Sponsored by Scoreboard Enterprises
By BOB YORK
Watching his school score 16 points in 42 seconds proved to be an achievement that fascinated Kevin Rafferty so much he made a documentary about it. He titled it “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”
While Rafferty’s film was released a decade ago to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this 1968 football epic, Saturday’s (Nov. 17) matchup between these long-time football rivals will celebrate its Golden Anniversary by being played at Fenway Park in Boston. This year’s clash will be the 135th rendition of this storied rivalry and will mark the first time since the series originated back in 1875 that a game has ever been played anywhere but Harvard Stadium or the Yale Bowl.
It’s been 50 years now – as Rafferty points out so eloquently in his film – since Harvard took advantage of two Yale fumbles, three penalties and recovered an onside kick to overcome what appeared to be an insurmountable 29-13 deficit during the game’s final minute to earn the tie. The late surge also brought this contest the distinction of being described as “the most famous football game in Ivy League history,” as both contestants entered the game with undefeated 8-0-0 records and were forced to settle for a share of the Ivy League championship.
As you might expect, the documentary’s credit lines reveal a lengthy cast of players hailing from the New England area, with the six-state region being home to 48 players – 41 on Harvard’s roster and seven on Yale’s. As for players who honed their skills for the collegiate level via New England Prep School Athletic Council gridirons, there were 33 dotting the two rosters – 25 for Harvard and eight for Yale.
“We had all the momentum, I just wish we could have played overtime like they do today … I feel certain we would have won that game,” said Harvard’s Pete Varney, who proved to be the ringleader of NEPSAC Nation that day when he caught the two-point conversion that settled the score at 29-29 with the clock having already expired.
“Just to have finished in a tie was really something, though,” added Varney, who spent a post-graduate year at Deerfield Academy. “When you think about it, everything had to go perfectly for us over those final 42 seconds to have been able to do what we did … and it did.”
Varney, who also played baseball at Harvard, where he posted a career batting average of .370 and earned Div. I All-American honors before moving on to play Major League Baseball for the Chicago White Sox and Atlanta Braves, remembers his two-point conversion catch as vividly as the day it happened.
“I knew coming out of the huddle that there was a pretty good chance I’d be the primary receiver on the play,” said Varney, who finished his career for the Crimson with 50 catches for 696 yards and five touchdowns. “Although I was a tight end, I was split out on the play. I ran a buttonhook … running straight into the end zone for about two or three yards, then stopped and took a couple of quick steps back toward our quarterback, Frank Champi, who got the ball to me before the Yale defender could recover “
Looking back on that historic play, Varney believes there was more to do with its success than him simply being in the right place at the right time.
“I think there was a little luck involved, too,” acknowledged Varney, who would coach baseball at Brandais University for 34 years before retiring last spring. “There was a pass interference penalty on the prior conversion attempt, and I think that call influenced Yale’s secondary. I think they were leery about drawing another penalty because it seemed as though they played off me on that play and that allowed me an extra second or so to position myself between the defender and the ball and prevent him from breaking up the pass. “
The Crimson began its historic comeback with just 3:34 remaining in the game and trailing by 16 points. That’s when Harvard’s Steve Ranere recovered a Yale fumble on the Bulldogs’ 14. Five plays later, Champi connected with Bruce Freeman for a touchdown strike to cut the margin to 29-19 with 42 seconds showing. On the ensuing conversion try, Champi’s pass to Varney went awry, but the pass interference call gave Harvard a second try, this time from the 1. From there, Gus Crim scrambled into the end zone and now the margin had shrunk to eight at 29-21.
Harvard kept Yale on upset alert when Bill Kelly recovered Ken Thomas’ squib kick at midfield, while a 14-yard run by Champi and a 15-yard facemask penalty on first down moved the Crimson to the Yale 20 with 32 seconds remaining. A pair of incomplete passes left the hosts with 20 seconds showing before Crim burst up the middle for 14 yards to the Yale 6 with 14 seconds now left. A sack of Champi then put the ball back on the Harvard 8, leaving the hosts with just three seconds and one play to make history. So, as the clock expired, Champi scampered around the Crimson backfield for what must have seemed like an eternity to the 40,280 fans in the stands until he found Vic Gatto in the end zone to close the gap to 29-27. From there, the game’s outcome was all in Varney’s hands.
Varney wasn’t the only former NEPSAC player to get his name on the game’s score sheet that day. Two Yale players accounted for 11 of their team’s 29 points, as wide receiver Del Marting, one of 10 Exeter grads to participate in the game, chalked up eight points by hauling in a five-yard touchdown pass from Brian Dowling, then caught the ensuing two-point conversion pass. Bob Bayless, a Hotchkiss product, meanwhile, converted on three extra-point kicks.
Unfortunately for Marting, all nine of his former Exeter teammates matriculated to Harvard. They were offensive tackle Dan Wilson, linebacker John Emery, runningback Lou Sardonis, defensive back Mike Ananis, defensive back Pat Conway, defensive end Peter Hall, defensive end Phil Zuckerman, offensive guard Bob Jannico and runningback Vin Vaccarecco.
Mount Hermon (now Northfield Mount Hermon) had four representatives. Fullback Ken O’Connell, defensive tackle Steve Zabel and center Ted Skowronski played for Harvard, while runningback Bernie Sowley suited up for Yale. Fairfield, Choate and Hotchkiss had two players each in the game. For Fairfield, offensive linemen Andy Czulewicz and Arnold Rossi both played for Harvard, while wide receiver Tony Smith (Harvard) and runningback Bob Sokolowski (Yale) were Choate’s representatives. As for Hotchkiss, offensive tackle Ted Livingston joined Bayless on the Bulldog roster.
Rounding out the NEPSAC players on the Harvard roster that day were runningback Ralph Hornblower of St. Paul’s, wide receiver John Kiernan of Milton, defensive end Chris Doyle of Canterbury, middle guard George Shepard of Noble & Greenough, middle guard Mike Georges of Thayer, offensive tackle Bob Dowd of Boston Latin, middle guard Russ Sherman of St. George’s and quarterback John Ballantyne of Lawrenceville. Runningback Bob Kropke of Andover, offensive guard Bart Whiteman of Taft and defensive back John Waldman of Albany Academy rounded out the Yale roster.
The members of the 1968 teams will be honored throughout Saturday’s game. During the pregame ceremonies, the captains of that team: Vic Gatto of Harvard and Brian Dowling of Yale are scheduled to join the captains of the current Harvard and Yale teams at midfield for the ceremonial coin toss. During halftime, meanwhile, a 50th anniversary team celebration video will be shown, with the 1968 Harvard team coming on the field to be introduced to the crowd.
The NEPSAC SPECIAL NEWS is sponsored by Scoreboard Enterprises. Scoreboard Enterprises is a Sports Technology Company and exclusive Daktronics dealer in the New England area. We provide, install and service scoreboards, video displays and audio systems designed specifically for athletic facilities. Contact us for more information at www.scoreboardenterprises.com; 274 Fruit Street Mansfield, MA 02048, 508-339-8113.