Documentary Tackles Epic Harvard-Yale Game

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 tells the story of the 1968 football meeting between the Ivy League archrivals. Filmmaker Kevin Rafferty's father was a former Yale football captain, but Rafferty chose to go to Harvard.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Here's the scene: Yale versus Harvard, 1968. On Yale's team, the future NFL all-pro running back Calvin Hill. On the Harvard side of the line, a young man who would become a noted actor, Tommy Lee Jones. Both teams, arch rivals, were undefeated. A new documentary tells the story of this matchup. It's called "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29." That's a tricky title. As far as what actually happened in the game, Jon Kalish has the story.

JON KALISH: Garry Trudeau was in the stands at Harvard stadium that day with 45,000 other screaming fans.

Mr. GARY TRUDEAU (Creator, Doonesbury comic strip): Anyone who was at that game will never forget it.

KALISH: Trudeau was a couple of years away from chronicling the political and social tribulations of the country in his comic strip, "Doonesbury." Likewise, filmmaker Kevin Rafferty had yet to tackle the nuclear and tobacco industries in his pointed documentaries. But both were certainly aware of what was going on around the country in 1968.

Mr. KEVIN RAFFERTY (Director, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29"): All hell was breaking loose. Our leaders were being assassinated, cities were burning, and here, in the middle of all this, is a football game. And everybody just took a day off. Harvard middle guard Alex MacLean said that SDS stopped having meetings that week.

KALISH: Such were the times that the Harvard middle guard was actually a member of the anti-war group Students for a Democratic Society. In the 30 years since, Kevin Rafferty made the acclaimed documentary "The Atomic Cafe" and five other films. The Harvard grad was looking for a new project when his daughter enrolled at Yale. He started thinking about that game again, and how to tell the story on film.

Mr. RAFFERTY: It took me about 10 seconds to figure out how to do it. Let the players tell the story. No spectators, no Teddy Kennedy or Pataki or all the famous people that were at the game. No coaches, just the players.

KALISH: But the players were scattered all over the country. And Rafferty, living in Manhattan, didn't even own a car. So he bought a used clunker, equipped it with a GPS unit, and off he went, interviewing 61 players in four months.

Mr. BRIAN DOWLING (Former Yale Quarterback): Looking back on the season, I don't think we attempted more than three field goals.

KALISH: Yale quarterback Brian Dowling was living outside of Boston. In 1968, he was something of a god on campus and one of the main characters in a comic strip Gary Trudeau was doing for the Yale Daily News. That character became Doonsbury's B.D.

Mr. TRUDEAU: The strip gained a following pretty much on the strength of my riding his coattails. When you arrived on campus, the legend was already intact. And then you went and you got a taste of his skill set, and it was astonishing. It was addictive because he would drop back, his receiver wouldn't be open, and he would just start moving around that backfield, and you just couldn't believe what you were seeing.

(Soundbite of vintage broadcast of Harvard-Yale matchup, 1968)

Unidentified Announcer: Dowling, being chased. Again scrambling away. Being chased by Kaplan(ph). Look at him scamble.

KALISH: The first half of the Harvard-Yale game was hardly a nail biter. By the second quarter, Yale was ahead 22 to nothing. Harvard's coach pulled its starting quarterback, and the team seemed to pull together. But filmmaker Kevin Rafferty says that it wasn't until the final 42 seconds that Harvard's fortunes changed dramatically.

Mr. RAFFERTY: It was just a perfect storm of great plays, good luck, freak plays, timely penalties. If someone had written it as fiction, no one would have believed it.

KALISH: Film critic John Anderson became a believer. He calls "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29" a thriller.

Mr. JOHN ANDERSON (Film Critic): I haven't watched an entire football game since I was 11 years old, and I was thoroughly with it. The title actually helps create the suspense, because as the clock ticks down, you know where the scoreboard is supposed to end up. But you can't believe it's going to get there. And yet, as it begins to happen, you're still incredulous.

(Soundbite of vintage broadcast of Harvard-Yale matchup, 1968)

Unidentified Man: That's Davidson(ph), number 44, being chased by Pat Conway.

KALISH: The Harvard squad not only included an SDS member, but a Vietnam vet. Pat Conway was a marine at the siege of Khe Sanh just months before the Harvard-Yale game. He's seen the documentary and thinks it will dispel some of the myths that have endured for 40 years.

Mr. PAT CONWAY (Former Harvard Fullback): Normally, football players know exactly what happened. I mean, I can almost remember certain things I did back in the day, as most football players can. But you're going to find out in this film some people got it wrong.

KALISH: Yale safety J.P. Goldsmith saw some things in the film that he didn't remember, but he has one quibble with filmmaker Kevin Rafferty.

Mr. J.P. GOLDSMITH (Former Yale Safety): I wish he had highlighted what happened to these young men after graduation. These young men became productive, contributing citizens to their country, to their society. I don't want to get melodramatic here, but they were better citizens than they were football players. And they were damn good football players.

KALISH: But for many in the stands, the game was the thing for years afterwards. Kevin Rafferty remembers running into his father outside Harvard's stadium after the game. His father played football at Yale in the late 1930s and early '40s.

Mr. RAFFERTY: You have to understand that he had been in the Marine Corps, and he'd landed at Guam and Iwo Jima, and he'd lost a lot of friends in the war, and he'd lost his older brother. And I said, dad, how did you like the game? And he looked me in the eye, and he said, worst day of my life.

KALISH: But as some of those who were on the field that day recall at the end of Rafferty's film, it was, after all, just a football game. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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