“Hope Springs” and the most exciting football game ever played

I went to watch Hope Springs the other day.  Meh.  It has three A-list stars (Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, and Steve Carrell) doing the best they can with a C-list script.  Maybe B-minus.  But it, and the beginning of the football season, reminded me of the most exciting football game ever played.

The game took place on November 23, 1968.  Harvard and Yale were playing for the Ivy League title at a standing-room-only Harvard Stadium.  Both teams were undefeated, but Yale, featuring players like Calvin Hill (who later played for the Dallas Cowboys) was a big favorite.  Yale raced to a 22-0 lead, and led 29-13 with 42 seconds left.  Then Harvard scored a touchdown, and of course went for the two-point conversion.  They made it — down by eight.  As expected, an on-side kick.  Harvard recovered.  Another touchdown with no time remaining.  A two-point conversion — a pass to the tight end, Pete Varney (number 80)!  Final score: Harvard 29, Yale 29.

The Harvard Crimson immortalized the game with this headline:

I was at that game along with my lovely girlfriend (now my lovely wife), standing at the top of the stadium overlooking the end zone at the closed end of the stadium, where all the action took place at the end of the game.  It doesn’t get any better than that/

Tommy Lee Jones was there too, playing on Harvard’s offensive line.

Four years ago Kevin Rafferty released a documentary about that game, fittingly titled Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.  It is fabulous (the New York Times reviewer called it “preposterously entertaining”).  When the movie first came out I it at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square with a friend who had watched the game from the Yale side of the field; that was the right place to see it, but you can, and should, stream it from Netflix.

The movie goes back and forth between the broadcast video of the game (a local production featuring the beloved Boston sportscaster Don Gillis) and interviews with players on both teams.  You start by thinking it’s just going to be an exercise in nostalgia, but by the end it has become way more than that, as all these successful men reflect, with a mixture of humor and regret and wonder, on those unforgettable hours in their lives so long ago.  Some of them (uniformly on the Yale side) turn out to have been pricks back then, and they’re still pricks now. Others seem are funny and, yeah, lovable.

Jones is interviewed, and he is terribly serious as he reflects on what it was like to be out there on the field as the tension mounted at the end of the game, and you realized how critical it was not to make a mistake.  One Yale player sheepishly reflects on his one claim to fame back then–for a while he dated a Vassar undergraduate named Meryl Streep.  (And that’s where I made the connection between Hope Springs and The Game.)

There are other connections with famous people.  A Yale player had been George W. Bush’s roommate (the filmmaker himself is Bush’s cousin).  Famously, Jones’s roommate at Harvard was Al Gore.  The Yale quarterback, Brian Dowling, was the prototype for the character B.D. in Doonesbury; Gary Trudeau started a version of the comic strip when he was at Yale.

But the connections aren’t what matter.  What matters are the people.  And The Game.

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