For history’s sake, if not for ours

BOSTON - What are the elements of a great rivalry?

Proximity often plays a big role. So do passionate fan bases. There’s usually some history too, and with the great rivalries in sports that history involves great success achieved at the direct expense of the other team.

The Big 5 has all of these things, of course; so do Villanova and Georgetown, Penn and Princeton, the Phillies and the Mets, and so many other clashes that make our sports landscape as rich as it is.

In basketball, the best rivalry game I’ve ever seen in person is without question the Holy War. It is always the night when the Palestra is at its loudest, hottest, and fullest to the corners of the very last rows.

In football, however, the best rivalry game I’ve seen in person is not in the Philadelphia area. It is the Harvard-Yale game, and this afternoon I was at Harvard Stadium for its 125th edition.

It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a major rivalry on the national sports stage. It certainly does not register much on our local radar.

Nor, frankly, does it have a right to be judged on the quality of the football played - especially on a day like today, when a ferocious wind made for freezing temperatures in the enclosed press box and far worse conditions in the stands.

But as I watched the two teams warm up in the shadows of Harvard Stadium’s grand old concrete columns, I definitely felt the pull of the game’s storied history.

Whether you are at Independence Hall or Gettysburg or a football stadium, it is hard to not take notice when you find yourself standing on a piece of Earth upon which people have stood for a similar purpose for a century and a quarter.

One of those players was Yale quarterback Brook Hart, a State College native and big Penn State fan. So Hart seemed the perfect person to give the Harvard-Yale game context relative to his beloved Nittany Lions.

“To have that stadium filled and people moving up and down with every play is real comparable to what I grew up with at Penn State,” Hart said. “It’s great to play in this type of atmosphere - it would have been better with a different outcome, but it’s great to play in that type of surrounding.”

Obviously, when a sellout crowd is 30,000 instead of 105,000, there are many ways in which comparisons will never work. But at a certain point, rivalries become less about fans and more about the emotions spent on the field by the players.

Perhaps a Michigan player cried the same tears as star Yale linebacker Bobby Abare this afternoon when it finally sunk in that his college career was over.

“I can’t really put it into words,” Abare said when asked the question. “Just playing football and playing for Yale has been one of the greatest honors of my life, and what the game has to teach you, and hopefully it won’t be the end, but, uh...”

He stopped, the weight of the moment having become too much to bear, and the room stopped with him. But an instant later, cornerback Casey Gerald stepped up to finish the sentence as if he was picking up a fumble caused by one of Abare’s hard hits.

“It won’t be the end for a guy like Bobby,” Gerald said.

Most postgame press conferences offer little worth remembering, but I will not forget that moment any time soon.

Across the field, Harvard senior offensive lineman and Pottsville native Ryan Pilconis also had plenty to think about. But he was forced to do so from the sidelines, having torn his ACL earlier this season.

Nonetheless, Pilconis knows full well what it means to be in a rivalry like this - not only playing the game, but explaining its relevance to his friends back home.

“What I told them was first of all, this game has a stereotype of being a gentlemen’s rivalry,” Pilconis said. “It really, truly is an intense football rivalry. Everyone’s really passionate about it and I just wish it would get more exposure. A lot of people don’t know about it.”

Ryan’s brother, Steven, said the game was to him as Penn State-Ohio State is to many others he knows.

“This is just as intense to us, and it’s great football too,” Steven said.. A lot of people don’t get to see the game, but those who do appreciate it.”

The Pilconis’ mother, Joanne, is very much among the latter. And when she makes the trip north to Boston to see her sons, she brings a particular Philadelphia tradition with her in exchange.

“We have introduced Yuengling to the Harvard fans,” she said, and there was plenty consumed at the Crimson’s victory tailgate party.

If I’d wanted to go to a great football game, I wouldn’t have been here today. But I wanted to go to a place and a moment, to feel that weight and those emotions that college football rivalries are renowned for creating.

I found that place and that moment, down on the field amid the freezing winds and the concrete columns and 125 years’ worth of ghosts carrying footballs across the goal line towards the Charles River.

I hope you don’t mind my having done so, and I promise I’ll return to the teams you actually care about soon.