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Gathering Harvard, Yale memories of 'The Game'

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / November 21, 2008
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The movie takes its title from a Harvard Crimson headline: "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29."

The Game, that most benign of 1968's many shockers, was the greatest moment in the Harvard-Yale football rivalry. Harvard was down 29-13 with less than a minute to play, but tied the score in a miracle finish that felt to most everyone in the stadium like a victory. Now the contest is the subject of a documentary by Harvard alum Kevin Rafferty, a director of "The Atomic Café" and cinematographer on "Roger & Me." It's making its New England debut at the Brattle.

"There are probably 80,000 people who've wandered up to me over the last 40 years and told me they were there," then-Harvard captain Victor Gatto said Monday. "You and I know there were only 48,000 people in the stands that day - and many of them had left!"

So worshipped were the Yale players in New Haven at the time, that they were satirized in a campus comic strip by student Garry Trudeau, which quickly evolved into "Doonesbury."

Gatto and Trudeau will join Rafferty and former Yale quarterback Brian Dowling for a Q&A session after tonight's 7:30 screening (www.brattlefilm.org). Dozens of players on both teams are returning to Cambridge this weekend for 40th anniversary festivities, including pregame tailgating and a postgame dinner tomorrow.

The movie also addresses the historical moment. On the Harvard team alone, there was one player with ties to Students for a Democratic Society and another who'd been a Marine fighting in Khe Sanh just months earlier.

"Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated, the Harvard campus was about to be shut down. Tear gas everywhere. The country was coming apart. You know - Vietnam," Rafferty said. "And in the midst of this, here's this wonderful afternoon in Harvard Stadium, just unbelievable. . . . it was like everybody called a truce."

Rafferty first secured a kinescope of the game from a local TV station. He wrote to 64 of the players, and 61 agreed to participate. He bought a car with 140,000 miles on the odometer and added 15,000 more traveling the country to record interviews.

"Doing this movie after doing documentaries for 40 years was the most fun I've ever had doing a movie," Rafferty said. "Driving around the country alone, finding these guys and being received into their homes and put up by them overnight, even though some of them were captains of industry and finance, and I'm an often-unemployed documentary filmmaker. We got along just great . . . and I think the reason was we all had this shared memory of 1968."

Some 50 players show up on the big screen, "and the rest are on the DVD extras," he said. (A book of the same title will follow next year.)

"The one big disappointment was Calvin Hill, who was drafted by the Cowboys in the first round the next year," Rafferty said. "He said, finally, 'I've talked enough about this game' . . . but he's in the movie big time, because he's all over the field."

Rafferty began thinking about making the movie when his daughter decided to attend Yale; his family history is deeply entwined with the rivalry. "I was Harvard 1970, which was a bit of a shock to my parents," he said. "My father played football for Yale. My grandfather played football for Yale - he was the captain in 1903 and an All-American, and he was the Yale coach in 1904." When Rafferty told his father he was going to Harvard, "He said, 'Did you say Hartford?'

"My father was also at The Game, he was sitting on the other side, and I found him after the game, and I said, 'Dad, how'd you like the game?' You have to understand, this guy landed at Guam and Iwo Jima. And he looked me in the eye and said, 'Worst day of my life.' "

Does this generation of students feel the same about the rivalry?

"I went to the game in New Haven last year," Rafferty said. "I arrived late because I had to go to a funeral that morning. I got there at halftime and I would guess half the people there had not yet entered the stadium because they were still tailgating. It's just nuts."

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