. There was no such thing as a tie in 1968.”

Colt details these divisions in his book, examining not only the players, their lives, and larger-than-life coach Carmen Cozza and the “almost courtly” Harvard coach John Yovicsin, but also the tumultuous backdrop of the era. This is the year when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Harvard football players saw Washington, D.C. in flames; when U.S. athletes protested at the Summer Olympics and two black male cheerleaders at Yale raised their fists in the black power salute at a Yale-Dartmouth game. “At that time, it was a shocking thing in the Ivy League world,” Colt says.   

Colt was a 14-year-old discovering his own political beliefs, a bystander to the fateful Yale-Harvard game, which will mark its 50th anniversary at Fenway Park on Nov. 17. Several of the storied players from the era will be in attendance. That event,  which brought an end to Yale’s 16 straight wins, and which has followed them throughout their lives, is a topic they say they’d rather not talk about but can’t seem to avoid.

For Yale players, it was painful,” Colt says. “I know the sequence of events. I’ve watched it 15 times and it’s still unbelievable.”

A seemingly unstoppable force

Yale’s offense — featuring Bruce Weinstein ’69 B.A., Brian Dowling ’69 B.A., and Calvin Hill ’69. B.A — was considered unstoppable. All three players were All-Americans in high school, and grew to legendary status at Yale, with quarterback Dowling earning the nickname “God.”

As Yale continued to run roughshod over its opponents, the school embraced its team with the kind of fervor normally associated with state universities in the Midwest,” Colt writes.

So when Yale, after an undefeated season, entered Harvard Stadium for the 85th matchup between the rival schools, every expectation was that they would win. “Nobody gave Harvard a one-punch fighter’s chance,” Colt says. The confidence seemed warranted when Yale was up by 22-6 at the half, and by 29-13 with just four minutes to go. But then, something shifted. The Bulldogs were handed three penalties and Harvard made two touchdowns to bring the score to a tied 29-29 in the final 42 seconds of the game.

It was an amazing series of events,” Colt says. “Heroic plays, bad calls, questionable decisions and luck. … It was almost a miracle.” The headline in the Harvard Crimson read: “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.”

At a recent memorial celebration for Cozza, former defensive back Steve Skrovan ’79 B.A. told an anecdote about his first Yale-Harvard game in 1976 when Cozza was approached by a reporter asking about the famous tied game. “A cloud crossed over his face and there was a low rumbling like a Doberman who heard an intruder,” Skrovan said.

But Colt insists there’s another way to view this legendary game, with the benefit of perspective. “Over the years, it would be nice if instead of a Yale defeat and a Harvard victory that the ’68 game becomes the tie it really was — an amazing thing that these two teams unwittingly produced.”

It’s a sentiment that Dowling, who also spoke at the Cozza celebration, captured eloquently when he said: “We were all winners. Harvard, because they made a comeback, and Yale, because we played for Cozza.”

Watch Yale take on Harvard at Fenway Park for the 135th playing of The Game on Saturday, Nov. 17 at noon on ESPN2. Or catch the game with fellow alumni at one of many viewing parties at Yale Clubs across the world.

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