What I Learned at the Harvard-Yale Game

(1) A Summons From Cheever . You could think of it as the Skull and Bones of sporting events. In the sense that the Harvard-Yale game bears about as much relation to other football games as the legendary secret society tomb of Skull and Bones does to some Greek frat house. In other words, “The Game”-as it’s often called, with a capital T and G-is not about the game, lowercase. It’s not about football. Certainly not this year, not for Yale, anyway, when it fielded its worst team in ages, a team so amateurish it didn’t win a single game against amateurish Ivy League opponents. Didn’t win a single game at all, except for a victory against tiny Valparaiso University, which I believe is a small religious school in the Midwest where the football team is compelled to play in clerical collar and gown rather than shoulder pads. And even that was a squeaker.

No, The Game isn’t about football, it’s about the twilight of a vanishing world, a Cheeveresque, Fitzgeraldian field of dreams. One which, as a complete outsider to that culture, I’d been a fascinated witness to ever since my freshman year at Yale when I glimpsed real people actually wearing massive, grizzlylike raccoon coats and sipping punch from crystal goblets on silver salvers arrayed on fields of damask laid down on estate wagon tailgates.

Back then, I made the outsider’s mistake of caring about the actual football game. In fact, I was something of a football fanatic as an undergraduate at Yale, as were a whole gang of us at the otherwise civilized Jonathan Edwards residential college, regularly working ourselves into a frenzy which I now see as displaced anxiety about the Vietnam War and the draft. But over the years, I came to savor The Game for its aura of archaic spectacle, the place where the waning WASP ruling class still ruled, although the dimensions of their domain might have shrunk to the sunken perimeters of the Yale Bowl.

It was an excuse to rendezvous with friends and classmates while witnessing all around us-in the tents, at the tailgate parties, huddled in the chill of the stadium-one John Cheever short story after another unfold before our eyes. Still, it had been a long time since I’d gone to a game, maybe 15 years, and I hadn’t planned on going to this one this year until I received an invitation from Cheever himself.

Well, O.K., it was Roger Cheever, a Harvard guy I hardly knew, and it came by way of a mutual friend, a classmate from Yale, Rick “Mad Dog” Sperry. (The mad dog appellation was an ironic tribute to his notoriously quiet good nature.) Mad Dog called me to say he and his pal Cheever were hosting a tailgate party celebrating a remarkable achievement in the history of American sports fandom: 25 consecutive years in which the two of them, Mr. Sperry from Yale, Mr. Cheever from Harvard, had made it to the Harvard-Yale game. I didn’t have a ticket to The Game, but the occasion sounded too good to miss.

(2) Harvoid Scum . In the ecumenical spirit of the invitation, I thought I’d try to suspend my not-so-nice, non-ecumenical feelings about Harvard-an animus not against all Harvard graduates, but against a certain well-defined, particularly irritating subset of Harvard types I’d called “Harvoids” in a column last year (“The Curse of the Harvoids,” June 10, 1996); Harvoid, for the void inside their soul they fill with their self-important Harvardness. That column was a somewhat overheated, O.K., maybe a little vicious, emotional response to reading Melanie Thernstrom’s heartbreaking account in The New Yorker (now a book, Halfway Heaven ) of the murder-suicide tragedy of a young Ethiopian girl at Harvard. The one who lost her mind and killed her roommate and herself after long periods of being snubbed by arrogant, inattentive Harvoids who were too intent on networking and social climbing to care about her deteriorating condition.

I went on, in a half-serious vein, to blame Harvoid arrogance for everything from the Vietnam War to Mira Sorvino’s squeaky voice in Mighty Aphrodite (a condescending Harvoid conception of how the vulgar working poor might talk if one actually encountered them). It was a little harsh, yes, but is it really an exaggeration to call the Harvoid college experience “a juvenile parody of New York social climbing”? Or to say that Harvard “used to turn out some interesting, unworldly eccentrics, but now tends to turn out grim world-class networkers”? I don’t think so. Not judging from the reaction of many people, many from Harvard, in fact, especially Harvard women who thought I’d gotten a certain type of Harvoid guy just right.

In any case, my ecumenical spirit disappeared the moment my date and I boarded the Metro-North train bound for New Haven on the morning of The Game and encountered a repulsive Harvoid breed previously unknown to me-one that should be cause of deep concern to Harvard’s administration and alumni. It’s a breed I’d designate Harvoid scum . I’m sorry: No other word will do justice to these creeps. “Louts” and “buttheads” are too flattering. They were scum, rich and privileged scum, but scum nonetheless.

There were a half-dozen or so of them, clogging the vestibule of the crowded train, drinking openly from 40-ounce bottles of Coors and Bud throughout the train ride, terrifying the helpless grandmotherly types who had the misfortune to be seated near them by shouting and cursing, swilling, spraying and spilling the beer they chugged, jeering at passengers making their way through their gauntlet of moronic frenzy (particularly if they wore Yale blue), passing out, drooling on themselves in the telephone alcove of the car.

Believe me, these weren’t high-spirited collegiate high jinks; there was an edge of arrogant in-your-face ugliness about it, a bullying pleasure they took in offending and intimidating the innocent passengers trapped in their noxious vicinity: That was clearly part of the fun, rubbing their arrogant Harvoid license in the faces of less fortunate fellow passengers.

I think it’s worth noting, by the way, that for all their macho posturing, none of them had a date or expressed anything but implicit or explicit contempt for the women on the train. It seemed like they were satisfying their deepest intimacy needs by tenderly holding each other up as they chugged 40-ounce bottles to the point of passing out in each other’s arms.

They looked like they were just a few years out of Harvard, hefty, clean-cut types. From the combination of arrogance and stupidity, I guessed they were probably working on Wall Street or some securities-related firm, drunk on the unearned affluence their Harvard degrees had bought them in the bull market, eager to show the world they didn’t give a shit about anything or anyone but their own pathetically clichéd posturing.

Sure, you could say, there have been and always will be obnoxious Yale drunks. Maybe so, but it seemed to me that there was a special edge of Harvoid arrogance to this scummy little band. Because the real locus of their repulsiveness was not in their stereotypical lager-lout behavior, but in the overlay of Harvard attitude, the phony pretense at being rude boys, knowing they were exempt by privilege from any real consequences. They were, in effect, preening entitlement queens who displayed what I think is the quintessential objectionable Harvoid characteristic: the utter absence of a tragic sense of life.

(3) The Skull and Bones of Football Games . I think that’s what those swilling and drooling Harvard alums have in common with the more superficially sophisticated Harvoids: that inner conviction that their Harvoid specialness exempts them from the consequences and limitations mere ordinary mortals are subject to. I’d trace it back to the key theological distinction between Harvard and Yale cultures. Yale was founded by gloomy Calvinists who rejected the fudging optimism of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s “halfway convenant,” where (to oversimplify a bit) one anoints oneself as one of the Elect if one really feels one is (or if one gets into Harvard). While for Yale theologians like the brilliant metaphysician of hell, Jonathan Edwards, author of the scary “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” one can never truly know if one is saved or damned: Life is led precariously balanced on the lip of hell, illuminated only by the flames of the inferno.

As I stared into the flames of the barbecue grill at the Mad Dog and Cheever tailgate party, I tried to suppress gloomy thoughts of God barbecuing sinners. It certainly was a congenial gathering of longtime friends grilling steaks when we arrived. For those students of the fine distinctions and subtle nuances of prepsterdom, most of the guys there, both Harvard and Yale, had been classmates at St. Paul’s School, lending credence to a couple of Cheeveresque truisms: Prep school allegiances often run deeper than later Harvard or Yale affiliations. And among preppies, the ones I know and have observed anyway, the guys from St. Paul’s were much more likely to have a sense of humor and irony than the typical Andover and Exeter arrogant overachiever.

But tragedy, of a sort, the tragic sense of life, soon intruded on this idyllic scene. Talk turned to great moments in the history of The Game, actually to one terrible moment, one of the single saddest, sorriest episodes in the history not just of The Game, but in all of football, at least from the Yale perspective. One of the most devastating, demoralizing defeats in all of sports history for that matter. One so notorious in its shameful glory, Sports Illustrated devoted eight full pages to its 20th anniversary. A game that all by itself-in its symbolic dimensions-branded those of us there on the Yale side with a tragic sense of life.

If the Yale-Harvard game is the Skull and Bones of sporting events in the sense of being the Game of Games, this game, the 1968 Game, was the Skull and Bones of Yale-Harvard games-the game of the game of The Game. A grinning, gaping, Yorick-like skull and bones of a game-a death’s head memento mori.

There was something more to the game than The Game that year. It was 1968, after all, and what was anyone doing playing a game, or caring about one? The frenzied buildup to it had little to do with the teams on the field, although there were some legendary players on the Yale side. There was the great running back Calvin Hill and quarterback Brian Dowling, a near mystical figure in college football history (and progenitor of Doonesbury ‘s B.D.). In a memorable Sports Illustrated essay on the 20th anniversary of that game, Frank Deford called Mr. Dowling “the last All-American” because after 1968, there was no longer an American “all” left.

No, it wasn’t The Game, it had more to do with ’68-ness-the apocalyptic urgencies, the war, the protest, the assassinations. Mr. Deford saw the frenzy, the urgent focus on The Game as a kind of Brigadoon-like strange interlude, an escape from history to a lost innocent past. But if it was a Brigadoon, it was an embattled Brigadoon, an armed village whipped to a peak of delusive hysteria over an objectively meaningless contest that took on painfully urgent, subjective dimensions.

I was there that grim November 1968 afternoon (The Game always falls on or near the anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination), freezing on the wind-whipped Yale side of sold-out Soldiers Field. Both teams were good that year, the best in years, both undefeated coming into The Game. As the fourth quarter drew to a close, Yale had a commanding 29-13 lead. It would take two Harvard touchdowns and two two-point conversions to tie the score. All around me, Yale fans had begun waving white handkerchiefs at the Harvard side, the traditional gloating gesture of winners to losers at The Game (and forerunner of the Terrible Towels).

Yes, it was a little disturbing when Harvard scored with 42 seconds left, even more disturbing when they made the two-point conversion, bringing it to 29-21. But with Yale about to receive the kick and 42 seconds left, we could run out the clock and go line up for tables at Durgin Park. Unless … there was a sudden mad scramble on the field after the kickoff. A joyful, disbelieving roar went up from the crimson-clad Harvard side, signaling the unthinkable: Harvard had recovered the onside kick.

A sickening pall of silence settled over the 15,000 trembling souls in the Yale stands. A dawning, deafening roar arose on the Harvard side. (We are the Elect!) The Harvard offense raced against the clock to get down field. With three seconds left, they scored from the eight-yard line. Twenty-nine to 27. With no time left, they lined up for the two-point conversion. I’ll never forget the sight of the Harvard quarterback magically, tragically eluding the pursuit of the doom-maddened Yale defenders. He was untouchable (I am entitled!). Suddenly, everything-the War, the Assassination, the Future, the Apocalypse-all seemed compressed into this one decisive moment of dread. A moment you somehow knew would color and shape your path in life, your attitude toward existence forever after.

In my memory, I see the crazed fear in the eyes of the frantic Yale defenders in the end zone as Harvard quarterback Frank Champi launched a desperation throw toward the corner. Actually, I don’t think I really saw the crazed fear in their eyes at that moment: I think the retrospective vision is a projection of my own frenzy. My own sense of demoralizing collapse when the pass buried itself in the arms of Harvard back Vic Gatto for the tying two points.

Some really smart (and smart-assed) headline writers for The Harvard Crimson came up with the great line to describe the unbelievable Harvard comeback and the crushing Yale collapse:

” Harvard Beats Yale 29-29!”

That said it all. Beyond the unseemly gloating (We’re the Elect! We’re entitled!), there was an illuminating perception about what Loss really is. No, it wasn’t the end of the world, and no, you don’t have to tell me that there are far more real, infinitely more sorrowful tragedies in history. (And if you want to talk real history, the real games Harvoid played, let’s face it, for better or worse, the Vietcong kicked their Crimson butts in the war the Harvoids were running over there.)

But in any case, for one deeply impressionable youth, it was a moment when Brigadoon disappeared from my life, the Brigadoon of entitlement Harvoids still inhabit. For me, there would always be a skull and bones lurking, even in the Arcadia of The Game. I felt as if I had learned an important, if dispiriting, lesson, a clue to the tragic sense of life Harvoids are so clueless about: In the struggle with Fate, you can never hope for anything more than a tie. A 29-29 loss.