I am now convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was in error.
—William H. (Red) Friesell, referee, after the Dartmouth-Cornell football game of 1940
A boner need not be a burden shamefully borne. It can, in certain circumstances, ennoble both the perpetrator and the victim. That was certainly true of a classic of the genre, committed in the final seconds of the Dartmouth-Cornell football game on Nov. 16, 1940. Here was a boner of boners that, after a testy interlude, left all involved significantly the better for having been a part of it.
Right away we should note that Ivy League football in 1940 was not the tame enterprise it has lately become. Before its game with Dartmouth that year, Cornell was truly the Big Red, the best team in the nation according to the American Football Statistical Bureau, the second best (behind Minnesota) according to the Associated Press rankings. Cornell had already beaten Ohio State 21-7 and Army 45-0. It had held four of its six opponents scoreless, allowing single touchdowns by Ohio State and Syracuse. More significantly, it had gone unbeaten in 18 straight games, dating back three seasons. Only a scoreless tie with Pennsylvania in 1938 stained an otherwise unblemished record. Dartmouth, which had lost four of its seven games, was considered an unlikely candidate to end the streak. "We expected a cakewalk," recalls Bill Murphy, Cornell's hard-running right halfback. "After all, we were going for a national championship."
But conditions at Dartmouth's Memorial Field in Hanover, N.H., were scarcely conducive to a cakewalk, particularly for a team mostly dependent on a single-wing passing attack, which was averaging nearly 250 yards a game. "It was cold and blustery, and the field was muddy from four days of rain," says Charles S. (Chub) Feeney, then a sophomore football manager at Dartmouth and somewhat later the president of baseball's National League. "It was just a typical raw November day in New Hampshire. Still, we expected to get murdered."
They weren't even wounded. The vaunted Big Red Machine sputtered on the messy turf, its passing attack failing to gain 100 yards. Dartmouth, for its part, was content to slog back and forth on the ground, hoping for a godsend. Finally, early in the fourth quarter, the Indians (as Dartmouth teams were then unashamedly called) reached the Cornell 27, where end Bob Krieger kicked a field goal to break a scoreless tie. Angry and humiliated, Cornell fought back, but its next two drives were squelched by interceptions, one in Dartmouth's end zone.
With only 2� minutes remaining in the game and Dartmouth leading by its lone field goal, the Big Red started one last desperate march from its own 42. Two passes by Cornell's "climax player," left half Walter Scholl, took the ball to the Dartmouth 30. A pass-interference call brought it to the 18. Then Scholl hit Murphy for 12 yards to the six. Three running plays moved Cornell to within a yard of the winning touchdown, but a delay-of-game penalty put the ball back on the six. Then a Scholl pass intended for Murphy in the end zone was batted away by Ray Hall, and ecstatic Dartmouth players and fans began celebrating the upset of the year. Dartmouth had held on downs, and there were only six seconds left to play.
According to the rules of that time, a pass incomplete in the end zone on fourth down was considered a touchback; the defending team got the ball back on its own 20. And there indeed was referee William H. (Red) Friesell marching out of the end zone with the ball tucked under his arm. But he stopped on the six, the previous line of scrimmage, and, to the amazement of the Dartmouth players, most of the chilled spectators and disbelieving reporters, he signaled that it was fourth down and still Cornell's ball. There was time for one last play. Scholl rolled to his right and flipped a soft pass to Murphy, who made a fine catch in the end zone as the gun sounded. Tackle Nick Drahos added the extra point.
Now it was Cornell's turn to celebrate. The Big Red had salvaged an apparent 7-3 win from what would have been a shocking defeat. Murphy was the man of the moment. "I thought it was the greatest thing in the world," he says now. "For a minute there, I was a great hero."
In the Dartmouth locker room afterward, there was anger and consternation. Hadn't Cornell won the game on a fifth down? "Players were yelling and screaming," says Feeney. "Nobody knew what the hell had happened." The Dartmouth fans were in such a rage that they stoned the train bearing the Cornell players back to Ithaca, N.Y. "It was right about then," says Murphy, "that we began to suspect something was wrong." But what? Friesell, an official for 22 years, was among the most respected in the game. Even Dartmouth coach Earl (Red) Blaik was able to say after this most unsettling game, "I have every faith in Red Friesell."
That faith was belatedly rewarded. After reviewing game films, Friesell recognized his boner. He had, in fact, given Cornell an extra down. It should have been Dartmouth's ball on its own 20. He wrote letters of apology to Dartmouth, including one to team captain Lou Young. "I want to be the first to admit my very grave error on the extra down," Friesell wrote Young. "I assume full responsibility.... Lou, I am so sorry, for you were such a grand captain and leader."