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Book Report: The Only Game That Matters

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on AmericanChronicle.com, Tuesday, December 29, 2009


It is simply known as "The Game." The annual Harvard-Yale football game may not receive the kind of attention today that it has in the past, but it is steeped in history and tradition. In their 2004 book, The Only Game That Matters, authors Bernard Corbett and Paul Simpson followed both teams through the 2002 season, but they also tell the history of the Harvard-Yale series throughout the book.

Harvard University was founded in 1636 and is the oldest university in the country. Yale was founded in 1701. On August 3, 1852, the two schools competed in a one and a half mile, eight-oared boat race on Lake Winnipesaukee. It was the first ever intercollegiate sporting event in the country. Harvard won the race.

Both schools had been playing various, primitive forms of football for many years, but the games were played just one day each fall between the incoming freshmen and the sophomore class. At Harvard, the annual contest became known as Bloody Monday and inspired nationally known artist Homer Winslow to capture the event in a painting of the same name. The Yale version of Bloody Monday was called the Annual Rush and it became so violent that town officials banned it in 1858. The Harvard faculty banned Bloody Monday in 1860. Some Harvard students were so depressed over the banning of the game that they buried a football in the Delta, an area of the Harvard Yard where the games had been played, and marked the football's "grave" with two wooden boards.


The first officially recognized intercollegiate football game was played on November 5, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. By the fall of 1871, football was again being played at Harvard and by 1872 the students had formed the Harvard University Foot Ball Club. They formed class teams that played against each other, but on May 8 and 9, 1874, Harvard hosted its first two intercollegiate football games, both against McGill University from Montreal, Canada. Yale played its first intercollegiate football game in 1872 against Columbia.

Harvard lost to Tufts University on June 4, 1875 by the score of 1-0, but the game featured a first in American football. The Harvard team wore matching white shirts, white pants with crimson trim and crimson stockings. The football "uniform" was born. This game is also considered to be the first true American football game as it was played using a new set of rules that made it much more similar to the game we know today as football.


Harvard and Yale met on the gridiron for the first time on November 13, 1875. The game was played at Yale. Harvard won the game 4-0. (Scoring was different back in those days. Crossing the goal line with the ball didn't account for any points, but it allowed you to kick what today is an extra point, which did count.)

Watching the game that day was a high school student from the nearby Hopkins School who planned to enroll at Yale the following year. His name was Walter Camp. Yale went on to win the next 14 games against Harvard, who finally beat Yale for the second time in 1890.

Walter Camp played his first season of football at Yale in 1876 and was a great player for the team, leading them to wins over Harvard every year that he played. He went on to coach at Yale from 1888-1892, posting a 67-2 record. He began a system of having his former players become assistant coaches on the team after they graduated. One of those assistant coaches under Camp was a man by the name of Amos Alonzo Stagg, who would go on to become a legendary college football coach himself. Stagg coached for over 40 years, mostly at the University of Chicago. Today, the Division III college football national championship game is known as the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.


Camp is known as the Father of American Football because he was an influential member of the Intercollegiate Football Association's Rules Committee. Camp was the one who came up with the line of scrimmage, the center snap, a system of downs (three tries to go five yards), the number of players per team (11), marking the field with chalk lines every five yards and he standardized the size of the playing field (110 yards by 53 yards). Incidentally, the 110 yard length of the field is still used in the Canadian Football League today.

But for all his innovations to the game of football that he is credited with, there was one aspect of the game that Camp was against, the forward pass. Throwing a legal forward pass was finally adopted by college football in 1906 after President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport if changes were not made to curb the number of injuries and deaths that had plagued the sport for many years. Ironically, Camp died in 1925 after suffering a heart attack while attending a football rules committee meeting.


In the 1892 game, Harvard unveiled a new formation called The Flying Wedge. It was the brainchild of Lorin Deland, a Boston businessman and a Harvard graduate. The formation involved players forming a "V" to protect the runner with the ball who was behind them. Players also had special handles sewn into their uniforms that allowed teammates to grab onto each other in order to keep the opposing team from breaking through the formation. The Flying Wedge was outlawed by the football rules committee after the 1893 season due to the injuries it inflicted on players from both teams.

The 1894 Harvard-Yale game was played at a neutral site in Springfield, Massachusetts. Harvard unveiled another new play during the game that day called the reverse. The game also became known as "The Bloodbath in Hampden Park" as well as "The Springfield Massacre." There were so many broken bones, broken noses and pokes in the eyes that the two schools banned all sports between them the following year. The Harvard-Yale football series was suspended for the next two years.


Other Legends and Legendary Figures

William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, who played at Yale from 1888-1891, is considered to be the first pro football player when he was openly paid $500 on November 12, 1892 by the Allegheny Athletic Association to play in a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.

One of the most legendary coaches at Harvard was Percy Haughton (1908-1917). Legend has it that he once strangled a live bulldog, the Yale mascot, to motivate his team before playing Yale. In truth, it was only a stuffed bulldog, but the legend continues to be told.

In 1952, Charlie Yeager was a senior at Yale. He was also the manager of the football team. He had played football in high school, but was too small to make the Yale football team. He was a decent receiver who caught many passes during practice and the coaches took notice. As a joke on Harvard, Yeager entered the game against Harvard wearing jersey number 99 on an extra point attempt late in the game. Instead of kicking the extra point, the holder stood up and threw the ball to Yeager in the end zone making the score 41-14. The public address announcer at the stadium announced to the crowd, and to the embarrassment of the Harvard fans, that it was the team manager who had scored the final point of the game. (There was no two-point conversion in 1952, so the catch only resulted in a single point)

One of the greatest games ever in the Harvard-Yale series occurred on November 23, 1968. Both teams were undefeated at 8-0 when they played at Harvard. Yale took a 22-0 lead in the first half and at halftime the score was 22-6. With three and a half minutes remaining in the game Yale held a commanding 29-13 lead. Harvard scored with just 42 seconds left in the game, and after a two-point conversion, trailed the Bulldogs by eight points, 29-21. On the ensuing kickoff, Harvard recovered an onside kick and had the ball at the Yale 49 yard line. Harvard scored a touchdown with no time left on the clock. With a successful two-point conversion, the game ended in a 29-29 tie.

The Harvard school newspaper posted a headline the following Monday morning which read, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29!" Both teams ended the season unbeaten with identical 8-0-1 records. One notable member of the Yale team that day was actor Tommy Lee Jones, who was an offensive guard for Yale. Incidentally, the Harvard and Yale JV teams played each other the day before and that game also ended in a tie, 7-7!

The Yale quarterback during the 1968 season was Brian Dowling. He became the inspiration for the football helmet wearing character of B.D. in the Doonesbury comic strip drawn by Garry Trudeau, who was a sophomore at Yale that year.

The nickname, "The Game," came about in 1959. Yale athletic official Charles Loftus received a call from syndicated sports columnist Walter "Red" Smith saying that he would not be able to make it to the Harvard-Yale game that year. Loftus responded with, "You're going to miss THE GAME?" Smith liked the nickname and used it in one of his columns to refer to the Harvard-Yale game that season. In 1960, Harvard sports information director Baron Pittenger use the nickname on the cover of the Harvard-Yale game day program and it has been synonymous with the rivalry ever since.

There is much history and tradition associated with The Game. One of them is the Little Red Flag. In 1884, it was brought to The Game by Harvard freshman Frederick Plummer. It is a simple little red pennant with a Harvard "H" on it attached to a walking stick. It has been brought to every Harvard-Yale game since.

The Ivy League was officially formed in 1956, and the schools that make up the conference are referred to as the Ancient Eight. They include the Harvard Crimson, Yale Bulldogs, Princeton Tigers, Columbia Lions, Brown Bears, Dartmouth Big Green, Pennsylvania Quakers and Cornell Big Red. Harvard, Yale and Princeton are also referred to as The Big Three of the Ivy League.

When the Ivy League was first formed, it was originally part of the NCAA's Division I-A, which includes schools like Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and USC. But in 1982, the NCAA demoted the Ivy League down to its Division I-AA. Though the conference is a part of Division I-AA (known today as the Football Championship Subdivision) the football teams do not participate in the divisional playoffs. A 10-game season and an Ivy League championship is the only title these schools are interested in. The Ivy League also offers no athletic scholarships and players have to first meet the high academic requirements before they can play any sports.

Many well known people have attended Harvard and Yale throughout the years. Those attending Yale include former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, former Vice-President Al Gore, actor Tommy Lee Jones, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau and President William Howard Taft. Notable Harvard graduates include President John Adams, President Theodore Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy, Senator and Attorney General of the United States Robert F. Kennedy and Senator Edward Kennedy.

Yale also boasts a couple of early Heisman Trophy winners. There was end Larry Kelley in 1936 and halfback Clint Frank in 1937. They were the second and third winners of the Heisman after halfback Jay Berwanger received the first award in 1935.

There are also many players and coaches from Yale and Harvard who are enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. Currently, Yale has 24 players and 4 coaches in the Hall of Fame and Harvard has 17 players and three coaches. In 2000, Yale became the first school in the nation to win its 800th football game.

Harvard Stadium opened in 1903 and was the first concrete stadium built specifically for football. The Yale Bowl was opened in 1914. Both stadiums are still in use today and are listed as national landmarks. In 1906, as part of the rule changes intended to save the game of football from extinction, Walter Camp suggested widening the size of the football field by 40 feet, but because it would have meant major renovations to Harvard Stadium, that idea was dropped. So, in a way, you can thank Harvard and its stadium for the size of the playing field we enjoy today.

The 2009 Harvard-Yale game was played on November 21 and was the 126th meeting between the two schools. Yale had a 10-0 lead in the fourth quarter, but Harvard scored two late touchdowns and won 14-10. Yale currently leads the all-time series 65-53-8.

The game of football owes much to Harvard and Yale. The two schools have been at the forefront of the sport from the very beginning. From creating the first football uniform to the first pro football player, the first concrete stadium, two Heisman Trophy winners, Walter Camp, Amos Alonzo Stagg and much more. It is more that just a game. It is "The Game."


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