Everyone in Cambridge, Massachusetts knows “The Game.”
The annual gridiron meeting between two of the continent’s oldest schools, Harvard and Yale, The Game has given rise to legends, written and rewritten history books, and maintained a fierce, boiling rivalry for more than a century.
Anyone who has played in it – even most who have attended it – will tell you there isn’t anything at any other football school in the world quite like it.
It’s a football player’s ultimate dream – 30,000 hysterical fans, a buzzing week-long lead up of hoopla and fanfare, and the respect and honour of not just 80-odd football players, but thousands upon thousands of alumni, each with their own story from The Game.
It’s the stuff of legends. And this year it was Harvard wide receiver Marco Iannuzzi’s turn to cement his name in the ongoing history of The Game.
But first, a history lesson.
When they first played The Game in 1875 it was one of the first football games ever played between U.S. colleges, with Harvard scoring four touchdowns and four field goals to secure a dominant 4-0 barnburner.
This was, of course, a time when scoring a touchdown simply gave you the opportunity to kick a one-point field goal. Scoring seven points in a game constituted a blowout.
But since then Yale has set the pace, jumping out to a 65-54-8 lead in the 135-year old series, which has only ever been preempted by world wars and a two-year ban in the late 19th century to let everyone simmer down after the 1894 game was deemed too violent.
But the Crimson, thanks to a strong decade of recruiting, has turned the tide, winning nine of the last ten games and four in a row, meaning this year’s senior class, Iannuzzi included, went undefeated in The Game.
Those words may not mean much to Canadians, but at Harvard going undefeated in The Game is nothing short of godly. It’s happened just five times in 135 years. Some have won Ivy League championships but lost to Yale and left the school unsatisfied.
There are ten games in the Crimson’s football season. But most of the time it seems like there’s only one you really have to win.
“In many people’s eyes the whole season is based on beating Yale,” Iannuzzi, the lone Canadian on the team, said. “The experience that week leading up to the game is probably the most exciting and amazing thing I’ve ever done in football.”
THE GAME — CHAPTER 127
The Game is always an outstanding spectacle, but this year’s edition was especially momentous because of that Calgary-born receiver who stole the show.
With Harvard down 7-0 early and being badly out-played, it was the six-foot-one, 195-pound Iannuzzi – cleared to play in the game just two days prior after missing six games with a broken clavicle – who found himself on the receiving end of a 46-yard pass off a flea-flicker, setting up the Crimson’s first touchdown and tying the game.
For the average football player, making the catch in The Game would have been more than enough excitement.
But Marco Iannuzzi isn’t an average football player – he wanted to make a statement. And after Harvard had surrendered the lead with just 13 seconds left in the first half, giving Yale a 14-7 halftime lead, the 31,398 strong at Harvard Stadium needed a big play.
And so, Iannuzzi wasted little time putting his mark on the game once again, returning the second half kickoff 84 yards for yet another game tying touchdown. Two more second half touchdowns from Harvard would seal the 28-21 victory and Iannuzzi was an instant Cambridge folk hero.
“I’m a receiver and a kick returner – my position is tailored to making big plays,” Iannuzzi said. “Your time may only come once a game, it may come twice a game or it may not come at all. But when it comes you had better be ready.”
More than just leaving his stamp on Harvard football history forever, Iannuzzi was awarded the game ball for his efforts. It was easily the most substantial game ball Iannuzzi had ever won in his young career and for most that pigskin would have gone straight to the mantelpiece.
But not Iannuzzi. He couldn’t wait to give it away.
LIFE IS ABOUT SACRIFICE
Ashley Stearns’ father Geoff, a 1982 Harvard graduate, had missed his first Harvard-Yale game in 33 years that day in order to be at home with his 23-year-old daughter Ashley, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
Doctors had already removed a cancerous, football-sized tumour, along with her ovary, from her abdomen and Ashley was scheduled to begin chemotherapy shortly. Understandably, she wanted to spend as much time as she could with her parents.
As far as sacrifices go, it was an easy one for Geoff Stearns to make, staying home with Ashley and her mother Lisa to watch The Game on television for the first time in three decades.
Word of Ashley’s story got to Iannuzzi through some friends who had gone to The Game and met some of Stearns’ relatives who were at the stadium with a sign that read “We Love You, Ashley!”
Iannuzzi’s friends were curious of the sign and struck up a conversation with the group, hearing Ashley and Geoff’s story and later relaying it to Iannuzzi after his momentous performance in The Game.
Iannuzzi immediately knew what to do.
He sent the prized game ball and the pair of gloves he wore to catch it to the Stearns family at their home in Connecticut. At the time, Iannuzzi had never even met the Stearns, but sending the one-of-a-kind souvenir was an easy decision to make.
“I’ve met Ashley and her family now and we have a really good relationship. They’re phenomenal people,” Iannuzzi said. “I’m just glad I could help out in the little way I could. I’m so glad to say that Ashley’s doing a lot better now and she’s recovering just fine.”
Sending Ashley the game ball was beyond a special moment for the Stearns family, but including the game-worn gloves was a personal touch from Iannuzzi that means more to him than most may realize.
“I SAID TO MYSELF, I WANT TO BE THAT GUY.”
When Iannuzzi was in the second grade he began to spend his summers at a football camp near Saint Francis High School in Calgary, which he would eventually attend. One of the coaches was a man by the name of Lawrence Deck – Larry, to most.
Deck went to Saint Francis himself and, at the time, was the only Saint Francis Browns alumnus to go to the United States on a football scholarship, playing at California’s Fresno State University before being selected tenth overall in the 2001 CFL Canadian Draft by the Calgary Stampeders.
To say Iannuzzi looked up to the larger-than-life Deck would be true both literally and figuratively. That’s why Iannuzzi’s heart nearly jumped out of his chest when one day Deck decided to give the 8-year-old a pair of his gloves – handwear that Iannuzzi used for five straight years of minor football before they wore out.
Little did Deck know, his gift was inspiring one of Calgary’s next great receivers.
Iannuzzi says he’ll never forget the day his idol gave him his very own personal pair of receiver’s gloves. And when he started to coach at the same summer camp when he turned sixteen, he made sure to pass a few pairs of his own gloves down to some lucky young football players at the camp, continuing Deck’s tradition.
Since that summer, Iannuzzi’s career trajectory has followed Deck’s almost to precision, starring at Saint Francis, coaching youth football in Calgary, going south to play college ball and, now, primed to enter the CFL.
Hearing his name called in May’s CFL Candadian draft is the final step to completely mirroring his hero’s success.
“Larry started out as just a ghost of an image to me. I never got to see him play but all my coaches in minor football and high school played with him. They would talk about this guy Larry Deck who was fast as lightning and got a scholarship to go play in the States. I said to myself, I want to be that guy,” Iannuzzi said.
Exceedingly fast, wonderfully instinctual and possessing a deft eye to find the open field ahead of him, Iannuzzi has followed in Deck’s footsteps flawlessly. And his emulation of Deck extends to his behavior off the field as well.
Wide receivers and kick returners are habitually some of the game’s most contentious personalities, often boasting the outspoken, larger-than-life personas that come part and parcel with the game-changing plays they make on the field.
Any football fan knows the type. The Marcus Thigpens. The Milt Stegalls. The Arland Bruces.
Of course, that isn’t the case for all football stars, especially the humble Iannuzzi who feels the most important part of being a notable football player, besides performance, is giving back.
“It’s unfortunate that some athletes are given a bad rap for doing the wrong things. But I think that’s part of your job title when you sign off to be a professional athlete,” Iannuzzi said. “You have to be a responsible public figure and you should work to be as humble as possible.”
REALIZING A DREAM, THREE YEARS IN THE MAKING
Part of Iannuzzi’s humility comes from the fact he’s had to work harder than most to simply achieve his goals.
The 23-year-old actually only made it into Harvard on his third attempt, after missing the cut his first two tries based on standardized test scores and his grade point average.
Harvard isn’t like most other football schools where athletic ability can sometimes help grease the enrollment wheels. At Harvard football players are just like any of the other 30,000 applicants the school fields every year, going through the ultra-competitive admissions process and marathon roundtable interviews with administrators.
Being able to run, pass and catch is nice, but it won’t help you in Cambridge.
“I went through it all to get to Harvard. When I didn’t make the cut, I knew how close I was to getting in. It was a very easy decision for me to push on with the Harvard dream,” Iannuzzi said. “The meathead stereotype is always something that’s following you as a football player, but I think that hard work and determination can make any meathead a good academic.”
No one would have blamed Iannuzzi for accepting one of the several other offers he had on the table from prominent universities across Canada and notable football schools south of the border. But Iannuzzi isn’t the type to quit, even when everyone around him is telling him too.
Harvard didn’t just want Iannuzzi. Iannuzzi wanted Harvard – bad.
“I felt I was close enough – I felt I could do it. I went against a lot of people who said it might not happen and that I shouldn’t chase my dream,” Iannuzzi admitted. “I knew that I just had to keep bettering myself and making myself a better-rounded student.”
Good thing Iannuzzi was so determined, because once he finally got into Harvard – after three years of retaking courses and boosting test scores – he wasted little time making his presence known.
He leaves the school as Harvard’s top all time returner, averaging 34.5 yards per return. In his final year he set a single season record, averaging 26.5 yards per return, and is the only player in Harvard history to return two kickoffs for a touchdown in one season.
And that’s not to mention the 31-9 record he helped Harvard to over his tenure and the two Ivy League championships he won in 2007 and 2008.
For a school that didn’t even want Iannuzzi for two years, Harvard certainly got a decent return on its investment.
“I was given an opportunity and I chose to seize it and do the best I could with it,” Iannuzzi said. “You get out to the tunnel in your first game at Harvard and you think ‘wow, I’m at Harvard, I’m doing what I had always dreamed of doing.’ And then you just have to put that all aside and get back to business and figuring out a way to help the team win.”
And now that his college career has run its course and the tunnel at Harvard Stadium is but a distant memory, Iannuzzi is ready to fulfill his next dream – to play professional football.
Iannuzzi clearly isn’t a guy who gives up on his dreams easily, which is why the receiver wearing number 84 at this weekend’s CFL Evaluation Camp might just make some noise like he did in The Game four months ago.
Of course, walking around with a pair of championship rings can’t hurt his chances either.
“I think that’s my best quality coming into E-Camp – it’s my ability to play a role on a winning team,” Iannuzzi said. “Forty-yard dashes and bench presses are nice. But when it comes down to it, everyone’s looking at how many rings you have.”