Harvard Football Great Performances: Vic Kennard ’09
Had COVID-19 not hijacked the Ivy football season, among so many other activities, the Harvard team would be back at the Stadium this Saturday, attempting to avenge last season’s 17-10 overtime loss to resurgent Columbia. Instead, we again will take a deep dive into antiquity, this time to the season of ’08.
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
In their history the Crimson have been blessed with many clutch kickers. The greatest was , whose most indelible feat of foot was booting five field goals against Yale in 1913. In 1970, Richie Szaro ’71 kicked two late-game field goals to help Harvard nip Cornell and Ed Marinaro 27-24. At the Yale Bowl in 1975, Mike Lynch ’76 drilled a 26-yarder with 33 seconds left to give the Crimson a 10-7 win and the Ivy title. In 2018, Jake McIntyre ’20 slammed home a 25-yarder on the last play to overhaul Holy Cross 33-31.
But the most significant field goal in Harvard history came 112 years ago, a dropkick off the left foot of Vic Kennard, A.B. 1909. With one swipe, the boot: 1) beat Yale; 2) staked a claim to the national championship (yes, really); and 3) established a bulldog-strangling legend concerning the Crimson’s first-year coach, Percy Duncan Haughton, A.B. 1899.
A one-time star Crimson punter and baseball player, “P.D.” Haughton had assumed the coaching reins the previous winter when Harvard’s football fortunes were at a low ebb. The Crimson had been shut out by Yale six straight times. There was even some grumbling in New Haven that the Elis should drop Harvard as an opponent and instead host a western team such as Chicago or Michigan.
Haughton immediately sought to instill some “sand” in his charges, among them Kennard, a senior back and kicker from nearby Brookline who had become visibly discouraged by his lackluster career. Two decades later, Kennard recalled Haughton’s motivational method. “One day Haughton stopped me as I headed for practice. ‘See here, Kennard, I’d like a word with you,’ he said in low, even tones. I can look back to that afternoon and still picture his piercing eyes. I can recall his direct manner and his concise speech. ‘You’ve got the physique,’ said P.D., ‘and I think you have the spirit, but you’ll never get anywhere with that sour look. It’s contagious. There’s no place on a football field for a grouch. You’ve got to keep smiling and patting the other fellow on the back. And by the way you’ve been looking lately, I’ll say you’d better be smiling every day at Harvard Square and keep smiling all the way down to the field. Then smile some more. If you do that you’ll improve your prospects around here. Another sour look and you’re through.’ That was the extent of our conversation but it was the best lesson I ever learned. From then on things came easier. The effect of that two-minute talk has remained with me....Every time I have hit a snag, I’d say to myself, ‘Smile, damn it, smile!’ That short session with Haughton was worth more to me than a dozen degrees at Harvard.”
Approaching the Yale game, Haughton had ridden a rock-solid defense bulwarked by All-America lineman Hamilton Fish ’10 to an 8-0-1 record mottled only by a 6-6 tie at Navy. Yale entered the finale at 7-0-1. Given the prominence of the two schools in the football landscape, The Game would have national-championship implications.
Kennard had worked his way off the bench to become a reliable booter—important at a time when a successful field goal was worth four points, only one less than a touchdown—as well as a valued reserve on offense and defense. (All players went both ways.) His improvement gave Haughton a notion: As soon as the Crimson got within field-goal distance, he would quickly—almost stealthily—insert Kennard for an attempt. This ploy carried some risk even aside from the kick. The rules held that once a player was removed from the game, he could not return, so Haughton would have to go without one of his starters the rest of the way.
This was the game that gave birth to the tale that to fire up his team, Haughton strangled a live bulldog. Not quite. Here’s the real story, as related by assistant coach Harry Von Kersburg ’06 in 1948: Two days before the game, the team had arrived at the Elm Tree Inn in Farmington, Connecticut. “Percy went to Hartford on some pretext or other,” wrote Von Kersburg. “While he was away, [trainer] Pooch Donovan took the squad for a long hike on the golf course which was across from the inn. By prearrangement, everything had been timed to the minute because when the returning squad was on the side of the road opposite the inn who should appear on the scene but P.D.H., driving a car. Tied to the rear of the car was a long rope fastened to the neck of a papier mâché bulldog. The dog was decked out with a blue blanket, on either side of which was a large white block Y. The stunt evoked roars of laughter.”
Duly relaxed, the Crimson sprinted onto the turf before a jam-packed throng of 33,000 at Yale Field. (The Yale Bowl would not open for six more years.) This was already the twenty-ninth edition of The Game. As expected, the defenses dominated. But late in the first 35-minute half, Harvard took over at its 40 and, behind the demonic running of fullback Rex Ver Wiebe ’09, rammed to the Yale 14. All through the drive, Haughton moved down the sideline, on a line with the ball and with Vic Kennard in tow. On third down and four came the biggest gamble of Percy Haughton’s career, and perhaps the cornerstone of his legend. To the dismay of the Harvard stands, he signaled for Ver Wiebe to come to the sideline. His day was done. In trotted Kennard for a dropkick.
During practice, Kennard and center Joe Nourse ’09 had hatched a plan. When Kennard halted behind the scrimmage line at dropkicking distance—in this case, the 23-yard line—Nourse was simply to snap him the ball without waiting for a signal. As soon as Ver Wiebe had reached the sideline, Nourse settled over the ball. Belatedly, the Yale defense was hurrying to set up a rush from Harvard’s right, as Haughton suspected it might; this was the wrong side from which to come at the left-footed Kennard. When Nourse made the snap, the Elis still were not in position. Kennard received the football and dropped it to the ground. Swiftly and unimpeded, he gave the pigskin a thump. As Tim Cohane later wrote in The Yale Football Story, “It soared prettily over the heads of Yale’s linemen, who had been caught laggard. On it went, spinning over the crossbar for a perfect field goal and Harvard’s first score against Yale since 1901.” Harvard 4, Yale 0.
The lead held up. Kennard stayed in the game. While he could not match Ver Wiebe’s rushing prowess, he played strongly on defense. At one point Kennard stopped Yale’s All-America runner Ted Coy in a fearsome crash, after which Kennard stayed down on the field for a time. His mother was sitting in the Crimson stands with his two brothers. As Kennard later recalled, “Someone who sat almost directly back of my mother called out loud, ‘That’s young Kennard. It looks as though he’s broken his leg.’ My brother, feeling that mother had not heard the remark, and not knowing what he might say, turned and informed him that Mrs. Kennard was sitting almost directly in front of him, requesting that he be careful what he said. Mother, however, heard the whole thing, and turning in her seat said, ‘That’s all right, I don’t care if his leg is broken, if we only win this game.’”
The final whistle sounded. “Carried from the field upon the shoulders of their delirious supporters,” wrote The Boston Globe, “the Harvard football players underwent almost as rough treatment at the hands of their friends as they had previously suffered at those of Yale.”
After the victory, there was some debate as to who was number one—Harvard or Penn, which finished its season 11-0-1. There are modern football scholars who have pored over records and revived the annual debates. One, James Vautravers, has performed detailed analysis and attempted to re-rank teams of that era, posting his thoughts on his website, tiptop25.com. Writes Vautravers: “I think Harvard’s wins over Carlisle and Yale (let alone 6-1-1 Dartmouth) make them a clear choice for #1....I find it strange that NCAA Records Book selectors retroactively name Penn national champion, while no one selects Harvard to even share the title.”
Percy Haughton had strangled the bulldog. In his nine seasons as Harvard’s coach, his record would be an unearthly 71-7-5.
Vic Kennard had the shoe with which he kicked his field goal emblazoned as a trophy. The upper part was painted crimson, with the score inscribed. The sole was painted blue.
ABERCROMBie FUND VIRTUAL 3.2 MILER: The Harvard Varsity Club is holding a virtual 3.2-mile run/walk to benefit the Benson M. Abercrombie ’21 Fund. In his first collegiate football game, Ben suffered a catastrophic spinal-cord injury. He is continuing his education while remaining a member of the football team. (The 3.2 is in honor of his number, 32.) The Abercrombie Fund provides support to the Abercrombie family and will assist any future Harvard student-athlete who incurs a severe or catastrophic injury while competing for the Crimson. Participants in the virtual 3.2 will receive a personalized bib and finisher medal. Entry fee: $25. For details and to register, go to .
THE SCORE BY HALVES (35 minutes apiece)
November 21, 1908, Yale Field