The Game

The Game

Bitter in Boston

Editor's Note: Every year, the Yale Alumni Magazine features an essay by a Yale alumnus about the Yale-Harvard football game—The Game—as a cultural (and sometimes even as a sporting) event. Past essayists have included novelist Tom Perrotta ’83, Whiting Award winner Carlo Rotella ’94PhD, and past New Yorker editor Charles McGrath ’68. This year's writer, Michael Agger ’95, is a senior editor and the culture and technology columnist at Slate.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

View full image

In the dark of a Boston morning, I stepped outside to get the newspaper. The cold gave me a gentle slap on the face—softening me up for the cruelty to follow. The Globe forecast called for winds out of the northwest gusting to 35 mph—a fact that seemed so innocent on the page. Today, November 22, was the 125th meeting of Harvard and Yale on the football field. In the spirit of my assignment to cover The Game for the Yale Alumni Magazine, I had attempted to revert to my undergraduate self as much as possible. This required knowing almost nothing about the football season, listening to the Smiths at night on a Discman, and having a vague sense of destiny. I was looking forward to The Game, though it's always a gawky display of Harvard-Yale pride, since it showcases two skills in which we lack distinction: the ability to play ball and the ability to party. But maybe things had changed.

The old school spirits were high as I jumped on the T and emerged into Harvard Square. They had cleaned up the place since I'd been here last—but where's the Tasty? I joined one of those long, lurching lines moving toward the stadium. Groups of Yale students were singing their insanely good fight songs, and Harvard fans were actually waving felt pennants. There was a girl in front of me with white sunglasses, a puffy coat, and a bottle of champagne in her right hand. Maybe it wasn't that cold. The party was on! Then we crossed the Charles River, and it was March of the Penguins time.

The crowd streaming toward the tailgate buckled in the gusts and moved grimly on. Ten minutes into the trudge, one began to appreciate how half the Pilgrims got wiped out that first winter. I wandered through the tailgating zones with my hood up, heavy-footed like a member of the Shackleton expedition. I had the feeling that if I stopped moving, I would die. The cold had put a damper on the al fresco drinking. The Range Rover crowd stayed inside their Range Rovers. The undergrads were a huddled mass. Only the already drunk seemed happy. Frosted tailgaters moved about in packs of three and five. Above the wind, I could hear their distress call: "Where are we going?"

It was a day in which basic animal instincts overwhelmed the intellect. Even so, a quote from Shakespeare arose from my English 125 depths: "Winter tames man, woman, and beast." Cantab and Eli alike were heading toward the stadium—before The Game began—out of some atavistic need for shelter. My destination was the press box, reached by a treacherous stair climb to the top of the Harvard side. The place had the feel of one of those mountain huts in the Alps. Unshaven men. Frozen snot. Hoods up. Feet stomping to keep warm. Lots of gear strewn carelessly about. I located my assigned spot and dreamed of hot bread bowls.

As the sensation returned to my head, I began to admire the view. There's something thrilling about hovering over the game in the press box. No wonder people become sportswriters. The Harvard and Yale teams were warming up on the field with jumping jacks, missed field goals, and back pats, while one coach did spastic leaping push-ups. I thumbed through the program and read the player bios. So many of them had been three-sport athletes, the stars of their high schools. Modern-day Ivy League football was perhaps a step down. My own high school had been a Pennsylvania Catholic powerhouse: 5,000 fans banging the metal stands, cheerleaders toilet-papering your house, pep rallies with bad moonwalking. In contrast, Yale games were often mirthless and slow.

The Game, however, is the moment when the old gridiron glory comes alive. The crowd is large, attention is paid. It was shortly after noon when Yale kicked off. A Harvard player caught the ball—then promptly bumped into one of his teammates, and the refs whistled him down. And so began the subtle joys of Ivy football. Even with the bone-seeping cold, the stands had a healthy quota of red and blue, and more than a few people wearing sleeping bags. It was around this time that another advantage of the press box revealed itself: When friends called and asked where you were, you could coolly note: "I'm in the press box." Despite the press box's only marginal heat advantage, the envy was palpable. The press box gloating began to get old after a while, though, so I decided to leave my lofty perch to get the view of the common Yalie. As I was putting my hand to the door, the cop on duty stared at me: "Do you really want to go out there?"

Down below, I could discern that relaxed sense of entitlement present at The Game, the joy of not having to hide your school affiliation. Tall old alums moved through the crowd like Ents, heading for the restroom. The "You still with Goldman?" exchanges mingled with the "Cambridge sucks" diatribes. A bit of women's studies revealed this year's uniform to be fitted jeans and brown Ugg boots. Some guys managed to stretch a blue blazer over five sweaters. And there were those unique ensembles one sees only at The Game: duct-taped fur coats, unironic use of shillelaghs, Latin words on the torsos of bare-chested lads.

The Yale side was cruelly exposed to the wind. Sitting among my fellow Elis, I heard a student turn to his friend and ask: "Do your legs work?" Our most devastating taunt remains "School on Monday," although some individual players were targeted with jibes that clearly had required some Googling. As I happened to be wearing a red jacket (apologies, it's the warmest I own), I also ventured to sit on the Harvard side. My secret-agent report is that Yale and Harvard fans cheer with equal vigor, but mostly, on this day, everyone was rooting for the sun to come out.

Halftime found me back in the press box, watching the Yale Precision Marching Band. The members who "just dance" were well represented. The joke involved the Berlin Wall and an enormous, very phallic missile that ran around the field. (The band was later suspended by their director for writing curse words on their fake Berlin Wall, words that were illegible to 99.9 percent of the crowd. But no marching band is complete without some insane, incomprehensible internal struggle.) The Harvard band had a counterfactual gag about a world without Yale, but mostly I was distracted by Harvard's lone baton girl. She thrust her head back boldly and delivered her high kicks as if all eyes were on her. I remembered a lone baton girl from my day too. Was there a special place reserved for them by the admissions team? She embodied the freaky passion that's so common during college, and, sadly, so uncommon everywhere else.

The end of halftime brought an image of Ted Kennedy on the JumboTron, adding a King Lear vibe to the proceedings. One suddenly felt silly for complaining about the cold when Ted, fighting off brain cancer, was braving the chill in style. The Game itself was moving along as best it could. I was sitting in front of the Harvard coaches, who were communicating with the head coach Tim Murphy down on the field. They were yelling things like "Viper. Gun juice. Left," and somehow keeping a straight face. Their percussive claps shook the windows. They had an obsession with the location of Yale captain and linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 that seemed to border on the unnatural, but the obsession was justified when Abare leveled Harvard quarterback Chris Pizzotti in the open field.

Alas, that might have been the high point for Yale. Like a pack of wolves circling an elk herd, the cold took the old and the very young first, leaving only the students, the bold, and the inebriated. In the gathering dark, one's thoughts tended to become existential, such as: will I exist? The stands had the pockmarked quality of late-season out-of-contention baseball games. I saw a father warming his child in the last ray of sunlight. With time running out, Yale made an egregious play on the Harvard 3-yard line, and soon we were all streaming for the exits, in search of home and hearth. Harvard beats Yale, 10-0: a disappointment for the team, but I wasn't too downhearted as I recrossed the icy Charles. The Game had once again imparted a life lesson to those who wished to hear it, a lesson that I should have paid more attention to in college: you will survive, though it helps to dress warmly.

The comment period has expired.