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Yale at Harvard, Saturday, noon

Man of the moment

In 1968, Champi seized opportunity

By John Powers
Globe Staff / November 20, 2008
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After four decades, memories become deficient - or convenient. There are people who are certain that Frank Champi was the quarterback for all of that remarkable season - or only for the final 42 seconds. And there isn't an Old Crimson who won't swear that he was standing on a Stadium seat when Harvard "beat" Yale, 29-29, in 1968. "That would make the attendance around 1,340,000," Champi reckons wryly. "It's great to distort history."

Champi, who grew up in Everett and now lives on the North Shore, was the backup quarterback behind George Lalich that autumn. He was summoned from the bench in the second quarter with his teammates three touchdowns behind and engineered one of the most extraordinary comebacks in football history, as the Crimson scored 16 last-minute points to defeat (the Cambridge version) or tie (the New Haven version) their archrivals in an historic battle of unbeatens.

Champi played two more games the following season then hung up his helmet, saying he couldn't find it in him to keep playing. Now, he looks back and ponders what might have happened if he had. "I've often thought, if I could enter a parallel universe, I wonder what would have happened if I didn't quit," Champi says. "It's nice to be known as a one-hit wonder, but I would have had greater satisfaction if I'd had a career there."

Back then, two years qualified as a career at Harvard. Freshmen weren't eligible and most sophomore quarterbacks played on the JV. Under coach John Yovicsin, seniors had primogeniture. So Lalich, who'd been third man behind the graduated Ric Zimmerman and Peter Berg, got the nod. Though Champi had a decidedly better arm, the Crimson were a running team featuring a brace of superb backs in Vic Gatto and Ray Hornblower. With Harvard's stifling "Boston Stranglers" defense, 10 points usually were more than enough.

Behind Lalich the team won its first eight games, its best start in 55 years, so there was little reason to switch quarterbacks. "It was a hierarchical thing," says Gatto, who captained Harvard that year. "When things are going well, it's tempting not to make any changes."

But when Harvard fell behind, 22-0, in the finale, Yovicsin went to his No. 2, hoping he could conjure up a miracle against a Yale squad that had crushed all comers. "I was a little angry," Champi recalls. "I felt, hey, I haven't played all year and suddenly I'm being thrust into this situation. But maybe that was a good feeling, because it allowed me not to focus so much on failing. I thought, well, the hell with it. I'll just do the best I can. It was the best attitude to have."

Still, it was an unenviable assignment - a perfect season on the line before a full house of 40,000, a television audience, and a jammed press box, with a ferocious defense on the other side of the ball. "Tommy Lee Jones [who played guard] once said that I had a deer-in-the-headlights look," says Champi. "Well, you want to see what's going to hit you. I tried not to get run over by a truck in that game. I didn't want to embarrass myself."

Champi got his teammates back to 22-13, but counterpart Brian Dowling, who threw or ran for all four Yale touchdowns, produced another on a fourth-quarter jaunt and was driving for the killer when his fullback fumbled on the Harvard 14 with 3:34 to play. From there, everything went the hosts' way - gambles, fumbles, penalties, momentum. Champi tossed another touchdown pass to Bruce Freeman with 42 seconds left, handed the ball to fullback Gus Crim for the crucial conversion, then got the ball back after Yale fumbled the onside kick.

From there, everything was a blur, with Champi scrambling and throwing on virtually every play as the seconds ticked down. Champi couldn't see the scoreboard, so he figured the game was over when he was sacked at the 8-yard line with three seconds left. "I thought I killed the clock," he says, "but we had time for one more play."

One more scramble, with white jerseys grabbing for him, and one more pass, with spectators standing six deep around the end zone. "I was running for my life," Champi remembers. "I was just looking for anybody. I expected to get hit, but I felt like there was a wall around me. I didn't think anybody could get to me."

Champi saw Gatto cutting back across the end zone with his hand up and rifled the ball to him for the touchdown as time ran out. Then he drilled the conversion pass to Pete Varney, his big tight end, and the Crimson had won without winning. It was Harvard's most glorious football moment and it was satisfying for Champi, who'd proven what he could do if given the chance, even against massive odds.

All of the season's frustration vanished. So, too, did much of the motivation to continue. "It's like the greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit," Champi says. "Once it does that, it doesn't want to run any more. The rabbit's not very tasty."

Champi came back for the first two games of his senior year, then turned in his uniform. "I was told by someone that I would regret it and in some ways I do," he says. "But that's the way I felt at the time. It was a whole bunch of things. Something happens sometimes and the wind comes out of your sails and you can't keep doing what you're doing. For a while, I had to get away from the game."

A decade later, Champi said he'd spent a great amount of energy trying to suppress memories from that day, partly because people kept reminding him about that miraculous minute. "Now, I'm a lot more mellow about it," he says. "That's what age will do to you. It's a fond memory now. My perspective is different. I look upon it as overall a positive experience."

Champi works in high-tech now for a digital printing company and dabbles as an inventor, with a patent on a lifting device for shovels for his fellow baby-boomers with aching backs. He enjoys watching games and he'll be at Saturday's 125th meeting with Yale, where a certain 42 seconds are likely to be mentioned at multiple tailgates and his name will be invoked. "At this point in your life," Frank Champi observes, "it's great to be remembered for something."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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