Harvard Football Great Performances: Carroll Lowenstein ’52
Had the coronavirus not wiped out the Ivy League football season, coach Tim Murphy’s Harvard squad would be making the jaunt to Philadelphia to face Penn this Saturday in 2020’s penultimate game. In a series that began in 1881, the Crimson leads 49-39-2, though the Quakers have won four of the last five, including last year’s 24-20 tussle in Cambridge. But revenge must wait, so instead we will again amble through the annals.
If you follow Harvard football closely, sooner or later you will encounter these names: Tom Ossman ’52, Carroll Lowenstein ’52, and Matt Johnson ’92. Each was a valuable player who had a day for the ages on which he set a significant single-game offensive record, a mark that has stood for decades. These are the names reporters see when they go scurrying to the record books after a Crimson offensive player has a blockbuster game. Ossman’s five rushing touchdowns against Brown in 1951 have never been equaled. Lowenstein’s five touchdown passes against Davidson in 1953 have been matched only three times, most recently by Tom Stewart ’19 against Columbia in 2018. Johnson’s 323 yards on the ground against Brown in 1991 are 54 more than the second-best single-game total, the 269 that Aidan Borguet ’23 piled up in his tour de force against Yale last year; that also remains the Ivy League single-game mark.
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
Each achievement has a story. Ossman’s is the most straightforward, almost literally so. On November 17, 1951, the five-foot-nine, 192-pound fullback was the designated finisher in the Crimson’s 34-21 victory over the Bears in the penultimate game of a 3-5-1 season under coach Lloyd Jordan. Before 12,000 at the Stadium, Ossman began the scoring in the first period, culminating a seven-play, 68-yard drive with a nine-yard run after a delayed handoff. In the second period he scored twice. The Boston Globe described the touchdowns as “a three-yard smash through a wall of Brown linemen, and a power blast from the one.”
The fourth touchdown, which came in the third period on a two-yard run, nearly sparked a melee when the Brown defenders argued that Ossman had not gotten across the goal line. In the final period the Crimson were clinging to a 28-21 lead when their true backfield star, Dick Clasby ’54, took over. On a 60-yard drive Clasby carried seven times. On fourth down from the Brown 20, however, it was Ossman time again, but with a difference. Instead of barging through the Bears’ line, he took a pitch, skirted right end, and raced all the way to the end zone. On the day, Clasby picked up 126 yards and Ossman 122. Harvard totaled 315 yards rushing to Brown’s 150. It takes nothing away from Ossman’s accomplishment to note that in scoring four times last year against Yale, Borguet covered considerably more ground than did Ossman on his scoring bolts: 47 yards, 59 yards, 60 yards, 67 yards. In the category of most touchdowns, Ossman remains alone in the record book.
Forty seasons later, another Harvard bruiser mauled the Bears. On November 9, 1991, during the Crimson’s 35-29 victory at Brown Stadium, Matt Johnson carried 30 times for 323 yards, a touchdown, and a two-point conversion. The former quarterback even completed a pass for 28 yards. Johnson obliterated the Harvard single-game record of 233 yards that had been set by Vernon Struck ’38 against Princeton in 1937, and he shattered the Ivy mark of 288 set by Cornell’s Scott Oliaro against Yale in 1990. Princeton’s Keith Elias took over second place in 1992 when he rushed for 299 yards against Lafayette.
“You don’t realize how many yards you’re getting until you see the stats at the end,” said Johnson after the game. “I don’t feel it’s that big a deal as they’re making it right now.” (Fittingly, Johnson grew up in Humble, Texas.)
Mike Giardi ’94 was the Harvard quarterback that day. (He has been the color commentator on Crimson radio broadcasts since 1995.) “It was probably one of the easiest days to play quarterback,” says Giardi, who had to throw only 11 passes. “Hand off left. Hand off right. Matt was a strong, powerful back, almost a hybrid between a tailback and fullback. He was a very good runner tackle to tackle. Once he got moving downhill, he was very tough to stop. We had a great line that year that really was able to move guys off the ball. I think Brown overplayed our option game on the outside and Matty just took advantage inside. It was one of those perfect storms in a good way: the defense overplaying the outside, our line was big and strong and opened up some huge holes, and Matt was able to shoot the gaps really well.”
With Robb Hirsch ’93 rumbling for 103 yards, Harvard piled up 488 yards on the ground—still a school single-game record, and one likely to stand for a while, given the pass-happiness of the current era. Coach Joe Restic’s team finished the season 4-5-1 overall and 4-2-1 (good for third place) in the Ivy League.
The most intriguing tale might be Lowenstein’s. For starters, he was a mere five-foot-nine and 150 pounds. With a nod to his Boston-area hometown, he was nicknamed “The Malden Mite.” But his arm was big. Says his grandson Peter Mee, “He could throw the ball on a rope.”
By rights Lowenstein should have been handing the ball off to his friend Ossman that day against Brown. Elected team captain for the 1951 season, Lowenstein saw his career interrupted when he was drafted. No, not by the NFL, but (with the Korean conflict raging) by the United States Army. For the next two years he was mostly stationed in Germany, where he played service football. He returned in time to jump into the 1953 season.
Lowenstein’s first appearance, at Columbia in the third game of the season, was like a plunge into an icy bath. He threw three interceptions in five minutes and the Crimson lost 6-0. Two weeks later, on October 31, Harvard was back at the Stadium to face Davidson of the Southern Conference. When it was over, the Wildcats must have wished he had re-enlisted.
Clasby was now the captain and also the starter at left halfback, the primary passing position in the Crimson’s single-wing attack. Early in the first quarter, with the game scoreless, Clasby injured his right shoulder. In trotted little Lowenstein. He ran for the game’s first touchdown, “squirting seven yards like a wet grapefruit seed,” as the Globe put it.
Then Lowenstein began launching long-range bombs. In the second quarter he connected with wingback Dexter Lewis ’56 for a 63-yard touchdown, then with fullback John Culver ’54 for a 55-yard score. (Yes, the same Culver who became a U.S. senator from Iowa.) In the third quarter, Lowenstein’s shortest scoring pass, for 27 yards, went to end Bill Weber ’54. Four minutes later it was Lowenstein-to-Lewis again, this time on a 51-yard pass play. Early in the fourth quarter, Lowenstein threw for his fifth and final touchdown, this time a 36-yarder to wingback Frank White ’55.
“On every throw the receiver picked the ball out of the air in full stride,” reported the Globe. The sheer economy also was breathtaking: the five touchdowns came on only six completions out of nine attempts. Lowenstein savored this statistic for the rest of his life. When Collier Winters ’12 tossed five touchdown passes against Princeton in 2011, says Mee, Lowenstein left him a note that read: “Congratulations on tying my record, but I should point out to you, I only had nine attempts and I ran one in.” (Winters needed 42 attempts, of which 34 were completed. Like Lowenstein, he also ran for a touchdown.) The 42-6 victory gave the Crimson a 4-1 record on their way to a 6-2 finish. (There would not be a formal Ivy League for another three years.)
Lowenstein died last November 14, 12 days before his ninetieth birthday. A member of the Varsity Club Hall of Fame, he served for many years as chairman of the Friends of Harvard Football and he could be found at almost every home game in his accustomed perch: Section 37, Row PP, Seat 1.
Would he ever talk to his family about that day against Davidson? “When,” says Mee, “would he not talk about it?”
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