In 1916, Yale head coach T.A.D. Jones gathered his team in the locker room before the game and said, “Gentlemen, you are now going to play football against Harvard. Never again in your whole life will you do anything so important.”

He wasn’t far off.

Yale and Harvard first met on the gridiron in November of 1875 at Hamilton Park in New Haven. A ticket was 75 cents and 2,500 fans showed up. Harvard won. Since that afternoon, The Game has inspired fanfare and history, and Yale-Harvard has become the quintessential college rivalry.

In reaction to the popularity of The Game, in 1903 Harvard built a colossal U-shaped stadium out of reinforced concrete — a novel engineering idea for the time — on the far side of the Charles River, across from the campus. The seating capacity 30,323. In 1914, Yale erected an even larger stadium. Dug deep into the West Haven soil, this structure was the first of its kind: a full, oval-shaped, wrap-around bowl. Since its completion, the Yale Bowl, as they decided to call it, has served as the prototype for modern football stadiums. Its seating capacity: 61,446. The two stadiums marked the permanence and grandeur of the rivalry. Sprawling across their respective landscapes, the structures symbolized each university’s enthusiasm and respect for the game.

Since that November day at Hamilton Park in 1875, The Game has generated an unparalleled history. Presidents, politicians, movie stars, singers, people from all over the world have attended The Game. It is reported that even the governor of Hawaii attended the first Yale-Harvard game played in the Bowl, in 1914. In 1920, 80,000 fans, the largest crowd ever assembled at The Game, made the trip out to the Bowl to witness Harvard goose-egg Yale 9-0. (The Bowl’s capacity used to be higher.) In 1930, The Game became the first U.S. football match broadcast in England. In the 1940s, columnist Red Smith affirmed the popularity of the Yale-Harvard football contest when he dropped “Harvard-Yale,” and capitalized “The Game,” elevating the matchup from normal sporting contest and defining it as the collegiate athletic event par excellence.

Both teams have produced casts of characters of equal historical importance. Walter Camp, “the Father of American Football,” a player and a coach for Yale in the 1870s, ’80s and ’90s, created the modern scoring system, the positioning of players on the field, the system of downs, the line of scrimmage and the snap back from the center. The list goes on, from Tommy Lee Jones, to Stone Phillips, to Ted Kennedy, to Larry Kelly and Clint Frank, to John Hersey, to Archibald MacLeash and Calvin Hill. Players have gone on to become politicians, pioneers in business, Pulitzer Prize winners, poets, actors, television personalities and NFL stars. One can’t help wondering which of the current players will fulfill this legacy.

The cast of characters and the rivalry’s storied history distinguishes The Game. Quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16, who is from North Carolina and played one year for Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) powerhouse Clemson University, said, “In the South, the only Ivy League game people really talk about or think about is The Game. It’s the only game people ever really put any thought into because ESPN puts some broadcasting on it. They give it some national coverage because of the history and legacy of it […] It’s America’s amateur pastime.” Former Yale linebacker Kerr Taubler ’14 added, “It’s our bowl game.” Yale-Harvard is at the forefront of America’s old football rivalries. That November day in 1875 marked the birth of the great Ivy League rivalry, the first of a line of many collegiate rivalries like Michigan–Ohio State, Texas-Oklahoma and Army-Navy.

But despite the Bulldogs’ upper hand in the overall record, 65-57-8, in recent years the Crimson has owned The Game, however one may measure it. Harvard has won 12 out of the last 13 meetings, including the last seven in a row. The Crimson have out-scored the Elis 202-75 in that seven-year span. Last November, the Yale faithful watched as the 8-1 Crimson steamrolled the injury-stricken Bulldogs 34-7.

This year, though, things are looking different.

* * *

The evidence is everywhere. Last year, Yale went into The Game with five wins and four losses. After their victory against Princeton last Saturday the Bulldogs are 8-1 and in contention, with Harvard and Dartmouth, for a share of the Ivy League title — a distinction the team hasn’t enjoyed since 2006. And the improved record comes as no surprise. The Yale offense leads the league in just about every category: passing, rushing, total yards, first downs, conversions and total points.

Asked about the differences between this year’s offense and last year’s, Roberts responded, “Certainly more confident. Once we’ve put some good numbers and score some points and get some guys involved, you get to the point where you become really confident.”

Anchored by a seasoned line that Roberts says “is just unreal,” this year’s offense features a host of Ivy League standouts. Senior Tyler Varga ’15, a two time All-Ivy running back, has had a record-breaking season, leading the Ivy League in rushing yards and touchdowns. His numbers double those of the runner-up in the category.

As for the aerial assault, the Elis feature dangerous weapons in receivers Deon Randall ’15, the team’s captain, and senior Grant Wallace ’15. In his first year as quarterback for the Bulldogs, Roberts is having an exceptional season, leading the league in passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and passing efficiency.

Defensively, the Bulldogs have had similar successes. Although the core of the defensive unit is young, starting mostly sophomores and a few freshmen, a number of key players have returned, three of whom — Cole Champion ’16, Foyesade Oluokun ’17 and William Vaughn ’15 — earned All-Ivy honors last year. As sophomore linebacker Darius Manora ’17 — who took an interception into the endzone against Brown — asserts, “We obviously don’t have as much experience as a lot of the teams we’ve been going against […] but we’ve been growing steadily every game. We’ve been getting better and better. Just recently we had our best defensive game against Princeton.” He went on, “We’re very strong up front […] We have guys who like to come up and hit. That’s what we preach, that’s what we strive for in our defense. We want hitters.”

This new success has much to do with to a new approach to training the Bulldogs have adopted. A sign hangs above the entrance to the tunnel that runs under Derby Avenue, connecting the Smilow Field Center and the football practice field. It reads, “One Play Warrior.” Every day before practice, players walk beneath the sign. Its message: Focus, stay in the moment, one play at a time. The team has embraced these ideals since last April when mental conditioning coach Brian Cain began to talk to the team.

Asked about the effectiveness of the mental training, sophomore fullback/tight end Jackson Stallings ’17 noted, “The mental approach is 90 percent of athletics […] Your ability to control the game mentally allows you to do more physically […] It has really changed the culture of Yale football from someone who looks to the last game of the year and says, ‘All right, we gotta beat Harvard like everybody says,’ and instead focuses on a small picture and executes his job each play.”

Manora adds, “[Cain] preached to us to focus on the process rather than the outcome. And our defense tries to do the same thing. So each play we try to play as hard as we can, rather than get caught up in if we gave up a big play or made a big play ourselves. And I think that is the key to us winning games. We don’t get caught up […] We just keep playin’.”

The team adheres to this system of beliefs. And they’ve proven their devotion again and again throughout the season. In the first game, Lehigh scored three unanswered touchdowns in the first quarter. Unfazed, the Bulldogs got to work, creeping back, and then winning the game 54-43. A week later they pulled off an even more stunning feat, upsetting Army 49-43. Since those two games, this faith in the process and focus on the moment have served the Bulldogs well in countless situations throughout the season. One can only wonder how it will help against Harvard tomorrow.

*  *  *

During halftime of the Princeton game last Saturday, Calvin Hill ’69, likely the most accomplished living Yale football player, stepped out from under the archway at the 50-yard line. Hill had returned to the Bowl as part of the game’s “Legends of the Bowl” ceremony.

When asked how it felt to be back, he smiled and said, “It’s wonderful.” Then he motioned to the field, “I haven’t seen Bruce Weinstein in 40 years.”

Really? That’s it? Here he was: Calvin Hill, perhaps the greatest player in 142 years of Yale football. A guy who played in the NFL for 12 years, four-time all-pro, two-time Ivy-League champion, record-breaking track star, an athlete so good legendary Yale football coach Carm Cozza said he could have played all 22 positions on the field — and this struck him the most upon returning to Yale.

He wasn’t aglow with memories of past glory, his victory over Harvard in 1967, or the legendary tie game in 1968. He didn’t seem awestruck at the grandeur of the Bowl, or the exuberant crowd, or the medal he was awarded as an honorary “Legend of the Bowl” to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the stadium. Instead, Hill was happiest to see Bruce Weinstein, his pal and former teammate, whom he hadn’t seen in ages.

Later that evening a couple more recent alumni affirmed Hill’s statement. When asked what he missed most about Yale football, Kyle White ’14, former Yale defensive tackle, said, “It’s all about the brotherhood. There’s a really special bond with Yale football. It’s really quite unique.”

Former Bulldog left tackle Wes Gavin ’14 said: “The bottom line is that Yale football is a brotherhood. It takes a lot to become a part of it. It has a long history behind it. And it’s something really special.”

Yale football is unique. And the Yale-Harvard game is special. In terms of fanfare, publicity, and hype, Yale-Harvard doesn’t hold a candle to Florida-Florida State, Auburn-Alabama, or USC-UCLA. The Yale Bowl has no jumbotron, there will be no 300-person marching band performing at halftime, Mariah Carey won’t sing the national anthem, and it’s been decades since the Yale Bowl has seen a full crowd.

Nevertheless, ESPN’s College GameDay will cover the Game on Saturday, instead of any of the number of ACC, SEC, or PAC-12 games. As Roberts states, “This game means so much to the community. It means so much to Yale. It means so much nationally […] I think there are great rivalries in the ACC, great rivalries in the SEC, that might get a little more media coverage than we get, but … I think the emotional investment, the equity over 130 years is much greater than any other rivalry. And that is why it’s so special.”

Irrespective of media attention or massive fanfare, this “emotional investment, the equity over 130 years” places Yale-Harvard in the same echelon as any of the great collegiate football rivalries across the country. It also creates the brotherhood Gavin, White and Hill touched upon. A brotherhood, the three alumni suggested, which transcends the final score of the Game, which lasts so long that when they return to the Bowl, after one year or 40 years, their old friend’s face brings back more fond memories than the Bowl, The Game, or the University itself.  

There’s no complex explanation to it. “In all honesty … It’s just fun,” Stallings admitted. “It’s fun to go out there and play with your buddies, it’s fun to play with confidence.”

*  *  *

For Morgan Roberts ’16, Candler Rich ’17, Khalid Cannon ’17, Jackson Stallings ’17, Darius Manora ’17 and the 101 other players on the Yale football team, The Game has an entirely different meaning. For them, the fun comes from playing The Game well, doing the job right, “sticking to the process,” and knowing that, when the clock hits zero, the final tally will take care of itself. It comes from all of their 106 teammates. And the ultimate reward they may draw from The Game will come years from now, when, stiff-kneed and gray-haired, they walk into the Bowl once more.

*  *  *

When I asked running back Candler Rich if, with everything on the line, he was feeling anxious about The Game. He smiled, almost holding back a wink, and asked, “What’s there to be anxious about?”