For the fourth time in the last 80 years, the men of Yale football take the field this Saturday with three straight losses to Harvard on their backs. The last three times — in 1931, 1967 and 1998 — the Bulldogs pulled out wins to avoid a four-year sweep. Not since the class of 1923, which lost all four contests from 1919 to 1922, has a class failed to defeat the Crimson.
The weight of 82 years of Yale football sits on the shoulders of this year’s team, particularly the 31 members of the class of 2005.
So why isn’t anyone nervous?
“I don’t think there’s more pressure, we just have more incentive,” tight end Alex Faherty ’05 said. “Everyone is really excited and really confident.”
With what is most likely the biggest game of their lives looming Saturday in Cambridge, the senior Elis seem more excited than anything else, despite conceivably having less reason to be than ever before.
Harvard is 9-0 after ending Penn’s 20-game Ivy League win streak in dominant 31-10 fashion last Saturday. The No. 13 Cantabs are the only undefeated team in Division I-AA and have claimed at least a share of the Ivy title. They can take sole possession of the league crown by beating the Bulldogs this weekend.
Oddly enough, the prevalent attitude seems to be excitement at marring Harvard’s undefeated season. Several seniors said a major motivating factor for them is how great it would be to play the spoiler — to ruin the untarnished Crimson season.
“They’re 9-0,” linebacker Cole Harris ’05 said. “We get a chance to ruin their perfect season. It’s a perfect opportunity to take it away from them.”
The team does need to focus on what is at hand to prepare for the important game, but it seems impossible to completely ignore the prospective stigma of never beating Harvard.
The members of the teams that played in those decisive games of 1967 and 1998, which barely avoided a four-year streak, said they find it hard to believe the seniors would not be thinking about having only one more chance to top the Crimson.
“I would think it would be difficult,” Calvin Hill ’69 said. “To me, you wouldn’t want to be part of a class that never beats Harvard. I’d think you’d go out and do everything you could to make sure that wouldn’t happen.”
Hill was the All-Ivy running back on the 1967 team that beat Harvard 24-20 in the Yale Bowl to end a three-year skid. The Elis held the lead going into halftime but then found themselves down 20-14 with just over two minutes to play.
All-Ivy quarterback Brian Dowling ’69 came on the field and needed just three plays to put the Bulldogs back on top: a quick out, a draw play and an epic 65-yard pass to wideout Del Marting ’69.
The Crimson regained possession with roughly a minute and a half to play and drove all the way to the Bulldog red zone before coughing up a fumble. The Elis recovered and ran the clock out to end the game.
“Any time you haven’t beaten a team, when you’re 0-3 against them, it has to be a component of the preparation,” Dowling said. “They may say no, but it’s part of it, human nature.”
Dowling and Hill are two of the greatest players in Yale history. Dowling has since been immortalized as “B.D.” in the comic strip Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau ’70 ART ’73. But both men were juniors in the 1967 games, not seniors.
“It had no relevance to me,” Dowling said, referring to the 1965-1967 losing streak to Harvard. “I wasn’t part of it. The relevance for me was to win the Ivy League undefeated in the Yale Bowl. The three in a row was important to seniors. Since they were at Yale, they hadn’t beaten Harvard. But it didn’t have much effect on me.”
But some seniors were not aware of their situation.
Dan Begel ’68, a defensive back and kicker, said he had no idea that he and his classmates were on the verge of being the first group of seniors since the class of 1923 to lose all four games to Harvard.
“Maybe people like Brian and Calvin, who have a place in Yale football history, might have been more aware of that sort of thing,” Begel said.
Begel said he did not feel the pressure of history because he was more focused on The Game as a great opportunity than something to get worked up about.
“I knew that my football career was coming to an end, and I had strong feelings about that,” he said. “It was the beginning [of] Vietnam, and I had strong feelings about that. But about Harvard, I was optimistic. I was looking forward to every minute of the game. There was no pressure in the sense of anxiety, but in a sense of opportunity, yes.”
But not all seniors in Begel’s position shared his positive outlook. Commenting on being a last-chance senior 31 years after Begel, Marek Rubin ’99 said the issue was a definite consideration.
“It was something you definitely thought about,” Rubin said. “It’s difficult for me now to put myself exactly in that mindset, but for me at least it was something I thought about. You worry about day to day things, but also the things that stay with you, the memories. You want them to be good ones.”
The 1998 game was low scoring, due in large part to strong winds that day. The Crimson put up the only touchdown of the day, but three Yale field goals, including one to go ahead with just over two minutes left, secured a 9-7 win for the Bulldogs. It is regarded as one of the greatest defensive contests Yale has ever played.
But despite what he felt about his experience, Rubin said he could understand this year’s seniors apparent lack of nerves.
“I believe that they can be confident,” he said. “It’s possible to be confident because you know that you have to get something done. Nervousness comes from uncertainty, and if you know that you have to get something done, you won’t be nervous about it. If they say they’re not nervous, it means they can do it.”
This year’s seniors are not oblivious to the facts of history. Most are aware that if they lose, they will join a select group of men who failed to ever beat their archrivals in one of the greatest events in college sports.
But the members of the class of 2005 said playing in such an event is inspirational in and of itself.
“I think anyone who tells you it’s not on their minds is lying to you,” placekicker Andrew Sullivan ’05 said, referring to the possibility of losing all four games. “All the seniors have gone through three losses and aren’t happy. It’s a little bit of added motivation, but in a game that’s already motivation, you don’t need much more to go in and play your hardest.”
Wide receiver Ralph Plumb ’05 said the Harvard-Yale football game is important enough without considering streaks and history.
“Coming into a rivalry like this, you want to win any time, despite the situation,” he said. “It’s a significant game no matter the circumstance.”
When the sons of Eli take the field Saturday, they play as significant underdogs. But the senior Bulldogs are keeping their cool by remembering that they still have one more shot, one more football game. The Game, version number 121, is not history yet — and the Elis will be playing for the present.
“We’ll try to go in, prepare, focus on our game plan,” defensive back Barton Simmons ’05 said. “I think that all those emotions are going to come on their own. After the game we can look back and think of what we did, and put it into context.”