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Harvard Football Great Performances: Barry Wood ’32

9.18.20

Barry Wood
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications. Photo collage by Harvard Magazine/JC


Barry Wood
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications. Photo collage by Harvard Magazine/JC

OCTOBER 19, 1929: BARRY WOOD BEATS ARMY, 20-20

WHEN LAST WE SPOKE, following Harvard’s 50-43, double-overtime loss to Yale in November—a day which will live in infamy, to employ the phrase made immortal by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, A.B. 1904, LL.D. ’29—we assumed we would pick up the Crimson football story with the kickoff of the 147th season this Saturday against Georgetown. Since then, of course, dire events have interceded, and for the first autumn since 1943, there will be no Harvard football. (During the other wartime years, Harvard played an informal, limited schedule.) That means that on Saturdays many of us—players, coaches, writers, broadcasters, and fans—will be at loose ends. “Read a book!” I can hear my father say. “Clean your room!”

In an attempt to avoid cleaning our rooms, we have decided to take a weekly, somewhat random look at a few of the great performances in Harvard football history. Some will be statistical, some will be clutch tours de force, some will be comebacks, some will be eye-popping plays. A few ground rules: We are ever searching for non-Yale game moments; we will try to avoid so-called “recency bias” and include heroics from several decades; and not all our moments will have resulted in triumphs. Our first selection qualifies on all counts. 

Great (Gridiron) Performances
Missing touchdowns? In a season without games, football correspondent Dick Friedman reprises past Crimson glories: epic plays, players, and records. Online weekly at www.harvardmagazine.com/topic/Sports

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HARVARD FOOTBALL has seen some dramatic, game-saving quarterback entrances—kind of a QB ex machina. No doubt the most famous is the insertion of Frank Champi ’70 into The Game of 1968. But 39 years before, there was another signal-caller substitution that had longer-lasting effect.

The date was October 19, 1929. The Crimson was not restricted by a conference affiliation. (The formal Ivy League was 27 years away.)  Instead, Harvard and its fourth-year coach, Arnold Horween ’21, had embarked on an intersectional schedule that some might describe as “ambitious” and others as “suicidal.” Among the opponents, besides longtime rivals Dartmouth and Yale:  Florida (not the fearsome Gators of today but a reputable team nevertheless), Michigan (at Ann Arbor), and a dangerous Holy Cross squad. This was big-time football. 

On this day the foe, in the season’s third game, was mighty Army. The year before, the Cadets had blanked the Crimson at the Stadium 15-0. West Point boasted arguably college football’s best running back, Chris Cagle. The Heisman Trophy would not be awarded until 1935, but in a 2005 article, esteemed college football writer Dan Jenkins declared that had there been a Heisman in ’29, Cagle would have won it.  

Unlike now, when a downsized Stadium is open-ended, the arena back then was enclosed and seated close to 60,000. There was not a ticket available. The pageantry commenced when the Corps of Cadets, which had traveled up from West Point, entered and marched onto the gridiron to reach their seats.

On the Crimson sideline was quarterback William Barry Wood Jr. ’32, backup to the more seasoned Eliot Putnam ’29. As a sophomore, Wood was in his first year with the varsity. (Freshmen were ineligible.) He was a member of the so-called “pony backfield” that was inserted to give the regulars a rest or to provide a change of pace on offense. Tall and limber, and a superb all-around athlete, he could fire the football long distances with a deft touch. In that era, such skills often were not as appreciated as those of ground gainers such as Cagle. 

In the first half, the Harvard fans were the ones doing the shouting, while the visiting cadets, “a block of blue in the middle of the stands, sat dazed,” reported the next day’s New York Times. During a scoreless first period, the Crimson line, led by All-America center Ben Ticknor ’31, mostly bottled up Cagle. Early in the second quarter, Harvard blunted a Cadet drive when Bernie White ’32 intercepted a pass in the end zone. 

Later in the period the Crimson offense reached the Army 28. Putnam took the snap, and, as reported by the Harvard Alumni Bulletin (this magazine’s predecessor), “dodging several Army men who tried to grab him, made a long forward pass to [end Dick] O’Connell [’30], who had run behind the Army defense man and was waiting close to the goal posts [then on the goal line]. The pass was high and it looked as though O’Connell would not be able to catch the ball, but fortunately he is tall, and jumping into the air, he made a fine catch and then stepped across the line for the first touchdown. Putnam, usually reliable, missed the drop goal.” Harvard 6, Army 0.

In those days, players went both ways.  In trotted Wood and the pony backfield. On Army’s ensuing series from its 20, the Cadets tried a pass. Ticknor picked it off on the 26 and rumbled unmolested into the end zone. Now it was Wood’s turn to try the point, and he did not miss. Harvard 13, Army 0. 

 

After the half, the game turned completely around. Army scored three touchdowns. Cagle set one up with a long gain and scored another on a dazzling 45-yard jaunt. “In both of these runs,” said the Times, “Cagle seemed trapped time and time again, only to feint his tacklers out of position and glide past them like a greased ghost.” The Cadets missed on one extra point. Deep into the fourth quarter, the score stood Army 20, Harvard 13.

Now Barry Wood stepped onto the national stage—where he would remain for the rest of his life. “Starting from its 20, Harvard turned to desperate but well-conceived passes,” said the Times. “Wood shot a beauty to [substitute end Victor] Harding [’32] that carried the ball to the 40.” Eventually the Crimson reached the Cadet 40.

Hail Mary passes were in their relative infancy back then, but Wood was about to help make them famous. Army defenders played right into his hands by not stationing themselves back far enough toward the goal. Ticknor snapped the ball to Wood. “Time was going fast, and it was quite dark when Wood dropped back, giving ground to midfield and waiting for flying Harding to get down the field,” said the Times. “[Wood] let fly with a long, lazy, looping pass that hit the bullseye. Harding ducked inside the sole Army man he hadn’t outstripped to take the ball in the corner and step over in one stride for the touchdown.” Army 20, Harvard 19.

The job was only half done. Now it was up to Wood to try the extra point—there was no two-point conversion option—and he milked the drama for all it was worth. “With the players hardly distinguishable in the gathering gloom,” said the Times, “Barry Wood removed his head guard, dropped back and kicked a fine drop for the tying point as Harvard’s crowd bellowed its approval.” Final score: Harvard 20, Army 20. 

(When I was a lad, I was an avid reader of the Chip Hilton series of sports novels by author and basketball coach Clair Bee. Chip was kind of a fictional Barry Wood—a superb all-around athlete and a paragon as a human being. The first book, Touchdown Pass, published in 1948, describes a game in which Chip throws a long, last-minute touchdown pass, then kicks the extra point to tie the game. Hmmm…was Chip Hilton based on Barry Wood? My former colleague at Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum, is the reigning expert in all things Chip Hilton, and he tells me that Chip was modeled on a basketball player named Bob Davies. Still, if I didn’t know better….)

The next week Dartmouth whipped the Crimson 34-7. The week after that, Wood became the starting quarterback. The Crimson beat Florida 14-0 (with Wood recovering three fumbles in the final period). Then Harvard played Michigan close before losing 14-12. A 12-6 victory over Holy Cross and a 10-6 win over Yale gave the Crimson a satisfying 5-2-1 record. 

In his three varsity seasons, Wood won 10 letters: three each in football, hockey, and baseball, and one in tennis. In 1931, when the Crimson went 7-1 (losing only the finale to Yale, 3-0), he was elected team captain, voted a consensus All-America, and appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Wood graduated summa cum laude. He went to medical school at Johns Hopkins, then became one of the nation’s leading medical educators and microbiologists. He died in 1971 at age 60.

Scanning the headlines, we see that the same week Wood was dueling Army, the Carnegie Foundation released a damning, long-awaited report on corruption in college sports, including illicit compensation for student-athletes. Harvard did not emerge unscathed: “The system that left Harvard out of the list of subsidy-free institutions,” said the Times, “is the practice of allotting concessions at athletic contests exclusively to athletes, a practice that the foundation has been assured will be corrected when conditions permit.” Thank goodness that in the intervening nine decades college sports have emerged from the cesspool and now are in complete harmony with higher education’s academic mission.

 

In non-football news, the stock market crashed. President Herbert Hoover assured the nation that “the fundamental business of the country was on a sound and prosperous basis.”

 

THE SCORE BY QUARTERS

Army00146  20
Harvard01307  20

Attendance: 59,000 (approx.)

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