When the Pittsburgh Steelers meet the underdog Arizona Cardinals this Sunday in Super Bowl 43, there's one result you can bet on safely: People will be watching in staggering numbers. Super Sunday has become America's favorite unofficial national holiday, a pretext for parties, an occasion for rolling out expensive commercials, and a confirmation that football is our great national pastime.
It's been so since the 1960s, when the National Football League not only took off in popularity, but the game itself took on a potent social resonance. With its regimented violence, its proto-military uniforms and its warlike vocabulary — linebackers began "blitzing" –- football became a flashpoint in the battle between the straights and the counterculture. I still remember fighting with those who insisted that my love for the game was tantamount to endorsing the slaughter of innocent Vietnamese villagers.
The 1960s culture wars form the background of the best gridiron movie I've ever seen, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, which takes its striking title from a headline in the Harvard newspaper. Made by Kevin Rafferty, this hugely enjoyable documentary takes you inside one of the most famous of all college football games: the 1968 showdown between the Harvard Crimson, a scrappy group of overachievers, and the heavily favored Yale squad, the last Ivy League team anybody ever took seriously. Not only did Yale feature Calvin Hill, who would go on to star for the Dallas Cowboys, but they were quarterbacked by Brian Dowling, a quasi-mythic figure who was both spoken of as God on the Yale campus and, less flatteringly, inspired Gary Trudeau to create the figure of B.D. in Doonesbury.
Having seen the game as a Harvard undergrad, Rafferty approaches his story with admirable straightforwardness. He cuts between copious footage of the game telecast and funny, rueful, reflective interviews with those who played it.
Although the game itself was no thing of beauty, it built to one of the most exciting finales of all time. With only 73 seconds left, the Crimson still trailed 29-13. What followed was a series of lucky plays, disputed calls, two-point conversions and idiotic blunders — a confluence of events so extraordinary that, to this day, everyone involved feels that they entered some vast collective dream. For Harvard's Rick Frisbie, the dream was magnificent — more exciting, he says, than sex. For Yale linebacker Mike Bouscaren, a man of ferocious honesty, things were more nightmarish.
What makes Harvard Beats Yale memorable is the way Rafferty pulls away the players' facemasks and shows their humanity. The movie is filled with terrific characters, from Yale's cheery J.P. Goldsmith, who views the whole game through a scrim of ironic self-awareness, to Pat Conway, a Vietnam vet — he'd fought at Khe Sanh before attending Harvard — who played side-by-side with anti-war organizers.
These were, of course, elite universities, and while one Yale player recalls his pal George W. Bush dangling drunkenly from the goalposts after the team beat Princeton, Harvard tackle Tommy Lee Jones — yes, that Tommy Lee Jones — tells us about his roommate, Al Gore, playing "Dixie" on the Touch-Tone phone. Even the young Meryl Streep makes a brief appearance, putting up anti-war material with her football-player boyfriend, much to the disapproval of the Yale quarterback Dowling, who was all about the game.
Of course, a game is never just a game. Rafferty skillfully uses this collection of characters to offer a fascinating piece of social history. Where Yale in 1968 was comparatively conservative — the Young Americans for Freedom were more visible than the Students for a Democratic Society — the Harvard team was more infused with that era's cultural ferment. While the preppy-ish Yale team worshiped its coach, Carmen Cozza, the Harvard team saw its own coach, John Yovicsin, as one of those distant, out-of-touch authority figures that the 1960s rebelled against. "In the spirit of 1968," one player recalls, "we took over the team."
When the dust cleared, the game was a 29-29 tie — a result that was seen as a victory for the Harvard upstarts and a defeat for the Yale Juggernaut. The game has been remembered that way ever since, but it's part of the charm of Rafferty's film that, 40 years on, even the Yale players who were crushed at the time realize that this tie was their purchase on history — instead of vanishing into the past like so many good teams, this game made them part of an enduring sports legend. You see, as un-American as it may sound, sometimes you can win by not winning.