"In 42 seconds."

Harvard Beats Yale 29 - 29

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            If you were alive 1968 you were probably thinking about the Vietnam War, the draft, campus unrest, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the horrific Chicago Convention riots that defined the decade. If you were yet to be born, you are reading 1968 as history. But another event caught the nation’s eye that year: the Harvard/Yale football game on a cold November day. In one of journalism’s great headlines, The Harvard Crimson reported the next day, “Harvard Beats Yale 29 – 29.” And so they did.

            In what must have been a burst of passionate curiosity from a man who was in the Harvard stadium that afternoon, filmmaker Kevin Rafferty took his theme and title from that headline, rented an old car, and drove cross country to interview the men who played for both sides in that mythical game. He produced, directed, photographed and edited his material until he had a documentary of chunks of the original grainy game film alternating with interviews that reveal slowly the long term effects of the game on the men who played it forty years ago.

            Far from being just a backward glance at a football game, it is a story about generational and cultural change, about the meaning of the experience to adult men, and about dealing with being a primary player in a game that caught the nation’s attention. On that day Yale carried a national ranking and an undefeated season. Crowds packed Harvard Stadium with Harvard suffering the indignity of watching a sea of white handkerchiefs waving from the Yale stands when the score was 29 – 13 with 42 seconds left in the game. Everyone knew it was over. Spectators were heading for their cars.

            In a virtual tumult, a storm of errors and penalties confused everyone except the unknown substitute quarterback, Frank Champi who led Harvard to score 16 points in those 42 seconds to tie the game. If either team had won, you wouldn’t be seeing Rafferty’s documentary or reading this review. It was the impossible tie in the last seconds that turned the game to legend. 

            Rafferty’s interviews turn up unexpected memories in the men who were on the field that day, but the inescapable meat of this matter is that the meaning to their lives of that extraordinary game has intensified rather than diminished for them over the years. 

            It is a great credit to Kevin Rafferty that he didn’t surrender to the temptation of relating the game to the chaos engulfing the country and the campuses at the time. Why? Because that’s another story altogether. What really happened on that fall afternoon was that a short story came to life on the shoulders of old-fashioned underdog heroes and an audience of thousands who watched them. The incredulous spectators became astonished witnesses to a story with an absolutely impossible ending. This was the day that Harvard beat Yale 29 – 29. In 42 seconds.


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