Harvard Great Performances: Andrew Fischer ’16
Saturday would have been the 137th edition of The Game. But for the first time since the wartime year of 1944, it will not be played. (Harvard trails, 60-68-8.) One fellow I know, from the Class of ’72, plans to show up at Soldiers Field anyway, simply to keep alive his attendance streak, which if he follows through will be 38 and counting. The rest of us will remain locked down and forlorn.
For comfort, we will take a gambol through a recent Game of yore. is storied in headline and cinema, but some of us think it is not the greatest day in Harvard football history. That honor should be reserved for The Game of 2014, in which the Crimson pulled out a last-minute, 31-24 victory. Why is it the greatest? First, ESPN Gameday was on hand, giving The Game a national imprimatur. Second, the victory not only clinched an Ivy title but also capped an unbeaten season. Third, it was a contest between a 9-0 Harvard team and an 8-1 Yale team that provided punch and counterpunch—and a finish that left the crowd limp.
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There were many Harvard heroes, but the biggest was one of the smallest players on the field: five-foot-nine, 175-pound wide receiver/kick returner Andrew Fischer ’16. Yale simply could not get a handle on him. On that cloudy Saturday, Fischer amassed a career-high 264 yards of total offense. He rushed twice, for 79 yards, returned kicks for 36 yards, and caught eight passes for 149 more. No reception was bigger than his grab with 55 seconds left: a 35-yard touchdown that won The Game.
During the pregame, Fischer and his teammates did their best to block out the buzz from the Gameday set at the Stadium’s open end and the din from the sellout crowd. “You’re so focused,” he recalls, “that a lot of the noise fades away. This was also the only game that my entire family attended in my four years at Harvard, so to have Gameday there was almost secondary.” (A southern California product, he now works in Stamford, Connecticut, developing systematic artificial-intelligence training strategies for Bank of America.)
One of Fischer’s many sterling qualities on the field was his resilience. Often this was literal: He would get plastered on a punt or kick return, then bounce back up and race into his place in the formation for the next play. On this day, after Harvard’s first offensive play, Fischer needed all the mental toughness he could muster: he dropped an almost sure touchdown pass from quarterback Conner Hempel ’15. “My dad will never let me live it down,” says Fischer. “As soon as it was over, I forgot about it.”
In the second period, with the Crimson trailing 7-3, Fischer took a reverse handoff from running back Paul Stanton Jr. ’16 and wove his way 58 yards to the Yale 11. But on the next play Harvard fumbled. The half ended with Yale clinging to that four-point lead.
“I don’t think anyone doubted for a second that we would win that game,” Fischer remembers today. “Coach [Tim] Murphy gave an incredible halftime speech that got everybody fired up.” But given the quality of the foe, few could have expected the explosion that came right after halftime. The mighty Harvard offensive line kicked into gear and the Crimson rammed the ball down the Elis’ throats. Stanton capped a 10-play, 58-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run and Harvard had seized the lead 10-7.
It could have gotten worse for Yale. The Elis went three and out. Hempel promptly hit Fischer with a 45-yard bomb to the Yale 13. But the drive fizzled, and then some, when a 24-yard field-goal attempt by Andrew Flesher ’15 was blocked.
Yale would not escape again. The next time Harvard had the ball, Hempel and Fischer worked another reverse, this time with Fischer carrying for 21 yards to midfield. Stanton rushed twice for 10 yards. Then came some Harvard prestidigitation. Hempel handed to Stanton going left—who handed to wide receiver Seitu Smith ’15 going right. Smith stopped and saw Fischer behind the Yale defense. Smith threw. Fischer gathered it in, ripped out of a tackler’s grasp, and trotted over the goal line.
“When the football finally got to me, the defender was right there,” says Fischer. “At that moment I was hearing the voice of [offensive assistant] coach [Joe] Villapiano in my head saying, ‘We need something big out of you.’ That’s where I got the strength to break the tackle and continue into the end zone.” Harvard 17, Yale 7.
Back came the Elis. Starting at their 25, they marched to the Crimson 16. Then quarterback Morgan Roberts—who had been hanging his passes out in the flat all day—heaved one to the left, intended for wide receiver Robert Clemons III. It hung up long enough for linebacker Connor Sheehan ’15 to reach Clemons just as the ball did. Sheehan wrestled it from Clemons’s mitts on the 10 and set sail the other way. Ninety yards later, it was Harvard 24, Yale 7.
Only 15:06 remained in the game. It was over, right? Not on your life. The Elis kept coming. Yale drove for one touchdown and a poor Harvard punt set Yale up for another scoring drive. After a fumble by Stanton, the Elis maneuvered into position for a successful field-goal attempt. With 3:44 left, the game—The Game—was tied.
It was gut-check time. A perfect season could be ruined—or redeemed. The Crimson offense would be heading into a stiff wind, so nothing but the shortest of field-goal attempts was feasible.
Fischer returned the kickoff to the Harvard 22. Hempel engineered a methodical advance to the Yale 35. There was 1:07 left. Hempel and Fischer knew what was next: a timing play they had worked on all week in practice. “I looked at Hempel and he looked back at me and not a single word was said,” says Fischer. “We both knew this was the play on which we were going to win.”
Fischer lined up on the right, with Yale’s Dale Harris in coverage. Why the Elis chose to single-cover Fischer is a question for the ages. Fischer declares it a non-issue. “Single or double,” he says, “I was going to do what I needed to get free.” After the snap, Fischer started toward the sideline—then abruptly stopped and headed upfield, shooting past Harris. “A slant and go,” Fischer said, postgame, of the double move. “I had been running slants all game. This time, he kind of bit on it.” On Fischer’s break, Hempel cocked and fired. “Conner delivered an incredible ball, perfectly placed,” says Fischer. With a step on Harris, Fischer caught the ball in stride and wasn’t tackled until his teammates mobbed him in the end zone. Suddenly he was aware of the noise, “an incredible eruption.” Fischer saluted the student sections assembled behind the end zone. “They were our 12th man all season,” he says. Harvard 31, Yale 24.
Fifty-five seconds remained, and the Bulldogs almost made the most of them, driving all the way to the Harvard 26. With 15 seconds left, defensive back Scott Peters ’16 picked off a Yale pass and dropped to the turf. Crimson ball. Game over.
Thanksgiving had arrived, with no little thanks to Andrew Fischer.
THEY GOT GAME. This Saturday, Harvard Athletics will re-air, via Facebook and YouTube, broadcasts of six classic Harvard-Yale games—all Crimson victories. The re-airings will begin at 9 a.m. ET with the 1940 Game. The showing of the 2014 Game is scheduled to commence at 4 p.m. ET. .
ADIEU AND…SEE YOU NEXT FALL? This is the final chapter of Great Performances. There is no way that the series could have compensated for the absence of Ivy football, but we hope it filled some of the void. We also hope to see you in person next fall for (at last!) the 147th season of Harvard football, which is scheduled to kick off on Saturday, September 18, at Georgetown. For now, please be well and be safe, and have a happy holiday season.
THE SCORE BY QUARTERS