“We’ll Get ’Em Next Year”
For a while—for a long while, actually—everything is all smiles on the sidelines of Saturday afternoon’s Harvard-Yale game, where the football team’s two faculty fellows, Eric Nelson and Roger Porter, stand watching. The day is unseasonably gorgeous—sunny and 50 degrees—and people are out in their shirtsleeves. More than 30,000 cheering, jostling, jeering fans have packed into the stadium for the 12:30 p.m. kickoff, and the atmosphere is electric.
In their crimson regalia, Nelson, the Beren professor of government, and Porter, the IBM professor of business and government, have taken up their usual home-game positions along the 20-yard line, between the Gatorade station and the field, just a few feet from the players sprinting in and out between whistles. (From the stands, Porter says, you can see the game; from the sidelines, you feel it).
At the start of the second quarter, with the score tied at zero, the two jovially explain the duties of being a faculty fellow to the Harvard football team.
“Roger calls the plays,” Nelson deadpans.
“I just call the first half; Eric calls the second.”
Nelson laughs. “Yeah, I’m the closer.”
Actually, they’re more like a cheering section, both on and off the field. Listed on the team roster alongside coaches and trainers and operations people, the two attend every home game, plus the occasional road game. They take players out to dinner and eat with the coaches. They offer an ear and a shoulder to anyone who might need it. Nelson, who joined up last season, is the Johnny-come-lately. Porter has been at this for decades. For him, it started back in 1987, when several football players were in his class. He got to know them pretty well, and they asked him to come to their game against Yale. Sure, he said. “I didn’t realize it was in New Haven that year.” When the day arrived, it was one of the coldest in NCAA history. The temperature hovered below zero, and Porter remembers minus-40-degree wind chills. He bundled up his wife and three children—“Our fourth hadn’t arrived yet”—and prepared to head out. “It was so cold, my wife said, ‘We can’t go.’ I said, ‘But we have to go. I promised the guys.’” They went. Harvard won it 14-10. At the end of the season, the team had sweatshirts made up that said “Ivy League Champions.” They gave one to Porter. “I still have it.”
Nelson first took notice of Harvard’s football team a couple of years ago when defensive lineman Zack Hodges ’15 took a course from him, Gov 1074: “Political Thought of the American Founding”—“a very difficult class,” Nelson says—and that same semester broke Harvard’s all-time pass-rushing record. Hodges got an A-, Nelson recalls, “and I don’t curve.” A native New Yorker and a Giants fan (don’t even mention the Jets), Nelson got himself introduced to head coach Tim Murphy, which led to an invitation to become a faculty fellow alongside Porter. “I really like Ivy League sports,” Nelson says. “This really is the last corner of collegiate football where there is something like the amateur ideal: college students who happen to be football players, rather than professional football players who happen to live on a college campus.”
The first half winds on. Harvard scores. Nelson and Porter give each other high-fives, and Porter hugs his wife, Ann, who also stands on the sidelines for every home game (the couple are longtime faculty deans at Dunster House). Soon, though, Yale is marching the ball the other way. There’s a trick play on fourth down, which earns the Bulldogs a first, and suddenly Porter is trotting over to the line of scrimmage, close to the Harvard end zone, for a better view of what turns out to be a touchdown. Porter looks up ruefully at the scoreboard: 7-7. “There were only 27 seconds left in the half,” he says. Twenty-seven seconds later, he’s standing in front of the tunnel that leads to the Crimson’s locker room, clapping and cheering as the players head in for halftime.
The third quarter opens with an onside kick that leads, in less than two minutes, to a Yale touchdown. Suddenly the Bulldogs have pulled ahead. “The night is young,” Nelson says. But he looks worried.
A number of former players are also watching from the sidelines, a joyous shouting, swirling throng, wearing their varsity rings and Harvard T-shirts, cheering on their old teammates. One comes over to say hello to Porter—the fourth or fifth former player who’s stopped to speak to him this afternoon. They ask how he is and pull him in for a hug, chatter excitedly about their post-collegiate lives. “They’re keeping this game too close,” the young man reports. “I know,” Porter answers. “We need you out there.”
Fourth quarter. The game is tied again, and before the quarter officially starts, pranksters in the Yale student section stand up to moon the crowd, an annual tradition dating back to the 1970s; they climb atop the stadium wall, fully naked, their pale flesh gleaming across the field. Porter laughs. “Some people really need attention, you know?” Nelson declaims his “Nelson’s law” of nudity: that there exists an “inverse relation between a person’s willingness to take off their clothes and other people’s eagerness to see them naked.”
Finally the mooners are coaxed down and back into their clothes and the clock starts. Harvard pushes the ball deep into Yale territory and stalls there before kicking a field goal that misses the uprights. Then, before that blunder can be fully absorbed, Yale starts advancing the other way. Suddenly the air has grown noticeably chilly, and the sun has sunk almost out of view behind the lip of the stadium. Porter retrieves his wife’s jacket and wraps it around her shoulders. Nelson buttons his coat. Nine minutes left in the game.
Nelson: “OK, it’s time.”
Porter, clapping Nelson on the shoulder: “OK, Eric. Work your magic!”
Seven minutes left. Yale gets another first down. Now they’re at the Harvard 27.
“Good night!” Porter exclaims under his breath.
“The pressure’s on here,” Nelson says, hands dug in his pockets. The throng of former players falls silent, and everyone crowds in together at the edge of the field.
Now Yale is at the Harvard 10. Now at the Harvard three. Now it’s third down.
“We have to hold them,” Nelson says. The football alumni are shouting now, urging the crowd in the stands behind them onto their feet. A chant of “De-fense! De-fense!” circles the stadium.
And then the play. A short pass into the end zone. Disaster. Yale goes up 20-14. But! It looks to Nelson, and to Porter, and to the former players, and to the fans booing in the stands, like the Yale receiver dropped the ball before he had possession. Did he? When they see the replay, they’re even more sure. Definitely dropped! But the touchdown stands. And the extra point makes it 21. Nelson can’t believe it. “You gotta be—this is absolutely absurd!” He looks pleadingly at Porter. There’s 4:14 left on the clock.
“OK,” Porter says. “We have four minutes and 14 seconds to rectify this—“
“—travesty of justice,” Nelson finishes.
Another handful of plays that go nowhere. At 1:13, Harvard has the ball at its own 20-yard line, with the vast expanse of the field gaping before it, and a hopeful memory comes back to Porter. “In 1969,” he says, “we were 16 points down with 42 seconds left, and we came back …”
But not this time. The clock runs out, and Porter and his wife rush away to meet friends, patting Nelson on the shoulder sympathetically as they go, leaving him standing there with his own two friends as the stadium empties and the teams shake hands and leave the field. “Oh dear,” Nelson says. A pause. “Oh dear. Well, we can’t win them all.”
And then, brightening a little: “We’ll get ’em next year.”