Sports

Still Playing the Game

Local alum attends his record 75th Harvard-Yale football game

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Whoever said that the only certain things in life are death and taxes must never have met Frederick Steele Blackall III (better known as Steele to his friends). Because if there is another certainty in life, it’s that Steele will be at the annual Yale-Harvard football game wearing a long, brown raccoon coat, cheering his alma mater Yale Bulldogs to victory. How certain? He hasn’t missed a game in the last 66 years.

Steele may be more commonly known as the long-time president of Taft-Peirce Manufacturing Company, a former Woonsocket based engineering, tooling and precision instrument manufacturer owned and operated by the Blackall family for most of the 1900s. He may be known for his philanthropic involvement with numerous local organizations, and his mentoring of business executives and college-bound youth. He may even be known for his wine connoisseurship and extensive wine collection, including his many years as the wine columnist for this paper. But among these impressive accolades is a feat of boundless loyalty, passion and perseverance that in comparison will relegate most sports fans to amateur status.

First, a bit of history. Yale and Harvard first met on the gridiron in 1875, and the matchup is currently the second oldest continuing rivalry in college football behind Lehigh and Lafayette. “The Game,” as it is known by alumni from both schools, alternates annually between New Haven and Cambridge and typically falls on the Saturday before Thanksgiving – the last game of the season for both teams. Crowds are at the season’s peak as alumni from around the world descend on the host for a homecoming flooded in school spirit with another year of bragging rights at stake. A season within a season, a victory in The Game can make the year of an otherwise winless team, just as a loss would forever haunt a league champion.

Steele was introduced to Yale and The Game by his father, F. Steele Blackall II, who was Yale Class of 1918. He attended his first game as an eight-year-old in 1933 and he attended the annual matchup with his parents and family throughout his childhood. He eventually enrolled in Yale for his own undergraduate studies as a member of the unique Class of 1945W – a war-time notation as Yale temporarily moved to an around-the-calendar academic schedule and needed to account for the new matriculation dates of certain students. (Steele and most of his class would eventually graduate in 1947, after completing their service.)

If it were not for this turbulent period, Steele’s streak would be even more impressive. While he has attended every Harvard-Yale game since 1946, 66 years in a row, 2011 actually marks Steele’s 75th game. There were no Yale-Harvard games in 1943 and 1944, and Steele was forced to miss the 1945 game due to “Uncle Sam.” Since 1933, the only other game he missed was in 1940 – punishment from his father for poor school grades, which he repentantly remembers as “a fine lesson, not repeated.”

The Blackall clan began to grow soon after college. In 1947, Steele married Patricia (“Patty”) Hancock, who for the next 50-plus years would be his wife and partner in “the best marriage you ever heard of” until her passing in 2002. She was a well-known real estate agent for Residential Properties who knew “everyone” on the East Side. Three children followed – sons Frederick (“Rick”) IV and Grenville, with daughter Holly in the middle. Holly (now Applegate) has been to 23 games, and they are some of her earliest childhood memories.

She fondly recalls the huge tailgate parties, the camaraderie among family and friends, and the raccoon coats – two matching coats originally worn by Steele’s parents, and now worn to every game by him and Holly. Says Steele, “Those coats have been to more games than me.” Despite all the revelry, Holly notes that for her father, it was all about what was happening inside the stadium. “Dad never likes to miss the kickoff, and he’s never left a game early. If it’s a blowout, or 20 degrees below zero and snowing, he’ll watch every play.”

And in his 75 games, Blackall has certainly seen many memorable plays, perhaps none more famous than in the 1968 game touted as “the most famous football game in Ivy League history.” Yale and Harvard each entered the game undefeated, though Yale was heavily favored to win. Yale sprung out to a quick 22-0 lead, but Harvard clawed back and scored 16 points in the last 42 seconds to salvage the tie. The next day, Harvard’s student newspaper declared victory with the now well-known headline “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.” Steele “still hurts about that one,” his daughter admits.

Among the great football memories – including watching the second and third ever recipients of the Heisman trophy, Larry Kelley (Yale, 1936) and Clint Frank (Yale, 1937) – are many memories of what else happens when the referee’s whistle blows. Steele notes that some “pretty good pranks” are as old as The Game itself. He recalls his first game in 1933: “Someone at Harvard thought it would be a great idea to cover a bunch of pigs in blue grease and let them loose on the field during halftime. Well they had a hell of a time trying to corral those little guys, and cheerleaders from both schools were running all over the place.”

One of the most famous pranks was actually perpetrated by MIT during the 1982 game at Harvard, when after a Harvard score, “a little, tiny bubble started to come out of the middle of the field. It inflated into this huge balloon with ‘MIT’ painted all over it.” Some MIT students had secretly buried a weather balloon under the 45-yard line and inflated it remotely until the balloon exploded, spraying the field with talcum powder.

While he is quite the historian, Steele did not realize the magnitude of his own streak until fairly recently: “In 2003, I read a story about a Harvard pennant that is given to the guy who has seen the most Yale-Harvard games. I would have been in third place on that list; the top two guys were beyond me but certainly within reach.” With those two men now deceased, Steele has moved to the top of the list. And while he may be officially eligible to hold the Harvard pennant – he is a 1949 graduate of Harvard Business School – it has not been offered to him.

The criteria for holding the pennant has since been changed to that of “superfan,” not just Harvard-Yale game attendance, though some Harvard alumni have petitioned to return the pennant to its roots. When asked if he would in fact accept a Harvard pennant, Steele simply laughs and says “that’s a good question.” As an interim token of acknowledgement, Harvard did honor Steele on the scoreboard during the 2010 game, Steele’s 74th.

Every streak has close calls before reaching an inevitable end. With a streak of this nature, surely life will eventually get in the way. For 2011 Steele was thrown a curveball – his grandson would be getting married in Detroit on the day of The Game. Although his grandson fully understood the significance of the weekend before Thanksgiving, the difficulty of wedding planning reared its ugly head and left no other choice for a wedding date. But as certain as death and taxes, there was no doubt where Frederick Steele Blackall III would be that day – with his family’s blessing, he attended his 75th Harvard-Yale game at the Yale Bowl.