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You might call it humility. Or maybe it’s the ultimate sign of elitism. Whatever the reason, graduates from Harvard, the top-ranked university in the world, have a very difficult time telling you where they went to college.

Instead of giving a straight answer, Harvard alums often evade the college question with an overly generic response like “I went to school just outside of Boston.” A few of these people are begging for the follow up. They want you to know that they went to Harvard, but they don’t want to be the one to say it. But most hope that such a vague response will dissuade follow up questions. There are literally dozens of schools “just outside of Boston” do you really care which one I went to?

For these people, figuring out how and when to “drop the H-bomb,” as Harvard people call it, is a required skill for navigating the real world. “If you say you went to Harvard right off the bat, you can seem too eager. But if you’re too insistent on avoiding saying it, then you seem even worse,” one alum told me.

Harvard alums are the only graduates in the country who face this struggle. Everyone has heard of Harvard. Everyone has an opinion of Harvard. Across the country, Harvard is respected as a great bastion of research but also reviled as a symbol of elitism and entitlement. People often even mockingly pronounce Harvard in an aristocratic British accent, puffing out their chests as they emphasize each syllable: “Hahh-vahhd.”

To many, Harvard is where the rich go to get richer – where the haves learn how to retain their position over the have-nots. Harvard’s endowment of $36.4 billion is larger than the economies of half the countries in the world. The average starting salary for a recent Harvard graduate is $55,300, which is less than the same statistic at Stanford, Princeton, and Caltech, but still higher than the median household income in the US.

When a student or alum announces their Harvard affiliation, they know that they are not just stating where they went to college; they are inviting criticism of an entire capitalist system. “People visibly look at you differently when they find out you went to Harvard,” one alum told me. No matter that 60% of Harvard students are currently on financial aid. Or that, when financial aid is taken into account, Harvard is actually less expensive for 90% of Americans than their local state school. “I’ve had to stop wearing my Harvard sweatpants to the gym because I would get honked at and have people say rude things to me,” said another.

And so the Harvard masses go into a pseudo-hiding for much of the year – dropping the H-bomb when its advantageous, making sure not to talk too loudly about Harvard memories in public, keeping their Crimson apparel tucked away in the bottom drawer.

All of that changes on the third Saturday in November – The Game – a timeless rivalry between two of the country’s oldest Universities. Across the Northeast and around the world, Harvard vs. Yale invites alumni to come out of the shadows and unapologetically proclaim their allegiances.

In the early days, the Harvard-Yale game was a clash of titans. Between 1872 and 1927, Yale and Harvard combined to win 34 national championships – although in those days, there was no title game so news outlets often awarded national championships to different schools. Yale players won two of the first three Heisman Trophies. When the Yale Bowl was constructed in 1913, it became the largest stadium in the world, seating over 70,000 people.

Today, the game’s national relevance has diminished. The national championship banners that line Harvard’s Memorial Stadium have given way to Ivy League crowns. Football, at Harvard and Yale has moved to the background. Every other Saturday of the fall, the great stadiums sit largely empty, reminders of a distant glory. Harvard’s lone Rose Bowl banner from 1920 hangs as a relic from a long-forgotten era. But, on this Saturday football provides an opportunity for alumni turn their hearts back to New England; and for the students, most of whom are not football fans at all, to unite in the spirit of competition.

 

At most of the big state schools I’ve been to, the football team is widely embraced by the community. Many of the fans that fill the stadiums in Ann Arbor, Tuscaloosa, and Austin did not go to the university. They are shopkeepers and barbers, bricklayers and business owners. To these people, football offers the chance to come together. The stadium is a communal gathering spot – a church, a coffee shop, and a community center all in one. In their homes and at their work, college football will dominate conversation from August until January.

Harvard is not like that. When I asked people in Boston whether they grew up cheering for the Crimson, I was met with confusion. “You must not be from around here,” I was told on more than one occasion. Leave the Harvard Square area on Saturday and you would find life in Boston unchanged. Many of the bars downtown probably didn’t even have the game on.

New England is pro sports country. “We have four professional sports teams that all have storied pasts. Instead of cheering for any of the colleges, I grew up going to Celtics games and listening to the Red Sox on the radio,” one long-time resident told me. Boston College is the closest thing New England has to big-time college sports, but, even on good years, the Eagles struggle to fill their 44,000-seat stadium.

IMG_3062For 364 days of the year, the Harvard community displays a similar ambivalence towards college sports. “Sometimes people get into hockey or basketball if we’re having a really good year, but for the most part, people are too busy to pay much attention to sports,” one student told me. Most people are involved in some form of extracurricular activity, and those pursuits, combined with Harvard’s academic demands, leave little time for fandom. “We couldn’t have something like Harvard-Yale every week because people are too busy. It works because it’s the one day of the year where we act like we go to a normal college,” one student told me.

Instead of celebrating their team and their school every weekend, students save up for one day. While the Greater Boston community may continue with life as usual, Harvard-Yale provides a chance for those affiliated with the universities to unite. Professors schedule assignments around the game. Alumni from both schools consider the game as their Homecoming regardless of the location.

The result is an outpouring of school spirit and passion for the rivalry that is only somewhat tempered with widespread indifference towards sports. To many, the football portion of the rivalry is as antiquated as the national championship banners that line the stadiums. They view the rivalry in terms of academic prestige and cultural significance not athletic achievement. “People will celebrate Saturday night regardless of the score. The game is more a side show – it’s not something that’s going to ruin anyone’s night,” one alum told me. To a large degree, the game is just an excuse to come together and have fun. At one point people were excited about the game and that got people to show up. Now the fact that people show up gets people excited about the game.

Because most of these fans only attend one game a year there is an endearing innocence in the way they celebrate the game. These are businessmen and academics masquerading as sports fans, elite students swept up in the fervor and turned into diehards. At the tailgates, you don’t see jerseys and baseball hats. You see Barbour jackets and striped scarves. There are no TVs tuned to other college games like you’d see at other schools. There is little to no talk about the upcoming game. Instead of stressing about game plans and matchups, the tailgates are a time to relax and reminisce. “I met more people on those four days than I did in the rest of my four years at Harvard,” one alum told me.

IMG_3065When kickoff rolled around and the police shut down the tailgates, many students and alums simply walked back across the river and headed for the bars. They were excited about the event, but could care less about the outcome of the game. Those that went to the game were largely of the “hooray sports!” variety – people who could pump themselves up for a day but are unlikely to spend any time watching ESPN the rest of the year. On one key third down play in the first half, the Yale crowd began clapping and whistling – the kind of noise that you would hear on a meaningless first down at a big-time school. When Harvard was called for a false start, a penalty often associated with crowd noise, an elderly man in front of me turned around and exclaimed, “That’s why you scream!” Throughout the first half, there was a constant dull roar coming from the student section. It was not the result of cheering, but rather the combined effect of hundreds of conversations. The two guys behind me spent the entire game making $2 prop bets on every play.

While the lack of true fandom may prevent the student body from mourning over a loss, it does little to inhibit the in-game atmosphere. At many big-time football schools the crowd is predictable. The entire game is basically scripted. There is a cheer for first downs, a cheer for touchdowns, a cheer for sacks, a cheer for stopping the other team on third down. Harvard-Yale is more amateur, more collegial. The piped-in music is barely loud enough to be heard over the crowd. There are no planned cheers outside of the singing of the fight song after touchdowns. There are no jumbotrons telling fans to “get loud” or “make some noise.”

Instead, cheers spring up naturally. At one point Harvard students began chanting “safety school.” Shortly after that, before the start of the fourth quarter, the Yale student body inexplicably responded by stripping down to their underwear and mooning the Harvard students. At a more professionalized event like the ones seen at major division 1 schools, showing your bare butt would almost certainly get you tossed from the game. Here, the cops chuckled and let the kids have their fun.

College is not supposed to be polished. It’s supposed to be random and irreverent and sometimes a bit confusing for an older crowd. Harvard-Yale epitomizes that. Perhaps the rivalry’s most famous moment is not a play on the field but the pranks in the stands – the group of Yale students who in 2004 posed as the “Harvard Pep Squad” and managed to convince Harvard fans to hold up red and white posters that spelled out “We Suck” – or the group of MIT students who snuck into the stadium to implant a motor at midfield that was used to inflate a balloon seemingly out of nowhere just before kickoff. The build-up to the rivalry this year was highlighted by a video of Harvard students posing as Yale students and collecting signatures from real Yale students in support of defunding the Yale football team.

IMG_3082At the big-time programs around the country, the students are being pushed to the fringes. At Texas A&M, the student section was moved from the sideline to the endzone to make room for big-money donors. At Michigan, piped-in music fills every stoppage of play so even if the students wanted to start a chant, no one would be able to hear them.

But Harvard-Yale is old school. In part because of the lack of true interest in the game, the students are an integral part of the experience. They may only care about football for this one day, but when the game is close and the stakes are high, that does little to damper their enthusiasm.

As the second half progressed, the side conversations in the crowd quieted, and the focus on the field intensified. At the end of the third quarter, a Harvard linebacker returned an interception 90 yards for a touchdown to give Harvard a 24-7 lead. The home-side crowd went crazy. But Yale fought back. Seeking to avoid their seventh straight loss to Harvard and earn a share of the Ivy League championship, Yale scored 17 unanswered points to tie the game with less than four minutes remaining.

By this point, the crowd on both sides of the stadium was electric. They may not have been playing for a national championship, but to these fans, nothing could have mattered more. This was their day – their Rose Bowl. The businessmen and academics forgot about whatever pressing problem they were working on and lost themselves in the purity of competition.

With fifty-five seconds left Harvard’s Andrew Fischer hauled in his second touchdown of the day to give the Crimson a seven-point lead. Yale tried valiantly to climb back one more time, but saw their final drive falter on the Harvard 32 yard-line when Harvard’s Scott Peters made a game-clinching interception.

It was as exciting and as intense a game as I’ve seen all year. Alabama versus Mississippi State the week before – the “game of the year” – wasn’t even close. When Harvard took a final knee to seal the victory and finish the season undefeated, the crowd of 30,000-plus streamed onto the field. Flags waved. Cheers rung out. Students were lifted up onto each other’s shoulders. Even the Yale fans climbed down onto the field and consoled their team.

IMG_3079In the midst of the scene, I found myself more invigorated than I’ve been in months. It’s easy to focus on what Harvard-Yale is not – to cast The Game aside as an outdated relic. But, in an era of turmoil across the college football landscape, Harvard-Yale stands out as much now as it ever has. Its simplicity, its collegial nature harkens back to the true nature of the game.

While other schools are replacing student seating with luxury boxes and spending millions on state-of-the-art new stadiums, Harvard’s century-old stadium looks essentially the same as it did before the invention of the “forward pass.” The stadium may now only reach capacity one day every other year, but on that day, Harvard-Yale reminds the nation how great college football can be. For on that third Saturday of November, the fan-for-a-day masses of students and alumni leave the troubles of the real world behind. To them, football offers a break from a complex world, a chance to step back to a simpler time and take pride in their community. Football provides an opportunity to break out the old college sweatshirt, step into the light, and unabashedly say, “I go to Harvard.”

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