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Landmark celebration

After 100 years, Harvard Stadium still standing the test of time

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 11/14/2003

Despite various facelifts, Harvard Stadium retains much of its orginal design. (Globe Staff Photo / John Tlumacki)Harvard's skeptics of the day never figured that The Stadium (is there another?) would be there by now. Football was merely a violent campus fad in 1903, and nobody ever had built a structure that large using reinforced concrete. What if it fell down, like some Attic ruin? What if the sport fell out of favor or, more likely, was banned by the faculty?

A century to the day after Harvard and Dartmouth first played there, the old ivy-covered horseshoe still is standing sentinel along the Charles. It has outlasted the British, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet empires. It has withstood two press-box fires (allegedly set by outraged grammarians), a Barry Manilow concert, a notorious MIT prank, and two dozen losses to Yale. And its very presence (because the field couldn't be widened) caused rulemakers to allow the forward pass, which changed the game forever. ``In terms of tradition, intimacy, and atmosphere,'' said head coach Tim Murphy, ``Harvard Stadium has no peer.''

Its age (it was renovated for $8 million in 1982 but looks the same), its classical lines, its signature columns, its flags flying at the corners seem to confer grandeur and importance on everything that happens within.

"It's impressive, if you haven't seen it before,'' said Dartmouth coach John Lyons, who performed in the Stadium during his playing days at Pennsylvania. "The size and shape of it, the history and tradition.''

Stand at the open end and you can see Jim Thorpe kicking four field goals for Carlisle in 1911, Charlie Brickley booting five field goals (four of them dropkicks) against Yale in 1913, Bo McMillin and his Praying Colonels staging their 1921 shocker, Yale's Ducky Pond sloshing through the bog in 1923, Yale manager Charlie Yeager catching a conversion pass in 1952, Frank Champi scrambling and throwing to Vic Gatto and, then, to Pete Varney in 1968.

"I can still see the route, from the closed end to the open end of the Stadium, veering from the Harvard side to the Cornell side,'' John Dockery told Harvard Magazine, reminiscing about his end-to-end interception return in the rain in 1964. "Blurry kinds of memories - colors moving past you, atmospheric details like Renoir. Magic happens how many times in your life?''

Dick Clasby, Harvard's All-America halfback, remembers how the spectators alongside and above rose in unison and roared as he was running more than 100 yards with a kick return against Dartmouth in 1952. ``Fifty years later and I still get a rush,'' he said. ``It's almost like it happened yesterday.'' Though the touchdown was called back for a clipping penalty well behind the play, Clasby still cherishes the moment. ``They can take away the points, but they can never take away the thrill.''

When the horseshoe is full, as it still is for the Yale game most years, it is a place of thunderous magic. "When you come out of the tunnel and there are 30,000 people screaming,'' said Harvard captain Dante Balestracci, ``it's an atmosphere that's truly electric.''

When you're on the field, with the concrete walls rising above, the Stadium seems to hold twice as many people as it does and seems twice as noisy. ``Harvard crowds aren't particularly raucous,'' said Murphy. "But when you fill it up for a Yale game . . .''

The Stadium was never fuller or noisier than it was 35 years ago when both teams were unbeaten and Harvard ``won,'' 29-29, with 16 points in the final 42 seconds. ``Once, I yelled into the headphones to the coaches upstairs, asking them what yard line we were on,'' then-Yale coach Carm Cozza recalled in his ``True Blue'' memoir. ``Only to have four or five alums on the sideline answer me.''

Yale Bowl may be more than twice as big as the Stadium, but its saucerlike design puts the stands farther away from the players. "That damn pan,'' a Princeton player called it in an F. Scott Fitzgerald story.

Harvard's horseshoe, a hybrid of a Greek amphitheater and a Roman colosseum, makes visitors feel as if they're gladiators under siege, or doomed actors in an Aeschylus tragedy. ``It's a tough place to come into and win,'' said Lyons, whose Big Green ruined the Crimson's unbeaten season there last month. ``The stands start right above your head and go up very steep. People are right on top of you.''

And at the end of a game, especially a Harvard victory against a big rival, the people are around and among you, as they were last month when the Crimson stunned Princeton, 43-40, on an overtime touchdown catch by Rodney Byrnes. ``When Rodney caught the ball and we rushed the field,'' said Balestracci, ``it felt like they were coming right behind us.''

That's how it was a century ago, when every college in the country played on a makeshift gridiron surrounded by bleachers or ropes, with spectators close enough to encourage (or curse) players by name. Harvard, which played the first football game in 1874 (the earlier Princeton-Rutgers contest was modified soccer), had used fields on the Cambridge side of the river, north of the Yard, before moving to Soldiers Field's expansive, if mucky, acreage on the Allston side of the river.

By the turn of the century, though, the game had outgrown the era of rickety, fire-prone wooden seats and the idea of a permanent stadium, along the lines of what Athens had erected for the revival of the Olympics in 1896, was proposed. Charles Eliot, who'd been Harvard's president since 1869 and who hated football, didn't see why any stadium was necessary. ``A game that needs to be watched is not fit for genuine sportsmen,'' Eliot declared. ``It is hard to find trustworthy watchers.''

Yet the students and alumni, who ran the athletic committee, felt otherwise. Not only was football a manly pursuit and a welcome diversion, it also made potfuls of money. More than half of the Stadium's $310,000 cost was covered by previous gate receipts and a gift from the Class of 1879.

So architect Charles Follen McKim drew up a classical design, professor Ira Nelson Hollis directed a cohort of university engineers, and a couple hundred Italian laborers did the rest in less than five months. ``I hope those in charge of constructing our Allston campus will take note,'' Harvard president Lawrence Summers recently observed.

To gauge whether the Stadium would sustain the demands of 22,000 spectators, the engineers dropped a two-ton weight on one of the 8-foot-long seats and also had a dozen men jump up and down on one to simulate game conditions. Then, the day it opened, the construction manager patrolled below the stands, just in case. When the edifice remained upright after several hours of use, one Boston newspaper concluded that it seemed ``sturdy enough to last till Harvard beats Yale in football.''

The question was whether football would last that long, especially after the ``annus horribilis'' of 1905, when 18 college players across the country were killed and another 160 seriously injured.

Eliot already had railed that year against the ``evils of football'' in his annual report to the university overseers. ``As a spectacle, football is more brutalizing than prize-fighting, cock-fighting or bull-fighting,'' he declared, adding that the sport created the ``wrong kind of hero.''

Another Harvard man - President Theodore Roosevelt, '80 - agreed. While he enjoyed football (sending a congratulatory telegram after the first Stadium victory) and was said to consider Eliot a "mollycoddle,'' Roosevelt was sickened by the mounting body count. "Brutality and foul play should receive the same summary punishment given to a man who cheats at cards,'' he proclaimed.

If the game wasn't cleaned up, Roosevelt said, he would ban it. So the rulemakers doubled the first-down yardage to 10 and created a neutral zone at the scrimmage line. But instead of widening the field (which Yale wanted), they legalized the pass to accommodate Harvard's new horseshoe. Thus was born football's golden age, with the Stadium, Yale Bowl, and the Rose Bowl (the country's three landmarked stadia) as its showpieces.

As the game and the crowds grew, so did the Stadium. The covered colonnade was added in 1910, increasing capacity to 40,000. In 1929, steel bleachers at the open end turned the horseshoe into a 57,000-seat oval.

Harvard was a national power in those days, playing (and usually beating) the likes of Michigan, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Army, Penn State, and Virginia. For games with Big 3 rivals Yale and Princeton, every seat was filled, with athletic department detectives spot-checking to make sure the grads (who had to sign for their tickets) hadn't scalped them.

After World War II, Harvard's football prowess (and its attendance) diminished dramatically. During the summer of 1951, the steel stands were dismantled and the Stadium reverted to the original horseshoe, which now seats just over 30,000 with the roof seats, the track seats, and the end zone bleachers removed. ``It was as if the walls of Jericho had come tumbling down again,'' Will Cloney wrote in the Second H Book of Harvard Athletics.

Midway through the 1982 Yale game, when an ominous metal rod emerged from the turf sprouting a huge black balloon, it seemed that the Stadium itself might implode. "I thought the Martians had arrived,'' admitted then-Harvard coach Joe Restic. It was merely a frat prank by the Techsters down the creek, who'd given up playing the Crimson in 1893 after losing 15 games by an aggregate 556-6.

The Stadium survived, just as it did after the turbulent springs of 1969 and 1970, when the students held their strike meetings there. It may have been built for football, but the university uses its sturdy horseshoe for anything that doesn't quite fit elsewhere.

The hockey team played its games there for several years. The track team held its meets there, with undergraduate Edward Gourdin setting the world broad jump record in 1921. Soccer, (the 1984 Olympics), lacrosse, field hockey, rugby, even polo matches have been staged there and the crew runs up and down its 37 seating sections (a "Tour de Stade'') for training. The classics department staged ``Agamemnon'' there, complete with temple and chariots. When the university held its 350th birthday bash in 1986, it used the Stadium for the gala finale.

From time to time, the university loans the place out. The Patriots played their first home exhibition game there in 1960 and later returned for a season as itinerants. In the post-Woodstock days, Joan Baez, Wilson Pickett, Sly and the Family Stone, James Taylor, Janis Joplin, and Bob Marley and the Wailers dropped in for summer concerts.

Not that the place can be confused with the Hollywood Bowl, particularly in late November. "It's always cold and windy,'' observed Yale coach Jack Siedlecki. And those concrete slabs make for three bum-numbing hours for spectators, who've long since learned to bring their own cushions.

The ancient Greeks and Romans didn't need seats, after all, and the university wasn't sure that it made sense to build any for a sport that might go the way of tug of war. One century and 900 games later, football endures at Harvard, as does the horseshoe. "Sometimes you step back and realize you're a part of history,'' mused Balestracci, who'll play his final game there tomorrow against Penn. "Something really special.''

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company


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