By Jess Clay
And a remembrance of it.
“Gentlemen, you are now going out to play football against Harvard. Never again in your whole life will you do anything so important.”
— T.A.D. Jones, Yale football coach, 1916
When the Crimson take to the gridiron come Saturday afternoon, they will do so with a pair of opportunities in play. The first is the chance to win at least a share of the Ivy League title. Should Harvard win The Game, and Princeton and Penn win their respective games against Cornell and Dartmouth, there will be a three-way tie for the league championship. I am not particularly thrilled at the prospect of three co-champions in an eight-team league. It comes far too close to turning the Ivy League trophy into a participation ribbon, and I would much prefer some other means of determining a lone victor. This could rely on point differential, overall record, or alternately a more capricious method like a coin flip or single combat. In any case, it would be preferable to three champagne showers in three different states.
In light of the hollowness of a tripartite crown, the greater share of honor lies not in winning the league, but in winning The Game. Harvard has the chance to extend their series-record winning streak to ten in a row. Entire generations of Harvard students have come and gone without ever tasting the bitter fruit of defeat, while the Elis have forgotten even the whiff of triumph. Should Harvard win, it will mark the seventh consecutive graduating class who never lost a Game.
This is all of relatively little consequence to most of the current undergraduate population. I know from direct observation that a large portion of the student body is incapable of either catching or throwing a football, and I am confident that a significant number have never actually seen a football game. I also have a sinking but growing feeling that there are a few particularly unhappy people who view The Game as little more than an exercise in barbarism, a vulgar relic of a time when Harvard still vaguely resembled a regular college. These are the type who bloviate on the necessary abolition of The Game and all other games as they eat Greek yogurt and sip $14 coffee.
Still I make an appeal to the yogurt-eaters who would fain ignore the significance of The Game, and ask them to consider a line my old high school football coach once uttered. In the fall of my senior year, as my teammates and I sat in the locker room, he explained the significance of winning not merely for ourselves, or our fans, or our school, but for perpetuity. “Years from now, you’ll come back for reunions,” he told us, “and the only thing you’ll remember and talk about are these games.” Even then, that sentiment struck me as rather sad. At its core was the idea that, after four years of high school and forty years of whatever came next, the only conversational stalwart would be memories of football games which everyone else had long forgotten. But there is a certain truth to it as well. Already, just four years down the road, a host of high school memories have fallen by the wayside, but I remember well which games we won and lost on Friday nights in the fall.
I am mindful of all this as I turn my thoughts toward The Game this weekend, and to commencement in the spring. I suppose in May, we will dwell largely upon who wears which academic laurels, and which old Latin titles are affixed to our degrees. But in time those too shall fade amidst the blurred outlines of memory, and I think that amnesia is likely for the better. But I suspect that years from now, we might still well remember whether we won or lost The Game in the fall of 2016. It will be an ironic twist on our real-time experience, because after the tailgates many people will forget there is a game being played at all, while others will not know the result until they try piecing their lives back together at two o’clock on Sunday afternoon. But the verdict of The Game will inevitably enter our long-term memories, as if by osmosis, and it will stubbornly linger like the name of an almost-forgotten classmate from elementary school.
Years from now, when we shall have grown fat and gray and return to ancient Cambridge, there will be a new generation of Harvard students standing in the shoes we now fill. They will doubtlessly look upon the old Harvard crowd with disbelief at how removed they are from us. We will try to be politically correct, of course, only to find our vocabularies sorely outdated for the newly enlightened undergraduates. They will say things that make no sense to us, and we, in turn, will struggle to give them suitable answers about how in the hell Trump got elected president.
Yet we will speak easily enough about The Game. I cannot say how Yale will fare at so late a date. Perhaps they will have at long last given up on trying to pass muster as an academic institution, and turned their humble college into a big-time football school. Perhaps they will have abolished the football program entirely, after untold years of futility and frustration. But at any rate, if the Harvard kids ask about The Game, I will turn on waiting heel, and tell them that I was in school during a Golden Age of Harvard football, when we beat the Yalies like rented mules, and we torched the rest of the Ivy League as Sherman did Atlanta. The undergraduates will be horrified at these uncouth similes, but their protests will fall silent against the gleeful gloating of their elders.
To all who would disregard The Game this Saturday, think only of what a favor it stands to render our future selves. And should Fair Harvard, by some miracle, fall victim to the upstarts from New Haven, then let us be grateful for the tailgate and tradition in this season of thanksgiving.
Jess Clay ([email protected]) wonders what the Yalies will be grateful for after this weekend.