For well over a century, Harvard and Yale have gone head-to-head at the end of November for the epic football match known simply as “The Game.” The contest is steeped in history and tradition, not just for the undergraduates who take to the field but also for the thousands of students and alumni who descend on campus to cheer for their beloved schools. This year, crowds will be celebrating a special milestone: 2008 marks the 125th playing of The Game.
The rivalry – the oldest in college football – began on Nov. 13, 1875, when Harvard and Yale met at Hamilton Field in New Haven. The game was played according to rugby rules. Harvard, dressed in crimson shirts and knee breeches, won 4-0. In 1898, it was determined by both teams that The Game should be the final match on the football schedule, and it has remained that way (with a few exceptions) ever since. The match alternates between Soldiers Field in Allston and the Yale Bowl in New Haven.
Victory, defeat, triumph, heartbreak – Harvard and Yale have known them all in their years of play. As of November 2007, Yale has won 65 matches, Harvard has won 51, and the teams have tied eight times.
A few games, however, have made a special mark on the history books. The match in 1894 was so brutal that newspapers reported seven players carried off the field in “dying” condition, and the schools suspended athletic competition for two years. In 1954, Harvard obtained its 500th win by beating Yale 13-9, at home.
One of the most fabled games took place in 1968. Both teams went into the match with a perfect 8-0 season. On the Harvard line was a senior guard who would later go on to gain Hollywood fame as an Academy Award-winning actor: Tommy Lee Jones. The Elis took charge early, leading 22-0 by the second quarter. Desperate to recover, the Harvard coach put in junior QB Frank Champi. Though Champi had made just five completions the entire season, he seemed to work magic. A few perfect passes by Harvard and a series of fumbles by Yale brought the score to 29-13, with less than 10 minutes remaining. The clock wound down, and the Crimson kept driving. In the final 42 seconds, Harvard scored two touchdowns, bringing the score to 29-27. With no time left on the clock, Harvard went for the two-point conversion and scored to tie the game. The next day’s headline in the Harvard Crimson told the whole story: “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.”
The 2005 Game will also be remembered for a brilliant Harvard comeback. The Crimson trailed 21-3 at the beginning of the second half. With less than 15 minutes to go, defensive back Steven Williams ’08 returned an interception 18 yards for a touchdown. Williams’ play set off a rally that kept the Crimson in fighting form. They forced the game to three overtime sessions, before finally claiming victory 30-24. It was the longest game in Ivy League history.
The football field isn’t the only place where the Harvard-Yale rivalry gets played out on Game weekend. Beginning with a pep rally on Thursday night, the Harvard campus turns Crimson as undergraduates show Elis the true meaning of school spirit. Several student organizations welcome their Yale counterparts for a tête-à-tête: at the annual Harvard-Yale Football Concert, for example (held in Sanders Theatre Friday night before the game), the Harvard and Yale Glee Clubs perform fight songs in college regalia and try to drown one another out before the finale. The Immediate Gratification Players, an improvisational comedy group, compete for laughs against improv troupes from Yale.
Undergraduates may keep the rivalry heated, but it wouldn’t be Game Weekend without the thousands of alumni who come to support their alma mater, reconnect with old friends, and enjoy a few days back on campus. Their lavish tailgates and spiffy dress set the example for current seniors, who- whether they can believe it or not – will find themselves entering the “Alumni” section of the tailgate in just one year.
A special tradition for alumni is the waving of the “Little Red Flag,” a small cloth banner embroidered with an “H.” The flag was originally carried by Frederick Plummer, class of 1888, who brought it to the game as a token of good luck. It was rediscovered by William Bentinck-Smith ’37 in 1950, who suggested the honor of waving it be given to the Harvard fan who had seen the most Yale games. Nine men have since waved the little banner, though the number of Yale games viewed is no longer the primary determinant.
At its inception, the Harvard-Yale Game was just two teams on a small field in Connecticut. Now, it is a landmark in the history of undergraduate sport and a storied tradition for the men and women of Harvard and Yale.