Harvard Beats Yale
Remembering the Improbable Tie 50 Years Later
“Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.”
Most readers would see a typo in that headline, right? But, no, Harvard’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, topped its story with that banner following the most improbable comeback in Ivy League football history. The date was November 23, 1968.
Yale, led by its magical quarterback, Brian Dowling, and a future NFL Rookie of the Year, Calvin Hill, entered Harvard Stadium undefeated with a two-year winning streak of 16 games. But Harvard was also unbeaten, which marked the first time since 1909 that both teams entered TheGame with perfect records.
Yale, sparked by Dowling, bolted to a 22-0 lead in the first half, and, despite committing six fumbles, held a commanding 29-13 advantage in the final minutes. The team captain, who would be a top-ten finisher in the Heisman Trophy balloting that fall, accounted for all but three of those points with two touchdown runs, a pair of passing touchdowns and a two-point conversion.
The Crimson, though, inspired by their seldom-used backup quarterback, Frank Champi, somehow rallied to score 16 points in the closing 42 seconds to forge an implausible tie.
“The moon and the stars were aligned in that game,” says Pat Conway (photo left), one of two men with Fairfield connections who were in Harvard’s starting lineup on that cold November afternoon.
Conway, now 74, was the Crimson’s right safety, a hard-hitting defender who had interrupted his Harvard education to enlist in the U.S. Marines and serve eight months in Vietnam. He spent some thirty years in Fairfield, raising three daughters and building a business, Fairport Capital, Inc, before relocating to Scottsdale, Arizona, several years ago.
He recalled thinking in the game’s waning moments: “Our chances of winning or even tying were dismal. We were getting our asses kicked most of the game.”
Ted Skowronski, a 1964 graduate of Fairfield Prep, was Harvard’s center, a senior who shared the offensive line with a classmate named Tom Jones. The latter is better known today as the Academy Award-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones. Skowronski, 71, is a practicing attorney and a Southbury resident. Despite the different spelling of their surname, he is the younger brother of the late Bob Skoronski (Prep ’51), who was the offensive captain of the Green Bay Packers when they won five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls.
Ted shared a vivid memory of the memorable tie in Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, the 2009 book (Kevin Rafferty, editor) published by The Overlook Press. He said: “When we were driving for that last score, I can remember, being the center…. I can remember just floating to the line ... literally couldn’t even feel my feet ... tremendous momentum ... it was as if it was willed to happen.”
And the enigmatic Champi, a junior who rarely played that season? “Believe it or not, Frank Champi was an unbelievable athlete. He had a wonderful throwing arm,” Skowronski recalls. “But our coach, John Vovicsin, used a seniority system. Even though he was second team, he might have been better than senior quarterback George Lalich.”
Scrambling to escape onrushing Yale defenders, Champi set up one Harvard score with a 24-yard pass and threw three touchdown passes—two in the fateful, final forty-two seconds. No time remained on the clock when Vic Gatto, the Crimson captain and running back, caught Champi’s throw in the end zone. Score: 29-27.
Then, with spectators six deep around the end zone, Champi fired a bullet to tight end Pete Varney for the tying two-point conversion. Harvard had won without winning.
From the Yale point of view, everything seemed to go in Harvard’s favor in the closing moments—penalties, fumbles, no time taken off the clock between the Crimson touchdown with 42 seconds left and the ensuing on-side kick recovered by Harvard. “Some very fortuitous calls went our way,” Conway concedes.
For Conway, Skowronski, and the other seniors on the Harvard squad, it was an unreal—and unforgettable—ending to their playing career. “The next-to-last play was a touchdown. The last play was a two-point conversion. What a way to go out,” Skowronski says. “I was so fortunate to be on that team, that undefeated team, and to have been in that game.”
FAIRFIELD REPORTER One other Fairfield connection to the game: author Don Harrison, a town resident since 1973, covered the game as sports editor of the Waterbury Republican.