This is the story of the best football game in Bowdoin history.
November 9, 1963: For nearly 70 years, the Polar Bears had faced off against their archrival, the University of Maine Black Bears, in the culminating game of the season. Not only was it the final game of the regular season, but it was, more often than not, also the decisive game for the the Maine State Champions, the round-robin tournament between Bates, Colby, Bowdoin and UMaine which was the predecessor to the CBB tournament. Black Bears versus Polar Bears: the rivalry was real, and it was fiery.
Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. According to Daniel Covell, a football historian, by 1963, the much-anticipated competition had ceased to be competitive. UMaine, having benefited from the demographic changes to higher education in the post-GI Bill years, had become a major state flagship university with a football team to show for it. The CBB schools, on the other hand, remained, well, the CBB schools: small, selective, and secluded. From 1951 through 1959, UMaine outscored Bowdoin by a combined 299-90 in State Championship games.
Rather than continuing to play for second, Bowdoin, Bates and Colby maneuvered to drop the UMaine game from their schedules, and, in April of 1963, Bowdoin’s Governing Committee on Physical Education announced its decision to end the annual showdown following the ’64 season, citing, among other considerations, the physical safety of the team’s players.
In Brunswick, the committee’s decision made a splash. “Student reaction … has been vehement and, as could be expected, strongly divided,” reported the Orient the week of the announcement. For administrators and alumni, the game was an embarrassment. But for students and players, it was just a hell of a good time.
So when the two teams arrived at Alumni Field in Orono on November 6, the Black Bears a heavy favorite to win, an unusually potent sense of finality hung in the air, sharing space with the sheets of rain that fell from the black thunderclouds that had blown in that morning.
It rained, and then it rained some more. Even before kickoff, Alumni Field was gurgling. By the end of the first half, it was a veritable bog.
Miraculously, the rain actually played to the Polar Bears’ advantage, putting a stop to the aggressive UMaine offense which quickly found itself quite literally stuck in the mud. Entering the fourth quarter, the game was tied, 0-0.
Late in the final quarter, the Polar Bears marched downfield, setting up a first-and-goal on the UMaine seven-yard line. From there, Bowdoin quarterback Bob Harrington lobbed a pass to fullback Bruce Alemian, who lunged his way into the swampy, rain-soaked end zone, putting the Polar Bears up 7-0. They held on to win.
In the alumni magazine later that year, one writer opined, “For years to come, whenever Bowdoin men are anywhere discussing sports, the 1963 football season is bound to be mentioned.” The Orient called the victory “almost [of] the order of a miracle.” Mal Morell, the athletic director at the time, said, “This must rank among the greatest of Bowdoin athletic victories in any sport and in any year.”
And it was the best football game in Bowdoin history, until November 3, 2018.
Before you write me off as another provocateur the Orient allowed to spew nonsense in its pages, let me qualify that statement. This year’s team is not the best team in Bowdoin history—far from it. Nor was this season the best season of Bowdoin football—it might, actually, be among the worst. And hell, the Polar Bears didn’t even play the highest quality football they’ve played this season, let alone ever.
But in terms of sheer entertainment value, of the sense of pride and excitement and cathartic release, of that strange and ephemeral feeling that compels you to hug the stranger sitting next to you in the stands while squealing uncontrollably like a prepubescent child—in terms of those things, this was the best game in Bowdoin football history.
Life imitates art, and there was a hauntingly cinematic quality to Saturday’s victory. Maybe it was the uncanny, apocalyptic meteorological event that rolled through Brunswick right before kick-off, leaving in its wake a sort of Manichaean showdown between blue sky and threatening thunderclouds, bridged with not one, but two rainbows. (“If it’s a sign from God, I’ll take it,” said one player.)
Maybe it was the pre-game ceremony honoring senior players, who trotted, parents in tow, between two lines of cheering teammates in a ritual vaguely reminiscent of a primeval fertility rite. Maybe it was the iridescent glow of the stadium lights, which made the green of the field and the yellow of the penalty flags pop a little more vividly than usual through the creeping darkness of the November night.
Whatever the confluence of cosmic circumstances, some sort of aura descended on Whittier Field on Saturday night, and it really came on thick late in the third quarter, after Franny Rose ’21 broke through the line to force the Bobcats to fumble deep in their own territory, and Austin McCrum ’21 found Bo Millet ’21 wide open in the endzone to put the Polar Bears up 24-7. Auras don’t speak, but if this one could, it would have sounded something like “holy shit—it’s happening.”
A cynic could chalk the Polar Bears’ victory up to an unworthy opponent, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong to do so—the Bobcats certainly have some rebuilding to do. But even that cynic would have to admit that the Polar Bears actually played decent, even good, football. For much of the first half, it seemed to be business as usual, with one side of the ball—in this case, the defense—keeping the game close while the other wallowed in mediocrity.
But in the second half, Bowdoin did what it had been unable to do all season: perform on both sides of the ball. Offensively, McCrum recovered from two early interceptions to post a respectable second half, and although his numbers were nothing to write home about, he executed must-make plays, which, at the end of the day, is enough. Nate Richam ’20, back from a prolonged toe injury, looked like he hadn’t missed a beat, rushing for 130 yards, many of which he gained through sheer wile and force of will.
Defensively, Rose had himself a day, making twelve tackles, including a critical fumble-forcing sack in the third quarter. Drew Ortiz ’22 also stepped up with nine tackles, and Joe Gowetski ’20 did what Joe Gowetski does and arguably put the vital spark into the Polar Bear offensive with his thrilling third-quarter interception.
And don’t forget NESCAC Special Teams Player of the Week, kicker Michael Chen ’20, who emerged at least temporarily from his season-long slump to post 4 extra points, a 31-yard field goal, and four vicious punts, averaging 41-yard-per.
And when the pieces came together, the scoreboard read 31-14, and the Polar Bears didn’t look half bad.
Considered dispassionately, it is a little dopey that the student body stormed the field to celebrate the consummation of a 1-7 record against another bottom-of-the-table team—a “weird flex,” as some enlightened sage put it on Twitter.
But, to be frank, who cares?
The players and coaches who devoted the entirety of their Bowdoin football careers to posting a win certainly don’t. Because for the first time in a long, 24-game stretch, Bowdoin football had fun. I saw Defensive Coordinator Shem Bloom, whose biceps are probably thicker than my torso, leap for joy across the field. McCrum, normally stony-faced and distant, contorted his face into smile for the first time all year.
The alumni, family members, and fans—more fans than we’ll likely see at a Bowdoin football game for some time—who filled the stands and sidelines also exalted in victory. Fans vote with their feet, and on Saturday, their feet carried them at a steady gallop to the 50-yard-line, skipping and jumping the whole way.
And why? Because in sports, we don’t really crave excellence. Excellence in athletics is many things: it is jaw-droppingly beautiful, existentially humbling, narcotically enchanting. And don’t get me wrong, there were moments of sheer excellence in the Polar Bears’ victory over Bates. See, for example, Richam’s nearly superhuman ability to hesitate just long enough for a formerly impossible seam to open up, or Gowetski’s freakish, precognitive ability to predict the unfolding of a play and set himself up in just the right place on the field to make the tackle.
But in general, excellence is boring. Sports fandom, at its core, is just organized hedonism, and hedonism is blind to excellence. Sports fans crave grit, triumph, drama, redemption. And on Saturday, Bowdoin football gave us all that.
But, on a more optimistic note, even more than grit and triumph and redemption, sports fans, I’d like to believe, crave justice: in an otherwise nasty, mean and unreasonable world, we want to know that, sometimes, people get their desert. Maybe it came too late, and maybe after too much toil, but finally, under the lights, Bowdoin football got what it deserved: a win.
And it was the best.