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In the fourth and final installment of A Look Back revisits weeks 13-16 of the college football season. In this segment, I witness a pair of classic rivalries: Harvard vs. Yale and Army vs. Navy. In between, I see the final home came for the Penn State seniors who were freshmen when the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal broke, and I travel to the rustbelt town of Alliance, Ohio to explore the most dominant division 3 program in the country. While I only saw one top-25 division 1 team during this stretch – Michigan State – the final four weeks featured a slate of games that harkened back to the timeless nature of the sport. At the Army-Navy game, Army did not complete their first forward pass until late in the fourth quarter, but the lack of offense did little to quiet the crowd. At Penn State, the overmatched Nittany Lions played in front of a half empty stadium, but at the game’s conclusion, the entire senior class remained to sing the alma mater with a team that had endured so much. More than football, the final four weeks offered a portrait of camaraderie, companionship, and the importance of tradition. Driving home from Baltimore after the Army-Navy game, I could not remember any particular plays from the game, but the sight of 8,000 Cadets and Midshipmen swaying back and forth, arm in arm as they sang each other’s alma mater is one that will stay with me forever.

 

IMG_3111Week 13 – Harvard 31, Yale 24: While most of the college football world was gearing up for the final push for the playoff, I returned to New England for a matchup between two national powers of yesteryear. For the first five decades of college football, Harvard and Yale were firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of the sport. 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 Harvard-Yale game is irrelevant to the national rankings – the Ivy League does not participate in postseason play. Every other Saturday of the year, the stadiums in New Haven and Cambridge sit largely empty – the vacant seats serving as reminders of the programs’ fall from their illustrious past.

Like Williams-Amherst, most of the students and alumni at Harvard and Yale are not truly football fans. 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. Conversations center on old memories and life updates rather than anticipation for the game.

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Rain slaps against my face, and I claw at the hood of my jacket, struggling to pull it lower over my exposed forehead. The pothole-ridden sidewalk is filled with pools of water, and I leap from ridge to ridge in an attempt to avoid completely drenching my already-wet sneakers. There’s no one else walking these streets, and those in the cars that speed by are probably too empathetic to laugh at my dance-like movements. December has arrived, and with it, the Midwest has turned a dreary grey.

As I move further from campus, the collection of fast-food joints and big box stores gives way to the remnants of a once-vibrant city center. Large homes line the street, but their exteriors are dilapidated and their lawns are unkempt, suggesting that much has changed since their construction. Long blades of grass are fighting their way through cracks in several of the driveways. It’s been years since families called these buildings home.

I crest a small hill and dart across the road onto Main Street. Multi-story buildings line each side of the street. Squint hard enough, and I can imagine a bustling downtown complete with movie theatres, department stores, and happening bars. But that was years ago. Now the dark buildings seem to blend into the grey sky around them. I slow to a walk as I head up the street.

A few restaurants and a delightful-looking cheesecake shop stand in contrast to the decay around me. Most of the buildings are at least partially vacant. The painted store-signs tell visitors more about what used to be there than any current enterprises. It must have been at least two decades since “SEARS” actually occupied the place that still bears the company’s name. The majority of the stores are antique shops, selling tangible reminders of the city’s once-prosperous past. To the north, I can see the outline of industrial buildings – a mill or factory maybe. Places that at one time employed thousands. On an overpass at the far end of the street, near the point where the road dead ends into a railroad station that transported hundreds of soldiers a day during the World War II years, a banner of Martin Luther King Jr. from the March on Washington proclaims: “I have a dream.” Life here may have changed when the last mill left town, but it did not stop.

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