Tells the story of an unforgettable group of young athletes who battled in the legendary Harvard-Yale football game of 1968 amidst the sweeping currents of one of the most transformative years in American history.
Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.
Excerpt: The Game
When Pat Conway decided to play football again, the one thing he didn’t want to do was embarrass himself on the field. Now he’d embarrassed himself before he’d even gotten to the field. It was the first day of practice. In the locker room, listening to the other players joking and laughing as they put on their uniforms, he had pulled on his football pants and drawn the laces tight. But something didn’t feel quite right. He snuck a glance at the players nearby and realized what it was. He had forgotten to put on his girdle, the thick cloth wrap that contained pads for his backbone and hips. The girdle went on before the pants. He looked around sheepishly, worried that someone had noticed, but everyone was busy lacing up shoulder pads or putting on cleats. Conway took off his football pants, cinched the girdle around his waist, and pulled the pants back on. He reached for a crimson stirrup sock and tugged it up his leg—until he realized that the socks, too, went on before the pants. He felt like a fool. He’d forgotten how to put on a football uniform. He unlaced his pants one more time.
Of the 117 candidates for the 1968 Harvard football team who returned to Cambridge on September 1 for three weeks of preseason practice, Pat Conway was, perhaps, the most unlikely. He was twenty-four years old, six years older than some of his teammates. He hadn’t played football in more than three years. He knew almost no one on the team. He’d be trying out for safety, a position he had never played. Six months ago, he had been dodging mortar fire in Vietnam.
Conway had played football for Harvard before. A Sporting News high school All-American from Haverhill, Massachusetts, he had arrived in the fall of 1963 and quickly established himself as a star halfback on the freshman team. (On November 22, after his 48-yard touchdown run gave Harvard a 7–6 lead over Yale, he had been standing on the goal line, ready to receive the second-half kickoff, when the referee walked over and told him that President Kennedy had been shot. Although shaken, the hyper-competitive Conway pleaded with the official not to tell anyone else so they could finish the game.) Sophomore year, Conway started at fullback for the varsity, but he was floundering academically and Harvard put him on probation. The following autumn, falling still further behind, he left school, enlisted in the Marines, and was sent to Vietnam. While his Harvard teammates were playing Yale in November 1967, he had been digging foxholes at Khe Sanh Combat Base. His tour almost up, he had reapplied to Harvard for the spring semester. By the time his paperwork came through, more than 30,000 North Vietnamese troops had surrounded the base. It would be months before Conway was able to fly home.
Conway hadn’t expected to play football when he returned to Harvard for his senior year. But that summer he’d gotten a letter from Coach John Yovicsin saying he had a year of eligibility left; did he want to rejoin the team? Yovicsin told Conway they already had someone—the captain, Vic Gatto—at right halfback, his favorite position. But they needed a safety. Conway said he’d give it a try.
The last time he had touched a football was at Khe Sanh, before all hell broke loose. Someone had come across a battered old ball, and Conway and a few other marines had tossed it around for half an hour one afternoon. Conway never saw the ball again; he assumed it had blown up in a mortar attack.
He had no real expectation of making the team. But ever since he’d started playing Pop Warner in the seventh grade, fall had meant football. Returning to college after almost three years away wouldn’t be easy. Playing football might help him get back to his old life.
Besides, Conway was lonely. He had spent July and August in Cambridge, going to summer school and living alone in a dorm in Harvard Yard, where he had spent his freshman year five years before. He was almost as old as some of his teachers. Everyone he’d been with at Harvard the first time around was off at graduate school or out in the real world. Playing football, he would meet some people. And not just any people, his kind of people: blue-collar guys, regular guys, guys who knew how to work hard. If he didn’t make the team, at least maybe he’d make a few friends.
That summer, Conway took long runs on the Charles River footpath. He “did stadiums”—bounding up and down the steep Harvard Stadium steps. Once in a while he was able to persuade an old high school teammate to throw a football with him. Most of the time, he was on his own. By the start of preseason, he was in pretty good shape, but football shape was something different, and he had no idea what to expect once the hitting began.
* * *
For most of the 116 other players who showed up that first day, there was a comfortable, back-to-school feel. They joshed and kidded, giving each other grief about a particularly colorful T-shirt or the length of someone’s sideburns. At the same time, they were surreptitiously sizing one another up: whose biceps looked especially prominent, which of the incoming sophomores looked as if they might be players. Over dinner they talked about their summers.
It had been a strange, unsettling few months. The summer had seemed to begin on June 6, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, only nine weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Quarterback George Lalich and linebacker John Emery had been up late watching a movie in a Connecticut motel room, preparing to play for Harvard in the NCAA baseball tournament, when the show was interrupted with news of the shooting. They spent the rest of the night watching the coverage and wondering what the country was coming to.
The summer had ended, a week before preseason began, with the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Offensive tackle Joe McGrath had been there, working as a congressional aide and staying in a hotel across from Grant Park, where the antiwar demonstrators gathered. One night McGrath had been in the hotel basement, mimeographing the latest draft of the party platform, when a few dozen Chicago policemen, bloodied and furious after an encounter with rock-throwing protestors, came in to regroup. Another night, he’d walked out of the hotel and seen a mass of policemen lined up across from thousands of demonstrators, who were shouting “Oink oink” and “Fascist pigs.” Every so often, billy clubs flailing, the police charged into the crowd, which scattered into the park before coming forward to renew its taunts—at which point the police charged again. For several nights, as delegates at the convention argued over whether to adopt an antiwar plank into the party platform, downtown Chicago itself resembled something of a war zone, as thousands of police and National Guardsmen, employing what one senator called “Gestapo tactics,” teargassed and clubbed protestors, bystanders, and journalists alike.
Between those disturbing events, the Harvard players had settled into their summer jobs. Many of them had worked in construction, which not only paid well but helped them stay in shape. Lalich had been a rod buster at a Chicago steel mill. Cornerback Mike Ananis had unloaded two-by-fours at Boston lumberyards. Not every player did heavy lifting: tackle Bob Dowd had been a counselor at a boys’ camp in New Hampshire; guard Tommy Lee Jones had acted in a summer repertory theater at Harvard, playing the title role in a blues adaptation of the fifteenth-century morality play Everyman; halfback Ray Hornblower had run with the bulls at Pamplona before bumming around Spain. Defensive tackle Rick Berne had driven across the country with a friend. It had been a mind-expanding trip: from the Deep South, where their shaggy hair and New York license plates had earned them hard stares that Berne would recall the following summer when he saw a movie called Easy Rider, to San Francisco, where they’d wandered among the flower children in Haight-Ashbury before ending up in Golden Gate Park in a vast swirl of barefoot, half-naked hippies smoking pot in broad daylight.
* * *
The first few days of preseason were always a time of unbridled optimism. The grass on the fields had just been cut, the lines were newly chalked, the uniforms were freshly washed. Everything seemed possible. Before practice even began, there was Picture Day, in which the players, dressed in their crimson game uniforms, posed for Boston photographers on the emerald greensward of Harvard Stadium, where they were encouraged to assume a variety of “action” poses rarely, if ever, seen in games: helmetless halfbacks in stiff-arming, Heisman-esque positions; quarterbacks, arms cocked, leaping like ballet dancers in mid-jeté; linebackers pouncing like cartoon cats on footballs that lay, conspicuously unattended, on the grass.
The players’ spirits were high, their coach’s somewhat less so. John Yovicsin was cautious by nature, and he had even more reason to be this year, his twelfth at Harvard. Despite having ended the previous season with a near-upset of heavily favored Yale, Harvard had tied for fourth place in the eight-team Ivy League. Of twenty-two starters, fourteen had graduated, including five who had been named All-Ivy. There were only fourteen returning lettermen, the fewest in the league. By the time preseason started, due to injuries over the summer, they were down to eleven. The biggest blow was the loss of senior defensive back John Tyson, whom the press book described as “Harvard’s top candidate for All-East and All-American honors.” Yovicsin told reporters that Tyson couldn’t play because the knee he’d injured last season hadn’t healed, but most of the players knew the real reason: Tyson had quit the team to devote himself to black activism. It was Tyson’s shoes that Yovicsin hoped Pat Conway could fill.
Harvard did have one bona fide star: its captain, Vic Gatto, the squat, muscular halfback who entered the season as the fourth-leading rusher in Harvard history. Gatto was joined by junior Ray Hornblower, a whippet-fast halfback who had come out of nowhere the previous year to finish fifth in the league in rushing, to give Harvard what might be the top running tandem in the league. Whether the offensive line—it had only one returning letterman, the aspiring actor Tommy Lee Jones—would be able to open holes for their talented running backs was another matter. “At offensive tackle the picture is desperate,” the Crimson observed. On defense, there were a few veteran linebackers and several promising sophomores, but, as Yovicsin told the press, “I’ve never gone into a season with as many question marks.” In almost every preseason poll, Harvard was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Ivy League. “Harvard Outlook Not Too Bright” was the gleeful headline in the Yale Daily News. Even Harvard’s director of sports information, whose job required him to be optimistic, conceded that the football team, after overachieving for two seasons, might have its first losing campaign in ten years. “The well,” he said, “has finally run dry.”
* * *
Two-a-days, as the twice-daily preseason practice sessions were known, were all about finding out who wanted to hit. This year, the players had a temporary reprieve before the hitting began. Alarmed by the number of cases of heat exhaustion in the early days of practice—including twenty-four deaths among high school and college players in the previous eight years—the NCAA had decreed that the first three days of the 1968 preseason be conducted without pads. Coaches grumbled. You couldn’t tell who the real football players were until you saw them hit. But for a brief honeymoon period, practice had a summer-camp feel, as the players, in T-shirts, shorts, and helmets, improved their conditioning, rehearsed their footwork, and learned plays. On the morning of the fourth day, the walk to the fields was quieter than usual.
It wasn’t that the players hated hitting—you didn’t play football unless you liked to hit. It was that there was so much of it. Even the quarterbacks, running backs, and ends—the so-called skill positions—did a lot of hitting, when they weren’t throwing and catching and handing off. The linemen who, by implication, toiled at unskilled positions, did nothing but hit, spending four hours a day smashing into each other. There were a variety of ways to accomplish the smashing. There was the Hamburger Drill, in which a defensive lineman squared off against an offensive lineman and a running back. There was Bull in the Ring, in which the players formed a circle with one man in the center, and, as a coach called out their names, the players on the perimeter, in quick succession, tried to knock him down. There was the Board Drill, in which two linemen, straddling a two-by-four on the ground, rammed into each other like sumo wrestlers, each trying to toss the other aside. When the linemen weren’t smashing into each other, they were smashing into inanimate objects like the seven-man sled, which they shoved back and forth across the field, with a coach going along for the ride on the steel frame, goading them like a galley master. When practice was almost over and the hitting finally, mercifully, stopped, there were wind sprints—fifty yards at top speed, over and over, until the players were so exhausted they could hardly stand up.
All this took place in the heat and humidity of the city at the end of summer, when even the faintest breeze off the Charles felt like a blessing. In high school, most of the players had coaches who made it clear that only sissies drank water during practice. Mindful of the NCAA’s concerns about dehydration, the Harvard coaches weren’t quite so draconian, but they were loath to spare even a minute for a water break. The players lived for the rare occasions when the managers appeared on the field, scurrying from group to group with metal trays stocked with water-filled Dixie cups, half of whose contents had sloshed out along the way. Some of the players had heard about a new Day-Glo lemon-lime “sports drink” called Gatorade, developed by scientists at the University of Florida, and they pleaded with the trainers to get them some, but were told to make do with water. If they were feeling faint, they could gobble down some salt pills. When his teammates complained about the 90-degree heat, Tommy Lee Jones, who, before taking up acting had spent his summers working on oil rigs, would growl, “You pussies, it’s a hundred degrees in Texas.”
Unlike other Division I colleges, Ivy League schools prohibited spring practice, so there had been no organized football since the final snap of the Yale game nine months earlier. Although the coaches issued a manual of suggested exercises, there was no required off-season conditioning program. The players were expected to arrive at camp in shape; how they accomplished this was up to them. For those, like Gatto, who, the moment his Park League summer baseball season was over, launched into a systematic regimen of push-ups, pull-ups, sprints, and distance runs (Gatto was never really out of shape), preseason was exhausting enough. For those who had put off exercising till the waning days of August and then jogged around the block a few times, it was agony. Even if you came to camp in shape, hitting shape was something else. For the first three or four days of full-pad workouts, your body was so sore it took several minutes to get out of bed in the morning. Just when you thought you might not be able to get out of bed at all, your body, miraculously, began to adjust. The wear and tear, however, continued to accrue. A lineman’s hands got bruised and cut from the constant jousting, clawing, and fending off. His forehead developed new creases where his helmet jammed into it with each collision.
Ten days in, starting center Ted Skowronski had a purple stripe across his brow so dark and persistent that the team doctors, concerned he might have some sort of blood disorder, sent him to Massachusetts General Hospital for tests. Skowronski was devastated. Three years ago, he had arrived at Harvard for his first day of freshman football practice to find himself on tenth string. He had worked his way up over the years, but no matter how well he performed in practice, he remained on the bench; playing in JV games, dressing for the varsity, and cheering his lungs out but getting in only long after the outcome had been decided. In low moments, Skowronski worried that maybe he just wasn’t good enough and wondered whether it might be time to give up. He had seen dozens of players, tired of sitting on the bench, quit the team. But he knew he couldn’t. Not with the name Skowronski. One of his brothers had been a two-year starter at guard for Harvard; another was the starting left tackle and co-captain of the NFL champion Green Bay Packers. Ted Skowronski had to live up to the family name. Now, in his last season at Harvard, he was one of only nineteen players remaining from the 132 who had come out for the freshman team three years earlier. Just as he had finally made first string, however, it seemed his football career might be over.
The tests came back negative. The purple stripe was merely a particularly colorful bruise, part of the normal wear and tear of playing on the line.
* * *
The fortunes of the 1968 Harvard football team would depend largely on players like Skowronski, seniors who had spent two years on JV and were only now getting the chance to start. Being an underclassman on a John Yovicsin team could be maddening. All the players knew that the coach favored seniors who had worked their way up through the program. Only in rare cases, when a first-stringer was injured, or when an underclassman like Gatto, who was so clearly superior, came along, would sophomores or juniors start. It was hard to argue with the results—Yovicsin hadn’t had a losing season since 1958—but it didn’t seem fair that underclassmen could outplay seniors in practice but sit on the bench when game day arrived. Indeed, some of them had become so disgruntled that after the 1967 season, unbeknownst to their coach, they had talked about not coming out for the team senior year.
In high school, most of them had played for coaches straight out of central casting: chain-smoking Rocknes whose locker room–pacing, vein-popping, expletive-spewing pregame pep talks worked the players into such a frenzy they were practically frothing at the mouth as they took the field. After that, John Yovicsin took some getting used to. Formal and reserved, almost courtly, Yovicsin, who seemed older than his forty-nine years, was often mistaken for a Harvard professor. A regular worshiper in the Congregational church, “Yovvy,” as the Crimson referred to him (a nickname that seemed more impertinent than affectionate), didn’t smoke or drink, and spoke firmly but softly; his saltiest language ran to “Dag-gone it,” “cheese and crackers,” or, in extremis, “Christopher Columbus!” After a Harvard player got into a fight with an opponent during last year’s Penn game, Yovicsin came into the locker room and said, “Boys, I’ve told you many times: no fisticuffs on the field.” His pregame speeches focused on technical details; he left the emotional preparation to his players. “I don’t believe in psychological pressure such as pep talks,” he told the Crimson. “That is a thing of the past. . . . Anyway, our boys are too intelligent to fall for that.” Dressed in a herringbone tweed jacket, a crimson V-neck sweater, a carefully knotted tie, and a Tyrolean fedora atop his neatly combed, going-gray hair, Yovicsin spent much of the game pacing the sideline, arms folded, a troubled expression on his handsome face.
Earlier in his career, Yovicsin might have been considered an admirable exemplar of taciturn, square-jawed rectitude, but in the sixties he seemed to exemplify the out-of-touch authority figures against which young Americans were rebelling. Players grumbled about his formal approach and remote air. A few wondered whether he even knew their names. (He did.) Some rolled their eyes at his antiseptic pregame speeches, imitated his generic instructions (Boys, you’ve got to be better!), or joked about his fastidious practices, which Yovicsin, checking his clipboard and stopwatch, programmed to the minute; if the players were in mid-drill and it was time for the next item on his agenda, he’d blow his whistle and move the team along. Each afternoon when Yovicsin walked out of his office in Dillon Field House for practice, the first thing he did was turn around and check the clock on the wall. One day, halfback Jimmy Reynolds moved the clock’s hands a few minutes forward. When Yovicsin came out, he turned around, looked up at the clock, and, to the team’s amusement, was visibly flustered at the thought that he might be a minute or two late.
It was ironic that so many members of the team felt distant from their coach. Despite his impeccable garb and patrician manner, Yovicsin came from a background more like that of his players, most of whom were from working-class families, than like that of his employers. He had grown up during the Depression in Steelton, a company town in central Pennsylvania where immigrants from Eastern Europe worked in the foundries for Bethlehem Steel. Yovicsin’s father, a welder who left Serbia when he was seventeen, had steered his son toward sports as a way out of the mills. (A trace of a Slavic accent could still be heard in the coach’s speech.) The lanky Yovicsin had starred in football, basketball, and track (he was a high jumper and pole-vaulter) at Steelton High, and then, on scholarship, at Gettysburg College.
He had been coaching in relative obscurity at Gettysburg when Harvard hired him, in 1957, to resurrect its moribund football program. His first year began with a seven-touchdown loss in a scrimmage with tiny Williams College and ended with a 54–0 shellacking by Yale, the most lopsided defeat in the rivalry’s eighty-two-year history. But he updated Harvard’s antediluvian offense from single wing to T-formation, started a junior varsity program, expanded the use of game films, and beefed up the alumni recruiting network. In 1961, Harvard tied for the Ivy League title.
Even when he won, Yovicsin was criticized. A skilled tactician, an “x’s and o’s guy” who was attentive to every detail, Yovicsin often said that he considered defense to be the most important part of the game, followed by kicking. Offense, by implication, was almost an afterthought. Indeed, his Harvard teams were known for two things: the impregnability of their defense and the predictability of their offense, which seemed an endless loop of off-tackle runs and end sweeps. Yovicsin, alumni said, was unaware that the forward pass had been legalized in 1906. Yovicsin’s methods worked—in 1966 his team tied for the Ivy title again—but no matter how well the coach did, the alumni grumbled that with the talent Harvard had he should be doing even better.
Yovicsin was accused of being an old-fashioned coach, but in one area he was far ahead of his time. In 1964, Harvard had been the first team in the Ivy League—and among the very few in college football other than at historically black institutions—to start a black quarterback, a milestone that had provoked little comment in liberal Cambridge, but had earned the coach hate mail from around the country. And though he was said to be distant from his players, he was protective of athletes who made mistakes, and at postgame press conferences went out of his way to single out less-celebrated players—someone who’d made a good block or performed well on punt coverage. After cornerback John Ignacio separated his shoulder in preseason, he’d been surprised and touched when Yovicsin visited him that night in the infirmary. When linebacker Gerry Marino was in danger of flunking out sophomore year, he went to Yovicsin, who listened sympathetically and helped him get tutoring. Two years later, when his grades were down, his graduation was in doubt, and he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, Marino would go to Yovicsin again; and though it was spring and the senior could no longer be of use to him on the football field, the coach was equally concerned, and arranged a session with a psychologist for career counseling.
Yovicsin’s restraint wasn’t just a matter of temperament. Few of his players knew that in the spring of 1965, their coach had undergone open-heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic to replace a defective valve. The doctors put him on a heavy dose of cardiac medication and told him he could continue coaching but had to be careful not to overdo it. Given his job, it wasn’t an easy prescription to follow. Yovicsin worked fourteen-hour days during the season, rarely getting home to his wife and four children in Framingham before ten o’clock. Nor did the players know that from time to time, when his heart began to fibrillate, Yovicsin quietly checked into the hospital, where cardiologists, using electrical stimulation, were able to coax his heartbeat back to normal.
* * *
Midway through two-a-days, everyone began to get a little stir-crazy. In the Ivy League, there were no athletic scholarships, though most of the football team was on need-based financial aid; no one had to play, and no one got cut. But every few days, someone dropped off the team: a sophomore who realized he wasn’t going to get much playing time, a junior who just couldn’t take one more Hamburger Drill and decided to spend the last days of summer at the beach. The next day, his locker was empty. Of the 117 players who showed up on the first day of preseason, 29 would be gone by the end of the three-week session. Those who stayed couldn’t take a second off. They had to go all out in every drill, scrimmage, and wind sprint, knowing that each night while they slept, the coaches were discussing that day’s sessions, evaluating every man, and then revising the depth chart—the mimeographed list of players ranked by position that was the first thing the players saw each morning when they walked into Dillon Field House.
The players were staying in Kirkland House, a dormitory just across the river from the fields. Their quarters were monastic: two single beds, two bureaus, two desks, no TVs, no radios, no posters, no fans. After lunch, when the players returned to their rooms to rest, they pulled down the shades and turned off the lights to create the illusion of coolness, but it was so hot that they worked up a fresh sweat just lying there. The beds weren’t big enough for the larger players, but they were too tired to worry about that, too tired to talk, too tired to do anything but lie there as still as possible, trying not to think about the afternoon practice. They didn’t really want to fall asleep, because if they dozed off, it seemed only seconds later they’d hear the manager’s knock on the door that meant it was time to get up; it was better to lie there, the minutes passing, dreading the knock. And when the knock came, they couldn’t pretend they hadn’t heard it, because the manager was instructed to stay there, knocking, until they came to the door. So they’d haul themselves out of bed and walk slowly, gingerly, back to the field house, pull on a uniform still clammy with sweat—and no matter how often the uniforms were laundered they never lost their sour smell—and head out for a second session more exhausting than the first.
Dinner was the high point of the day. Training table meals almost always began with New York strip steaks, as many as they wanted, and ended with buckets of ice cream and hot fudge sauce. After dinner, the players met with their position coaches to watch film and go over the playbook. Any distraction from the routine was welcome, even the lecture on venereal disease by the official from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health who came by one evening to remind them that in the age of free love, love wasn’t always free. But by then they were too tired even to think of anything other than sleep. Seconds after their heads hit the pillow, it seemed, the manager was knocking on their door, and it was time to get up and do it all over again.
Sometimes the need to escape was so great, however, that after the last meeting of the night, Ted Skowronski and reserve end Tony Smith, who had roomed together in Cambridge that summer, would walk two blocks up to Harvard Square just to get a whiff of what they were missing. They had to remind themselves that there was a real world out there. They’d stand near Out of Town News, taking it all in: the hippies in front of Holyoke Center swaying and singing along as a guitarist strummed “Hey Jude”; the high school students bumming cigarettes and hoping to scrounge up some pot before heading home to the suburbs; the antiwar protestors handing out pamphlets; the unpublished poet hawking dittoed copies off his work in the incense-patchouli-and-marijuana-scented summer night. If they were feeling adventurous and the line wasn’t too long, they might get a strawberry cone with jimmies at Brigham’s. Or they’d slide into an empty booth at Hazen’s, put a dime in the jukebox, and sip coffee while listening to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” or “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf, songs that had defined their summer. And then, taking a final glimpse of the Square and fixing it in their minds, the way a pothead held the smoke in his lungs as long as possible before exhaling, they’d walk back to Kirkland House.
Mornings were the worst. As the players straggled down Boylston Street and the sun began to hint at the heat that lay ahead, George Lalich vowed to all within earshot that once he was finished with football, he’d never again do so much as a jumping jack before noon. Crossing Anderson Bridge, Skowronski had fantasies of jumping in the Charles and floating downriver to Boston—anything to save him from the misery that awaited. Seeing the stadium loom in the distance, some of the players might break into a plaintive chorus of “Please Mr. Custer, I Don’t Wanna Go,” or, thinking of what they’d rather be doing on the field than smashing into one another, they’d sing Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”: Making love in the green grass / Behind the stadium / With you, my brown-eyed girl. As they got closer, the smell of the dew on the freshly mowed grass, a smell that on the first day of practice had made Lalich tingle with anticipation, now made him feel slightly nauseated.
• • •
After Parris Island, Harvard two-a-days didn’t seem so bad. For Pat Conway, the challenges of preseason were more mental than physical. Learning to play defense was like learning another language. On offense you knew where you were going before the play began; on defense your responsibility depended on how the offense set up, and might change as the play developed. In the middle of a play, Conway’s fellow defensive backs would suddenly shout “Go east! Go east!” or (like so many Horace Greeleys) “Go west!”—thus alerting each other which way they should rotate. That was confusing enough, but Conway was dyslexic and had always had trouble with left and right. When his teammates called out “Go west,” Conway would visualize a globe with the North Pole on top, then locate California on the left and head that way. If he heard “Go east,” he’d think Atlantic Ocean and head right. Conway had never told anyone he was dyslexic, and though he felt a little foolish on the field when it took a second or two to get his bearings, he certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone now.
Conway may have been laboring in some of the drills, but it was clear to his coaches and teammates that he was going to be good. He was big (six feet two, 185 pounds), he was fast (he had run a 9.9 hundred-yard dash for his high school track team), and he was so conscientious and eager to learn that the other defensive backs went out of their way to help him, though they knew they might end up playing less because of it. Conway tended to hang out with the sophomores, despite the age difference, because they, too, were new to the team, feeling their way along, trying to fit in both on and off the field. Each night after dinner, defensive backfield coach Loyal Park quizzed his men, firing questions at them about their assignments. Third and long, your side of the field, right hash mark, fourth quarter. What are you looking for? A wrong answer earned a withering comment from the coach. Afterward, Conway went straight to his room and pored over the playbook; he and his roommate tested each other on formations and rotations. Conway had never studied so hard. He knew he had to learn the stuff until it was second nature; by the time the season started, he certainly couldn’t be pausing in the middle of a play to figure out where the North Pole was.
* * *
Like Conway, each player in camp was fighting his own private battle. Bruce Freeman, a rangy, redheaded sophomore end from southern California who had played little as a freshman, was hoping to get a chance to show what he could do. But the night before he was scheduled to fly back to Boston, his father had died of a heart attack. Freeman, who was on scholarship, assumed he could no longer afford Harvard and resigned himself to attending the local community college. But the admissions office quickly came up with a new financial package that enabled him to return. He arrived in camp a week late, after the funeral, and was struggling to catch up, trying not to think about his father until he was back in his room. At night, his dreams about him seemed so real that he’d wake up thinking his father was alive—and then remember.
Fritz Reed had ten days to learn an entirely new position. Last year he had started at end. This year, Yovicsin, desperate for help on the offensive line, moved him to tackle in the second week of preseason. Reed, who had played end since he was a high school sophomore and had co-captained the Ohio All-Star South team at the position, was deeply disappointed and a little insulted. “I thought tackles did nothing but grunt and groan and just plod straight ahead,” he admitted to a reporter. But the sleepy-looking junior was a fast learner—he had, in fact, an IQ of 169—who adapted to his new role with characteristic humor. “Well, I guess I’m down here with the farm animals again,” he’d announce as he walked into the locker room.
And then there was Alex MacLean. The coaches were counting on him to start at middle guard, but the former JV player, worried that he might not be up to the responsibility, had spent the month of August trying to eat his way out of the job, half-hoping he’d arrive in such bad shape that the coaches would give up on him. On the first day of preseason, the five-foot-nine senior had weighed in at 230 pounds, 30 over his playing weight. The coaches made him wear a long-sleeved rubber shirt under his pads, the kind wrestlers use to make weight for an upcoming bout. But now that he was in camp, MacLean, reminded of how much he loved football, was working hard and hoping that in his anxiety he hadn’t blown his big chance. Between drills, he’d untuck the front of his rubber shirt and a small river of sweat would pour out.
* * *
Most players were so involved in their own struggles that they were only dimly aware of what was going on in other corners of the practice field. But everyone knew Yovicsin’s most pressing task was to find a quarterback. Last year’s starter, Ric Zimmerman, arguably the greatest passer in Harvard history, had graduated. So had his backup. Of the four quarterbacks in camp, only George Lalich had any varsity experience—and that for a grand total of twelve minutes.
If based on passing ability alone, the job would be Frank Champi’s. A junior who had played JV the previous year, Champi had what coaches called “an arm.” (Last spring he had broken the Harvard javelin record.) Players paused during practice just to watch him hurl perfect spirals fifty or sixty yards down the field. But Champi, a balding, bespectacled young man from the working-class Boston suburb of Everett, was self-conscious and unobtrusive to the point of invisibility. You didn’t notice him—until he threw a pass. Yovicsin and his assistant coaches wondered whether he had the personality to lead a team. A team had to believe in its quarterback. Champi, it appeared, had trouble believing in himself.
If Champi was the most introverted member of the team, Lalich, last year’s third-string quarterback, he of the twelve minutes of varsity playing time, was among the most extroverted: an irreverent, street-smart jokester from the South Side of Chicago who seemed always to be at the center of a knot of players, cracking people up. When, early in camp, Yovicsin told the Boston Globe that the team had “a big hole” at quarterback, Lalich had quipped, “I’m the quarterback. Who’s this guy Big Hole?” The line became a running joke. Lalich, a relief pitcher on the baseball team, wasn’t in Champi’s league as a passer, but he was a decent thrower and a resourceful scrambler, and the coaches could see how the players, particularly the seniors, responded to him. During breaks in practice, just when the players were about to buckle in the heat, the tousle-haired, pie-faced Lalich would grab a tackling dummy and waltz around the field crooning Sérgio Mendes’s bossa nova version of the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill,” and the mood lightened. The coaches suspected that Lalich’s self-deprecating humor masked some underlying insecurity, and they took every opportunity to boost his confidence. Going into two-a-days, they had assured him that the quarterback job was his, and backfield coach Pat Stark helped him choose the style and brand of ball he wanted to use during the season (Wilson’s “The Duke”). But each time they saw Champi launch another 50-yard dart, they couldn’t help wondering whether they were making the right choice.
* * *
Two weeks in, just when the players thought they might explode if they didn’t get to hit someone besides each other, Harvard scrimmaged the University of New Hampshire. It was a sobering experience. The defense had trouble stopping a weak New Hampshire offense. The offense struggled to make a first down. Lalich was erratic, though it was hard to fault him because he spent most of his time dodging tacklers who had eluded his patchwork offensive line. The entire team looked sluggish in the 16–7 loss. Afterward, an assistant coach told a reporter he’d be happy if Harvard managed to win five games.
Things were no more encouraging the following week during the annual intrasquad scrimmage: the players’ last chance to impress the coaches before the season started. It was their first time back in Harvard Stadium since Picture Day, but the grand setting only made their performance look more feeble. On one of the day’s final plays, starting cornerback Mike Ananis separated his shoulder making a tackle. Harvard was down to ten returning lettermen. The opening game was a week away and it wasn’t clear who would be healthy enough to play.
And then, suddenly, two-a-days were over. The players moved into their regular dorms, the rest of the students came flooding back, and classes began.
Asked by the Crimson to evaluate his team’s prospects, Coach Yovicsin didn’t sound optimistic.
“If everything works out, we’ll have a football team,” he said.
“A good football team?” asked the reporter.
“A football team,” Yovicsin replied.
* * *
On September 28, 1968, the Harvard football team opened its ninety-fifth season against Holy Cross in front of 23,000 spectators at the stadium. In a players-only huddle before the game, Vic Gatto told his teammates that although few people believed they’d amount to much this year, they were going to win the Ivy League championship; in fact, they had a very good chance of going undefeated. Tommy Lee Jones was not the only one who thought their captain might be a little delusional.
Indeed, for much of the first half, Harvard continued its mistake-filled play of preseason. They had gone into the game intending to keep the ball on the ground, but Holy Cross stacked its defense against the run, and Gatto and Hornblower were stymied. Harvard tried passing, but Lalich was tentative and ineffective, in part because his offensive line was unable to stave off the Holy Cross defenders. (The Harvard Alumni Bulletin would describe the line’s first-half performance as “jelly-like.”) Midway through the second quarter, the offense had run seventeen plays and gained fourteen yards; Harvard was behind 13–0. “It looked as if the Crimson was in for a long day, perhaps for a long season,” observed one sportswriter.
The coaches made some adjustments to Harvard’s blocking assignments, and the offense began to click. With more time, Lalich found his targets, especially his biggest one, Pete Varney, the six-foot-two, 245-pound sophomore who had taken over Fritz Reed’s spot at end. At the half, Harvard trailed 13–12. Going into the fourth quarter, Holy Cross was ahead by one touchdown and was driving for another when Ananis’s replacement intercepted a pass deep in Harvard territory. Lalich led Harvard to a touchdown and followed it with a two-point conversion pass to Varney that tied the score at 20. A few minutes later, Holy Cross went for it on fourth and one from midfield, but their fullback was met by what seemed to be the entire Harvard defense—whereupon Lalich drove his team down the field and scored the winning touchdown himself on a one-yard plunge.
The players were relieved. They knew they had been fortunate to win. Harvard fans left the stadium feeling mildly encouraged, especially by their new quarterback, who, after a shaky start, had shown poise in leading the team on two fourth-quarter scoring drives. Lalich finished with eleven completions in nineteen attempts for 139 yards and was awarded the game ball. (“Harvard Let George Do It and He Did” was the headline in the Boston Herald.) Seven of those passes went to Varney, a two-time first-round choice in the Major League Baseball draft who, it was said, had turned down an $80,000 signing bonus to attend Harvard. Conway, who’d had cortisone injections in each ankle two days before the game, started at safety and made five tackles. Afterward, a reporter asked him whether, playing football for the first time in several years, he had been nervous or scared. “Scared?” Conway replied. “You don’t get nervous or scared playing a football game. You get nervous or scared being under incoming and live artillery. . . . You get excited and enthused about playing football.”