It takes some doing to make Harvard look like an underdog in anything. But Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 — Kevin Rafferty’s 2008 movie (out now on DVD) and new book (released this past month) about the famous football rivalry — does just that.

In the 1968 installment of “The Game,” the 126th playing of which will take place this Saturday in New Haven, the Elis were heavy favorites. Their quarterback, future New England Patriot Brian Dowling — who hadn’t lost a game since seventh grade — was nicknamed “God” and is the inspiration for “B.D.” in Yalie Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. Their halfback, Calvin Hill, would win rookie of the year with the Cowboys the next season. (Their fullback, meanwhile, was dating a Vassar co-ed named Meryl Streep, and their tackle roomed with a guy named George W. Bush.)

The Harvard team, on the other hand — in addition to an offensive guard from Texas named Tommy Lee Jones — featured blue-collar scholarship guys from the Boston area with names like Champi and Hurley. Also, a 24-year-old defenseman: Pat Conway, who, barely six months earlier had been fighting the Battle of Khe Sanh with the Marines. In fact, the squad had members of ROTC and members of the anti-war Students for a Democratic Society playing side by side. Football was a unifier, for players and fans alike.

It was against this backdrop — war, assassinations, student radicalism — that the game played out. “Harvard was in turmoil,” says Rafferty, who attended as a Harvard undergrad, with his father, a Yale alum, sitting on the other side of the stadium. “People were taking over buildings. They were getting ready to close the school down later in the year. It was an unusual moment to be taken up in a frenzy of football excitement. It seemed irrelevant. But it wasn’t.”

Certainly not this game. For the first time since 1909, both teams met on the last match-up of the season with perfect records. Yet Harvard, which was manhandled for most of the first 59 minutes, looked ready to have its win streak snapped.

Then something happened — something described by some of the 61 men Rafferty interviewed for the book and film as “portentous” . . . “an out-of-body experience” . . . “you had the sense it wasn’t real.”

With Yale leading 29-13 in the waning moments of the contest, Harvard miraculously tied the score, via two touchdowns and two two-point conversions — putting 16 points on the board in the final 42 seconds.

Bedlam ensued. “The excitement of that game was just amazing,” says Rafferty. “Tickets were selling for 500 bucks. Harvard Stadium was overfilled; there were people on the roof. The clock ran out while the [final two-point conversion] ball was in mid-air. I was sitting with Chris Hart, Kitty Carlisle and Moss Hart’s son. He said, ‘If Harvard pulls this off, I’m leaving the stadium naked.’ And he did. It was just nuts. I’ll never forget.”

Rafferty will be signing books at the Yale Bowl this Saturday with Dowling, Harvard captain Vic Gatto, and Trudeau. He thinks Harvard has the better team this year, but says that “anything can happen in these games.”

But not as many people are paying attention these days.

“My daughter is a senior at Yale, and she basically just goes to the tailgates. There’s 15,000 people outside of the Yale Bowl drinking, and the poor football players are inside struggling away and nobody’s watching them.”

You can buy ticket for Harvard Yale Game 2009 here


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