Death and Football

[Content note: Jokes about death and violence]

This is a true story I wrote in 2014. I’m publishing it on the request of Penelope Laurans, who received it from Anne Fadiman after the story was told at a dinner commemorating the very strange history of Yale football. Of my 273 blog drafts, it was perhaps the one I least expected to publish, but life is also very strange.

If you aren’t sure whether to read this, go to the end and look at the photo. Then, if you want to know the story of the photo, read this. (Spoiler warning.)

It was an October Monday, the night of The Yale Record’s weekly meeting.

We were brainstorming slogans for t-shirts to commemorate the 130th annual Harvard-Yale game (“The Game”), and preparing to sell said shirts so that we might someday commemorate the magazine’s second straight year of not being in debt.

The administration often threatened to take away our office if we didn’t toe the line, so we had to abandon our best idea: John Harvard crucified on the letter Y.

After that, we held a public vote, and resolved to print t-shirts with the two most popular slogans. It doesn’t matter what they were. What matters for my story is the third:

“Whoever wins, our lives will end equally … IN DEATH.”

Sadly, some of our staff seemed to disbelieve in death, so we threw this true and beautiful slogan into the scrap heap of unworthy Record ideas: tens of thousands of jokes, lost for all time. I was sad.

We were also brainstorming football pranks that day, taking as inspiration famous jokes from years past: firing rockets across the field, hacking the scoreboard, kidnapping the mascot, and so on.

But none of us knew computers, and Harvard’s mascot is “The Crimson”. Stealing the color red was beyond even our talents. Instead, we examined another recent instance of Game-related mischief.

In 2004, a group of Yale students, bound only by their hatred for Harvard, wore red to the Game, passed out placards to several thousand enemy fans, and convinced them that the placards would spell out “GO HARVARD”.

What happened next was a blow to gullible people everywhere: the words “WE SUCK”, in proud crimson, spilling out in full view of 30,000 Yale fans.

Of course, this made all future placard pranks impossible, so we had to try something else.

“What about a banner?” I said.

“What would it say?” the staff replied.


I scampered over to the chalkboard, sketching a rectangle, guessing at dimensions, blocking out letters:


Reactions were mixed. I was the Record’s Publisher—a member of our leadership committee, the “Big Three”. The others—Jack the Chairman, Sydney the Editor-In-Chief—were dating, which made them a formidable voting bloc. Fortunately, I convinced them that the banner would be simple, that the ease of use was worth the cost, and that our second-best idea (“release owls onto the field”) would get us thrown in prison.

I’ll spare you the paragraph on comparison shopping—though I will note that grommets aren’t worth the money, and that vinyl beats mesh for most consumers. We bought the banner; it shipped on time; we unrolled it; it was the length and width of a Stegosaurus; it smelled even worse.

Staff: “What was your plan to get this through security?”

Me: “Er…”

Think, Aaron. Who at Yale has a habit of hauling large, awkward objects into football stadiums?

I wrote to Jeff, a tuba player I’d known for years.

“Could the marching band help me with a prank?”

After a thorough grilling by the band’s president, I found myself lugging a 6-foot, 30-pound vinyl tube to Hendrie Hall at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning. I wore blue and white—band colors—and slipped into the crowd boarding the buses. The band kids cast suspicious glances in my direction; they didn’t recognize me. As I found a seat, I felt like donor organs must feel before the host rejects them.

Still, I made it to the Yale Bowl, slipped out without attracting notice, and then realized the gates to the stadium were closed and would remain so for the next three hours. The single warm spot in the 50-acre tailgate area was the first row of bleachers next to a nearby soccer field. The same field the marching band used to rehearse.

After I’d seen the halftime show performed half a dozen times, the band left the field. Some carried trombones; others, flags. Because the theme of the show was “Star Wars”, I was able to slip past security behind a boy dressed as an X-Wing fighter. If you ever need to smuggle anything past anyone, I recommend the same strategy.

I inched across the seating sections as fans arrived, the tide of bodies shielding my movement. Jack and Sydney joined me in a row reserved for students. We tried to keep it empty, but as the stadium filled, people with somewhere between two and six tailgate beers in them took the rest of the seats.

Nevertheless, when Harvard scored its first touchdown, it was time to unfurl, and it turns out that if you yell at someone loud enough on Game day, they’ll do anything you tell them. Complete strangers assisted us, even as a wall of vinyl blocked their view of the field. We kept unfurling, filling the row and the aisle and some of the next row:


“What does this say?” shouted a girl to my left.

“Whoever wins!” I replied. “Our lives will end equally! In death!”

A boy between us turned to stare at me. “Hold on—what?”

It took three or four tries before the message sank in, at which point several students hurled down their segments of the banner. Once it was clear that we couldn’t hold it ourselves, we hefted it over the railing and snaked it through the stands, joined by staffers we had assembled on standby. Soon, we found our final position—the sunny, neutral, and deserted territory of Section Eight.

Harvard scored three more touchdowns, and the banner flew throughout. At halftime, I went to the bathroom and returned to find my comrades surrounded by huge, burly men. Jig’s up! I thought, pounding up the stairs to rescue my memento mori. 

The closest man turned as I approached, but not in my direction. Someone five rows down held a camera. I paused.

“Thank you very much!” he boomed. His accent was Russian; his Ivy allegiance, a mystery. He helped us hold the banner after Harvard’s next field goal.

And he was just one of our many supporters. A Crimson fan called up from the concourse to thank us. A pair of townies began to chant our slogan, once we’d reassured them that we had no quarrel with Jesus Christ. But I knew we’d won the day after an elderly woman, four-and-a-half feet tall and wearing only black, climbed fifty steps to see us.

“What does your sign say? I can’t see it from down there!”

“Uh… whoever wins, our lives will end equally. In death.”

She squinted. “Well, that’s true.” Satisfied, she returned to her seat.

That day at the Yale Bowl, Harvard won the Game, 34 to 7. They’ve been winning a lot lately. If our losing streak continues, fewer Yale students will attend the next Game, and fewer still the Game after that.

But there will always be diehards: Fanatic freshmen, soused sophomores, jaded juniors, and downright cynical seniors. Our student section will never be empty. And when those diehards arrive to cheer on a hopeless team against the craven Crimson, when Harvard fans flood the stands with their smirks and their catcalls and their appallingly justified school spirit—whenever football strikes, The Record will be there, to remind all those present that they will die.

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