Sports Nut

In Praise of Kissing Your Sister

Why I love tie games.

Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles

After the gun sounded to end this month’s 13-13 tie between the Eagles and the Bengals, Donovan McNabb looked stunned. He’d thought the teams were going to keep playing until someone scored. “I’ve never been a part of a tie,” McNabb said in his postgame press conference. “I never even knew that was in the rule book.”

Bookwormy sportswriters who have read the rule book mocked McNabb as a clueless jock. But, as the Eagles quarterback pointed out, the tie has almost disappeared from football. Only the NFL still allows them (at least in the regular season), and then after a 15-minute overtime. The Eagles-Bengals push was the league’s first tie in six years. “In college, there are multiple overtimes,” McNabb noted, “and in high school and Pop Warner. I never knew in the professional ranks it would end that way.”

Thanks to that Cincy-Philly deadlock, newspapers have been forced to add an extra column to the football standings, reminding me of the pleasing symmetry of college football’s pre-overtime era, when teams could end the season 8-0-2. As George S. Patton put it, “America loves a winner.” And fans pay to see one. But nothing’s more memorable than a great tie, even if Navy football coach Eddie Erdelatz did, in 1954, say that a deadlocked game is “like kissing your sister.” (The Washington Post’s deadpan next line: “No one asked the mild spoken Navy coach to explain.”) Unfortunately, college football and the NHL, the last bastions of tiedom, have both instituted ridiculous overtime schemes in recent years. Now, all we tie aficionados have left is soccer. And does anyone really care one way or the other when Real Salt Lake and D.C. United draw nil-nil?

Here’s where I stand on ties: If a game can’t be decided by the regulation rules, it shouldn’t be decided at all. That’s why the NCAA’s system, instituted in 1996 in Division I-A, is such a tacky tack-on to 60 minutes of hard-fought football. Each team gets a chance to score from its opponent’s 25-yard line. If the game is still tied, they line up again at the 25 and keep doing it until someone comes out ahead. That leaves out only such essential elements of football as punting, deep pass patterns, and long-distance field goals. Hockey shootouts, which became inevitable once Disney was granted an NHL franchise, are even worse. * They dispense with defense all together. It’s like settling a basketball game with H-O-R-S-E.

But ties are on a winning streak lately, which is restoring my equanimity. The same week as the Bengals-Eagles tie, the documentary Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 had its premiere. In 1968, both Harvard and Yale entered The Game (as only Ivy Leaguers call it) with undefeated records. But Yale was ranked 16th in the entire nation and had Brian Dowling at quarterback, a future NFL scrub who hadn’t lost a game since he was in sixth grade. As the Yale Daily News put it, “God Plays Quarterback at Yale.” Cartoonist Garry Trudeau immortalized him as the helmet-wearing B.D.

Considering we know that no one will win, Harvard Beats Yale is an incredible piece of sports drama. Ever since The Bad News Bears, there have been countless of movies about scrappy underdog teams. But those guys are always playing against rich, good-looking jocks. This movie turns the difficult trick of making you root for Harvard (a Harvard team that included Tommy Lee Jones, no less).

With two minutes left, Harvard was down 29-13, with the ball on its own 15-yard line. Yalies were chanting, “You’re No. 2.” The Yale band was playing The Mickey Mouse Club theme. But a holding call against Yale and a forward fumble by Harvard’s second-string quarterback Frank Champi advanced the ball to the Yale 15. Champi threw a touchdown pass with 42 seconds to go. Harvard then recovered an onside kick, and a facemask penalty put them in the red zone. On the final play, Champi threw for another touchdown. A two-point conversion made it 29-29.

Harvard fans mobbed the field. The Crimson players ran to the locker room, waving their helmets. The Elis slumped away, having blown a 16-point lead and a perfect season. That’s the beauty of a tie. With no winner and no loser, each side has to provide its own resolution. The reactions of the players, 40 years later, validate the Harvard Crimson headline that gave the movie its title. Interviewed in their offices or their kitchens, the grayed, softened men—all big winners in life—recall the one event in their lives that was never decided, and never will be. A tie game never really ends. It’s only suspended, to be taken up again as a perennial debate over how each team might have broken the deadlock.

Jones, who speaks laconically, as though he’s reciting Cormac McCarthy, recalls a missed extra point in the first half. “I can’t help but think of how everyone’s lives would be different if we’d made that extra point,” he says. For most Harvard players, The Game was a moral victory. For Yalies, a disgraceful defeat. Champi sees it differently. “I think the Yale players will admit to, if it wasn’t for that game, they wouldn’t be remembered today,” he says. “By losing, sorry about that, by tying, by not winning or routing poor Harvard, both teams have a small place in football history, especially Ivy League football. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Since this is an article celebrating nonvictory, I hate to declare that two teams ever tied better than Harvard and Yale. But two teams did. One was my alma mater, Michigan State. In 1966, the Spartans met Notre Dame in East Lansing for a matchup hyped as the Game of the Century. Both were undefeated. Notre Dame was No. 1 in the UPI poll, Michigan State No. 2. If it didn’t turn out to be the Game of the Century, it was undoubtedly the Tie of the Century.

The Spartans took a 10-7 halftime lead on a touchdown by fullback Regis Cavender and a field goal by barefoot kicker Dick Kenney. Notre Dame tied the game with a fourth-quarter field goal. With 1:10 left, the Fighting Irish had the ball on its own 30-yard line. A team with less to lose would have mounted a touchdown drive. Instead, coach Ara Parseghian decided to run out the clock, unwilling to risk a turnover that would give Michigan State a chance to win.

After 60 minutes—the natural life of a football game—the two best teams in the country had achieved perfect equilibrium. It was the most significant tie in sports history. Not only did it fail to resolve the game, it failed to resolve the national championship. Both the Spartans and the Fighting Irish were awarded that year’s MacArthur Trophy. (Notre Dame preserved its top ranking in the UPI poll.) Sports Illustrated put the game on the cover with the tag line “Furor Over No. 1.” Inside, Dan Jenkins wrote that Parseghian had disgraced the legacy of Knute Rockne by changing the school’s fight song to “Notre Dame will tie over all.”

Parseghian didn’t see it that way. At least that’s what he told his players. “We didn’t win, but, by God, we did not lose,” he said in the locker room afterward, according to Notre Dame’s Rocky Bleier. “They’re crying about a tie, trying to detract from your efforts. They’re trying to make it come out a win. Well, don’t you believe it. Their season is over. They can’t go anywhere. It’s all over and we’re still Number One.”

Outside the military, there is no more black-and-white world than football. It’s the game that gave us “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” If that’s true, then a tie means no one gets nothing, but no one gets anything, either. Was the tie eliminated to spare players and coaches from pondering this Zen koan?

Like the Harvard-Yale game, the Tie of the Century never ended, either. It inspired a book, andRocky Bleier and Michigan State’s Bubba Smith got together for a TV special on The Tie. Forty years later, Parseghian was still defending his strategy, and the two schools played their annual game in throwback jerseys, commemorating 1966 in a way that would have been impossible had either school won.

Obviously, not all ties are memorable. No one deserved to win that Eagles-Bengals thing. (Which is why it’s so nice that no one did.) But it’s a shame that the Harvard-Yale and the Michigan State-Notre Dame ties couldn’t happen today. Tommy Lee Jones’ Harvard roommate Al Gore, you might recall, was once involved in a close competition that required a winner. “You know you win some, you lose some,” he said about the outcome. “And then there’s that little-known third category.” Just more proof that wins and losses are forgotten, but a tie is argued about forever.

Correction, Nov. 29, 2008: This piece originally and incorrectly stated that Disney once owned an NFL franchise. It was an NHL franchise. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)