A Bowl Full of Memories

A Bowl Full of Memories

For a 10-year-old boy in 1960, the Yale Bowl was a realm of surreal enchantment. It was massive and oval and ancient and there were trees on top of it, trees up in the air, grass up yonder, too. It was at least the eighth wonder of my world.

On fall Saturdays when Harvard was in town the place was awash in humanity and not just fancy pants Ivy Leaguers. I got into my first "fight" outside the Bowl when some local delinquents stole our football — actually, I passed it to one of them and he just kept running. My older brother Dicky got it back but not before one of the kids sucker punched me. I was too astonished to cry.

Catacomb-like portals ushered the faithful into the green pantheon of pain and glory, where assemblages of scholar-athletes advanced toward one another like Greek phalanxes, bent on mayhem. Perhaps more amazing was that there were often 70,000 people watching, arrayed in a great swath encircling the arena, nipping from flasks, chatting amicably, and urging their cohort on to further violence. In that heroic time, at Harvard games, and sometimes Princeton and Dartmouth, too, every seat was spoken for. No one stayed outside gyrating to rock music and pounding Jell-O shots; it simply wasn't done.

Fans swarmed the field after games, and I stalked the players for autographs. With a jaundiced eye, Tom Singleton, quarterback of the undefeated 1960 Blues, signed the gnarly paper plate that I had salvaged from the turf. Here clearly was – so massive and well armored and bloodied – a distinct species. If not a god, Tom was as divine as anyone whom I hoped to come across.

Within a decade I would become painfully aware of just how mortal Yale football players were. I played for Yale from 1967 to 1970 and mortal was my middle name. We watched the game film on Sundays and after viewing, rewinding and viewing again one of my unsuccessful tackles, defensive coach Bill Narduzzi mused: "Holahan, I hope you squeeze your dates harder than that."

We had strong teams and as a smallish defensive safety (155 pounds, according to the program), my job most often entailed patting teammates on the butt for stopping the enemy before they reached me. If I had to make the tackle that meant everyone else had screwed up. My inevitable failures and pain on Saturday afternoons were punctuated by transcendent euphoria: interceptions now and then, the odd touchdown-saving tackle, inflicting pain on an opponent (for a change), beating Harvard. Yes, Yale used to beat Harvard.

I had one fan outside of my immediate family. She was a quite fetching West Haven High School girl who waited for me after home games (with her mother). She gave me a coffee mug that she had made in shop class. My teammates found this endlessly amusing.

The Yale Bowl and my family go way back. Jack Crawford, my maternal grandfather, was an English professor and a member of the Yale Board of Athletic Review when the Bowl was built in 1914. It was then the largest stadium erected since the Colosseum in Rome, and it would be the prototype for the Rose Bowl and others to follow. Yale and Yale men essentially invented modern football – the line of scrimmage, the forward pass and such, and in days of yore Yale teams won 27 (not a typo) national college championships.

When the Bowl was christened 100 years ago, my grandfather enlisted my mother, Pamela, to be "Infant Yale" in the opening procession. She was 3 years old. I don't have a second source on this; I know it because my mother told me so.

Later, 73 years almost to that day, my mother and father and the Holahan clan sat through the coldest Yale-Harvard game ever. It was 19 degrees at kickoff and winds topped 30 mph and we all just sat there because my mother and father kept sitting there. Scores of fans wound up in the hospital with hypothermia; my mother was shaking noticeably by the end.

That's the way it was. You went to the game and you stayed until the end no matter the score or the weather and never mind those idiots across the way waving their handkerchiefs.

I still go the "The Game" every year with friends, including a Harvard grad. It could be wild and woolly back in the day, in the 1980s, but it's gotten pretty sedate of late. Sometimes we leave early, even on balmy days. That's the way it is.