Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2009)� Interview with filmmaker Kevin Rafferty
Run Time: 106 minutes
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 is the fascinating retelling of the famous knuckle-biting 1968 champion football game between the two Ivy League rivals. For the first time since 1909, both teams had been undefeated for the season; only one team would leave the stadium as the Ivy League season champion.
Yale had won in 1909; in 1968, Yale’s team was famous and favored to win. However, as per the Harvard Crimson headline, which Rafferty uses as the film’s title, life intervened. With Harvard’s quiet, substitute quarterback, Frank Champi, calling the plays, the game turned upside down in literally the last seconds.
Even a football-oblivious person like me was caught up in the incredible action of the game. But even more interesting than the football action, were the psycho-sociology of the players, the revolutionary scent in the 1968 air, and, I confess, the star quality of some of the Yale and Harvard students, such as Tommy Lee Jones, who was an All-Ivy Harvard offensive guard, Yale’s Gary Trudeau, whose pre-Doonesbury cartoon introduced the character, D.B, based on Brian Dowling, Yale’s quarterback — not to mention George Bush and Al Gore.
Kevin Rafferty and I spent two interesting hours at a hotel bar talking about Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, his life, the 60s, and the significance of sports.
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 has a superficially simple format: Rafferty interspersed his interviews of both teams’ players with the actual broadcast footage of the game. He said that he chose to have the interviewees sit in front of a flat white wall or in their kitchen (no Carlisle Hotel Central Park backdrop for Tommy Lee Jones, despite his request).
Rafferty wanted no distractions, only the players’ unguarded recollections from 1968. “This film,” said Rafferty, “is not about what happened, but how it happened.” There is no information in the film about the current lives of the players, or any other larger issues, although the film may have benefitted from that. Rafferty said that he wanted the film to be concerned only with the 1968 football game.
The players’ recollections were intriguing. That game was an important moment in the lives of everyone in the stadium that day. In fact, Rafferty said that about 200,000 people swear that they were at the game, although the stadium only holds 40,000 or so.
Many players continue to re-live the game in their heads, thrilled with their successes and angry about their mistakes and penalties. Some Yale players are still bothered by the loss today; others are more philosophical. But they all seem to remember every play of the game — irrespective of the truth in one case that is revealed on film.
The players’ backgrounds were quite diverse. Even though we think of Harvard as a bastion of the Establishment, in 1968 almost half of the Harvard team came from blue-collar families. Many lived within an hour of Harvard Square and still do. The Harvard players included SDS and ROTC members and a Vietnam veteran.
The Yale team in 1968 was less egalitarian and less politically active. Many were legacies, although Rafferty said that he might have overdone the blue-blood thing at the beginning of the film. When Rafferty interviewed his cousin, George W. Bush, (Yale ’68) for Rafferty’s documentary, Who Wants to be President (2000), Bush said that the sixties weren’t a factor at Yale when he was there.
Kevin Rafferty was in the stands that day as a Harvard Junior, although his father and grandfather had played football for Yale. In response to my questioning the significance of the game and the importance of sports, Rafferty talked about his father. Mr. Rafferty, a stockbroker, had been in the Marines, serving hard duty on Guam and Iwo Jima during World War II. His brother had been shot down over Germany by the Nazis.
At the end of the game, Mr. Rafferty, from the Yale side of the stadium, and young Kevin, from the Harvard side, met in the middle of the field. In response to Kevin’s, “How’d you like the game, Dad?” his father replied, “This is the worst day of my life.”
Kevin Rafferty found making Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 a “pure pleasure,” from the road trip crisscrossing the country to interview the players, to the camaraderie he felt with them, through the postproduction and distribution processes. Made on a shoestring budget, but with vision, heart and talent, Rafferty has created an action-packed, yet thoughtful film.