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Lessons Learned from When Harvard Beat Yale 29-29

Source: THE GAME: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968, by George Howe Colt, Scribner, 2018

This past month marks 50 years since Harvard beat Yale 29-29 in an epic football battle of unbeatens. For Harvard, it’s a celebratory anniversary. For Yale- well, never mind. Yale was heavily favored, with one of the best offenses the Ivy League had ever seen. But as its vaunted offense watched helplessly on the sidelines, Harvard scored 16 unanswered points in the final 42 seconds to seal the, well, victory (moral and psychological that is, if not in actual score). In a headline that remains one of the most memorable in college sports history, The Harvard Crimson trumpeted “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.”

In the stands at The Game (as it is called by the faithful) to end all The Games sat 14-year-old and future Harvard alum George Howe Colt, who has written a splendid recollection titled THE GAME: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968. From his book and from eyewitness accounts, here are some takeaways that are still highly relevant today:

Prepare for the improbable. After Harvard scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion to narrow the gap to eight points, they had only 40 seconds to do it again – which meant executing an onside kick. But because no opponent had ever been within a touchdown this late in a game, Yale had never practiced how to field them. So, despite entreaties from to populate the lineup with sure-handed ends and backs, the Yale coach put in a lineup for a conventional kickoff. Sure enough, the squib kick (defined by Merriam Webster as “a kickoff in football in which the ball bounces along the ground”) bounced off the chest of a lineman and was promptly recovered by Harvard.

Inspire from the heart but lead with your head. On the Yale bench in the waning minutes were several seniors who needed modest playing time to be assured of their varsity letter. Yale Coach Cozza, tough-minded enough to be the winningest coach in Ivy League history, also had a big heart. He could have kept those seniors benched until victory was 100% assured, but he put them in, and they were no match for Harvard’s starters, who were now playing as if possessed.

Always give 100%. With less than three minutes to go in the game and Yale with the ball, every Harvard player thought they were headed for defeat, but they continued to hit, and run, and execute as if victory was within their grasp. Many years later, Yale and Dallas Cowboy star running back Calvin Hill proclaimed, “I was never in any game where the hitting was that hard.”

Believe in yourself. When Frank Champi came in with Harvard down 22-0 to replace starting Harvard quarterback George Lalich, even the sportswriters had to go to their programs to find out who #27 was. Lightly used the entire season, he was hardly a leader and a seemingly unlikely replacement. But he and his coach knew he had a cannon for an arm. Despite near-paralyzing nerves before going in, he became serene and supremely confident, and everyone in the huddle knew it. History will record he picked apart the Yale defense on his way to contributing directly to most of the yards and all 16 points in the final two minutes of play.