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‘Harvard Beats Yale’ lacks winning formula

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Kino InternationalFrank Champi, Harvard's back-up quarterback in 1968, is featured in the documentary, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29," opening Tuesday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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In the fall of 1968, the football teams of Harvard and Yale played to a 29-29 tie. A big ho-hum, right? ” a tie game between two Ivy League schools known way more for what happens in their classrooms than on their ballfields. But this was a different time ” when the concept of the “student-athlete” was not a joke, and when Harvard and Yale could be almost as respectable for their athletics as their academics. When they matched up that day, both teams were undefeated, and Yale was ranked No. 16 in the country.

The game was, in fact, a riveting battle. Heavily favored Yale ” led by running back Calvin Hill, who would go on to star for the Dallas Cowboys, and quarterback Brian Dowling, who at that point had not lost a game since the sixth grade, and would finish in the top 10 in the Heisman Award voting ” ran up the score to 22-0. With a minute left in the game, Harvard still trailed by two touchdowns, and even for someone who knows the outcome in advance, you are forced to wonder: How in the world are they going to tie this game up?

“Harvard Beats Yale 29-29,” a documentary of the game, isn’t as compelling as the event itself. One imagines there are meaningful angles director Kevin Rafferty might have taken. The transformation of college football from pastime to big business jumps to mind. Instead, the film tends to believe that the game itself ” replayed in highlight snippets sprinkled through the movie ” and the people who played it would carry a 100-minute movie.

Not quite. The game itself, no doubt, deservedly lives on in the memories of those who played in it and watched it. But it is no more captivating than dozens of other sporting events since. (Game 6 of the Mets-Red Sox 1986 World Series, and two from the last 12 months: the Syracuse-Connecticut six-overtime thriller in the Big East basketball tournament, and the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer in the Wimbeldon finals). There is a reason the existence of this bit of sports history comes as a surprise to most: There is no enduring resonance beyond the last thrilling minutes. It happened, people talked about it ” and by the time the Miracle Mets of 1969 came along, it had faded from memory.

Rafferty builds something of a backstory through interviews with the players. But the scattershot approach only goes to demonstrate how little material there is. There’s a bit of game analysis, some political background, talk of the Pill and the assassinations of RFK and MLK. Most telling is the time devoted to George W. Bush, Al Gore and Meryl Streep ” none of whom played in the game, of course, but the roommates of Bush and Gore did, as did Streep’s boyfriend. There is also talk of former Yalie Garry Trudeau, who based his “Doonesbury” character, B.D., on quarterback Brian Dowling.

For me, the most interesting parts of “Harvard Beats Yale” are nearly hidden. The scenes with Tommy Lee Jones ” who did play in the game, but is used mostly to talk about his roommate, Gore ” are an uncomfortable demonstration of the actor’s skittishness around journalists.

And the former collegians don’t come off as either professional athletes or professional students. These were the days before football recruiting wars, before academic resume-building began in elementary school. These were kids who just happened to get into great schools ” one mentions in passing that he had been a mediocre student ” and found their way onto the football field.

“Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” tells a good, not surpassing, sports story. And for a grasp of the national mood in that tumultuous time of 1968, there are better ways to tell it than through an Ivy League football match.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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