Harvard Football Great Performances: Ric Zimmerman ’68
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications; background by iStock
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications; background by iStock
In normal times, the Harvard football team and its hardy followers would be trekking up to Hanover, New Hampshire, this Saturday to face longtime Ivy rival Dartmouth. The Crimson leads the series, which began in 1882, 71-47-5, but the Big Green have won the last two, including last season’s 9-6, final-play heartbreaker for Harvard at the Stadium.
Instead of dwelling on such misfortune, let us recall another Saturday versus Dartmouth: October 22, 1966. This one featured a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive for the ages, one that stands among the most heroic in Crimson annals. It covered 80 yards, took 16 plays, and consumed more than seven nerve-wracking minutes before Harvard quarterback Ric Zimmerman ’68 plunged over the goal to give the then-unbeaten Crimson a 19-14 win and snap the 10-game Ivy winning streak of the Indians. (Yes, that was the Dartmouth mascot in those politically incorrect times). Unforgettable as it was, the drive was followed by an equally indelible and literally breathtaking play. Some believe this was perhaps the most continually pulsating game, start to finish, the Stadium has witnessed.
Great (Gridiron) Performances
Missing touchdowns? In a season without games, football correspondent Dick Friedman reprises past Crimson glories: epic plays, players, and records. Online weekly at www.harvardmagazine.com/topic/Sports
The thriller was unexpected. In the 1966 preseason, few prognosticators had picked Harvard to be an Ivy contender. “Nobody thought that we would do anything,” says Zimmerman, who today is a retired builder in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. (He is also a Harvard parent of three and Harvard grandparent of four.)
“We were picked to finish in the second tier, but everything just kind of jelled for us,” says halfback Bobby Leo ’67, who after an All-Ivy career went on to play for the Boston (now the New England) Patriots, then became a Boston-area attorney.
“It was a jambalaya of a team,” recalls, later one of Boston’s leading businessmen and a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers and . “Only 13 or 14 of us had lettered the year before. We were highly underrated and totally disrespected. But we had the best back in the league, Bobby Leo, plus [five-foot-six] Vic Gatto [’69], who was every bit as good as Bobby. And Ric didn’t have a rifle for an arm, but he had a rifle for a brain.” Buttoned-down Harvard coach John Yovicsin also had his usual rock-solid defense, which at season’s end would place four players on the All-Ivy team.
Dartmouth, however, was a formidable challenge. The Indians had plastered the Crimson 48-0 in 1964 and outclassed them 14-0 in ’65. They boasted two of the league’s best backs: quarterback Mickey Beard and fleet option halfback Gene Ryzewicz. Even more, Dartmouth’s coach was Bob Blackman, a diabolical offensive genius. “He was doing stuff all the time that we never expected,” says O’Donnell.
In those days, Dartmouth often matched Yale as The Game. The contest always took place in Boston. (The teams didn’t go to home-and-home until 1980.) The Stadium always was sold out. The ruffians from New Hampshire always descended from the hills in full force. “You have to remember what that game was like in those days, with half the stadium dressed in green and the other half in crimson,” says Zimmerman.
Zimmerman’s favorite passing target, tight end Carter Lord ’68, remembers the frenzy. “The stadium was PACKED, 44,000-plus strong and not an empty seat anywhere,” says Lord. (He may have overstated the attendance, but not by much.) “PACKED!” Naturally, Lord uses screenplay capitalization in his emails: After a brief stint with the Dallas Cowboys, he eventually became a filmmaker. “And when Soldiers Field is packed, the sound is deafening in there. That Dartmouth game was the first time I had ever played a game in my life where I literally could not hear the signals being called—and I was a tight end, only about 10 feet from the quarterback. It changes the whole game when you can’t hear the signals. The screaming intensity of the fans was beyond hearing for MOST of the game, but ESPECIALLY in the fourth-quarter drive to our winning touchdown. You couldn’t hear yourself think, it was so intense.”
The pitch became even more feverish in the first quarter. After a Dartmouth fumble (one of three in the game) caused by hard-hitting defensive back John Tyson ’69, Leo took a lateral from Zimmerman, headed right, cut back, and outdistanced the Dartmouth defenders to the end zone. “The defensive back caught up to me and even though I went down I broke the plane and they called it a touchdown,” says Leo. “That was quite a thrill to be able to pull that off.” Harvard 7, Dartmouth 0. On the day Leo gained a career-best 175 yards in 20 carries. (.)
But the Indians scored the next two touchdowns, Beard on a nine-yard run in the second quarter and Ryzewicz on a one-yarder in the third. In between, Harvard missed a golden opportunity on a trick play called “The Transcontinental”: Leo took a pitch from Zimmerman, who then snuck out to the left—all alone. But Leo’s pass fell harmlessly at Zimmerman’s feet. “Afterwards my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, said, ‘All you had to do was take a step forward and it would have been waist-high,’” says Zimmerman, chuckling. (Everyone’s a critic!)
Late in the third period, after another fumble recovery, the Crimson began a drive that culminated early in the fourth quarter when Zimmerman passed 11 yards over the middle to end Joe Cook ’68. On the extra-point kick, though, Dartmouth was offside and the ball was placed half the distance to the goal line, only a little more than a yard away. So with the crowd bellowing its trepidation (well, some of us), the Crimson switched strategy and went for two—and justified that trepidation when Leo was halted on a rollout. Dartmouth 14, Harvard 13.
On its next possession, Dartmouth ended up punting into the Harvard end zone. That set the stage for The Drive. Nine minutes and 29 seconds remained—plenty of time these days, but not necessarily for a 1966-style ball-control offense such as Harvard’s. Zimmerman, not the coaches, was calling the plays. Besides Leo and Gatto, he could employ workhorse fullback Tom Choquette ’67. “We used bread-and-butter plays,” Zimmerman says, “the sweeps and off-tackle plays with the occasional pass when [Dartmouth] pinched in.” Methodically, the Crimson began to move: Gatto, sweep left, seven yards…Choquette, off right tackle, 10 yards…Choquette, off tackle, six yards…Choquette, no gain…
“Something large happened that day on that drive in the fourth quarter that no one will ever know except for those of us playing,” says Lord. “None of us had EVER experienced anything like that in our whole lives. Plus if you were the excitable type—like me—it was so nerve-wracking you could barely take a step without wobbling.
“Fortunately for us, we had Joe O’Donnell playing center for us,” he continues. “It’s possible O’Donnell was the best offensive lineman in Harvard history as far as brains, knowing how to win, and being tough under pressure goes. There was a particularly intense moment during a timeout somewhere around midfield when we were all a little out of sorts, jittery, stumbling around bumping into each other, when Joe suddenly said, ‘Holy s—!!!! Look at that!!!!!’ We all stopped and looked at the stands where he was motioning. It was bedlam. None of us had any idea what he was talking about. ‘Look!! Look at that blonde in the fourth row!!!!’ We looked and there was a gorgeous female screaming at the top of her lungs, as gorgeous as a human being can be. We laughed. It was an astonishing moment. A calm swept over us all, the tension was broken. It was subtle but it was real. Very, very real.”
Zimmerman, pass to Gatto, 12 yards…Leo, up the middle, three yards…Zimmerman pass deflected by Dartmouth defender Steve Luxford, caught by Cook, seven yards…Gatto, off left tackle, five yards…
“We just kind of pecked away, pecked away,” says Leo. “It’s not a feeling of excitement so much as determination. Stay in it. Play as hard as you can on every play.”
Leo halfback pass attempt, incomplete…Gatto sweep left, five yards…Dartmouth offside, five yards…Leo off tackle, three yards…
The Stadium was a madhouse. But the Crimson huddle was an oasis of calm. “What I always remember was how cool we were,” says O’Donnell. “A seven-and-a-half-minute drive, we just pounded away, chunk by chunk, typical of our team. It was almost like a business deal, we were so professional about it. Ric was like a perfect general and we had enormous confidence in him. What a leader he was!”
Choquette, up the middle, no gain…Zimmerman pass down the middle complete to Cook, 12 yards…
It was now first and goal at the Dartmouth five.
Choquette up the middle, two yards…Gatto cutback sweep left, three to the goal line, almost over…
“A field goal? That never occurred to me,” says Zimmerman. “We had complete confidence that we would score a touchdown.”
Zimmerman quarterback sneak…
On third and goal Zimmerman took the snap from O’Donnell. “I ran to the left,” Zimmerman says.
“I made a lousy block,” says O’Donnell. “I didn’t push the guy the way I wanted to. Ric was not exactly a greyhound. But he just bumped up against me and pushed inside.”
“I didn’t get in by much, but I did get in,” says Zimmerman. “I had to sort of heave myself over.” Amid the bedlam Harvard had taken the lead, 19-14. On the conversion the Crimson went for two, but a Zimmerman pass fell incomplete.
Time remaining: 1:41.
There was no opportunity for the Crimson and their fans to exhale—quite the contrary. On the ensuing kickoff came one of Blackman’s strokes of brilliance. The kick came to Dartmouth’s deep man Bob Lundquist, who ran to the left and handed the ball to Ryzewicz, heading right. Reverse!! The Harvard defenders changed direction to try to corral Ryzewicz. As they closed in, Ryzewicz suddenly stopped, turned and lofted an overhand lateral all the way across the field to Lundquist. who was gathering a head of steam.
As the ball hung in the air, hearts stopped and breaths were held. No Crimson players appeared to be in Lundquist’s sector. He made the catch and headed upfield. The Dartmouth blockers had established a wall for him, and Lundquist seemed to have a clear path to the Harvard goal. Finally, near midfield, Harvard’s Tommy Wynne ’69 got in front of Lundquist, stood his ground and wrestled him down. Touchdown saved. Game saved.
“I thought for sure Lundquist would score,” says O’Donnell.
The Crimson’s hopes to go unbeaten were ruined two weeks later in an 18-14 loss at Princeton. Harvard, Dartmouth, and Princeton ended the season tied for the championship, all with 6-1 records.
Fifty-four years later, the memories of this contest still can send pulses racing. “The Dartmouth 1966 game will never be forgotten by anyone who played in it,” says Lord. Or anyone who watched it.
THE SCORE BY QUARTERS