Miracle moment: Big Green last Harvard visit a happy memory

  • Masaki Aerts, right, cradles the winning catch at Harvard Stadium in Cambridge, Mass., on Nov. 2, 2019, in the crook of his left elbow, giving Dartmouth a 9-6 victory on the final play of the Ivy League game. (Tris Wykes - Valley News) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file — Tris Wykes

  • Dartmouth quarterback Derek Kyler looks for a pass during a game at Memorial Field in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / report for america — Alex Driehaus

  • Dartmouth College receiver Masaki Aerts, second from right, prepares to catch a Hail Mary pass from Derek Kyler on Nov. 2, 2019, at Harvard. The Big Green's 9-6 victory allowed the visitors to remain undefeated. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/29/2021 10:49:03 PM
Modified: 10/29/2021 10:49:09 PM

HANOVER — When the Dartmouth College football team takes the field against Harvard on Saturday, it will evoke positive memories for many.

The last time the Big Green squared off with the Crimson at Harvard Stadium, Dartmouth won in dramatic fashion. With 6 seconds left and Dartmouth down, 6-3, now fifth-year quarterback Derek Kyler threw up a Hail Mary from the Harvard 43-yard line. It was tipped up by a Harvard defender, and now fifth-year receiver Masaki Aerts reeled it in for a walk-off touchdown and a 9-6 win.

It kept the Big Green undefeated, maintained and snapped Dartmouth’s seven-game losing streak at Harvard Stadium. The play has since been dubbed “The Miracle in Cambridge.”

While Kyler and Aerts are trying to stay focused on this year’s game, they — like many others — will certainly reminisce for at least a brief moment. These are what some of those memories look like.

On the field: Dartmouth had to drive from inside its own 5 with a minute to play and one timeout. The offense hadn’t found much success up to that point.

But Kyler marched his team down the field anyway. He completed a pass to former Dartmouth wideout Drew Estrada, now playing at Baylor, with 8 seconds left to put the Big Green at the 43.

During Dartmouth’s timeout before the final play, Estrada unknowingly predicted what would happen when he told Aerts to be ready for a tipped pass. Aerts brushed it aside, knowing Estrada was telling him to be ready for anything.

But it proved prescient.

“It was just kind of, ‘Make sure we’re all prepared for everything.’ It wasn’t that we knew that was gonna happen,” Aerts said. “But yeah, that is a fun fact. He did indeed call that before it happened.”

Kyler also received some prophetic advice before the play.

Former receiver Hunter Hagdorn told the quarterback that, no matter what, he can’t get sacked. He had to get a throw off and give his team a chance. Kyler said that stuck with him as he evaded the fast-approaching Crimson pass rush.

“I thought I saw Masaki catch it, but I was like, ‘There’s no way he just caught that ball.’ I’ve never had a play like that happen in my life,” Kyler said.

“I just looked to the sidelines for the reaction. I saw everyone going crazy. So I knew that we won the game and it was the craziest thing ever. I lost my voice immediately, threw my helmet. It was a crazy experience.”

The play went viral, appearing on ESPN and across social media. Both Kyler and Aerts got a massive number of texts afterward, too many to keep up with. Kyler said people he hadn’t talked to in years reached out to congratulate him. They said people came up to them talking about the play as soon as they arrived back in Hanover.

The initial madness from the play lasted for a few weeks. But the moment still follows Kyler and Aerts. They still have alumni or fans approach them and bring it up.

On the sideline: Buddy Teevens missed the moment.

Sure, he was involved in the play call during the timeout and was intently watching the play as it happened. But his coach instincts wouldn’t let him celebrate after Aerts hauled in the touchdown.

Instead of joining the pandemonium, Teevens scanned the field for penalty flags. And while he didn’t spot any, the referee came up to him and said the game wasn’t over yet. They had to review the play and make sure Aerts caught the ball.

“Everybody else is going nuts, and I’m there just thinking, ‘What are they going to see? What could they come up with?’ And just the uncertainty,” Teevens said. “I’m standing with the officials, and then they (came) back and they (confirmed the call). But by that point, most of the people had gotten drifted to the sideline and were singing into the stands and all that type of thing.”

Teevens had his moment of exhilaration when he joined his players in singing the alma mater to the crowd. He remembers the pure excitement on the faces of his players. There were tears of joy.

It was unlike any play he could recall in his 42-year coaching career. There have been close plays and last-second scores, but nothing quite like that long heave to the end zone from close to midfield.

“When you’re at that distance and you chuck it up, it’s a hope,” Teevens said. “It’s not a ‘we’re going to beat this guy, double move, and chuck it down (in) one-on-one (coverage)’. There’s a lot of bodies down there. The outcome is frequently not what you like, but it does happen. And it happened to us because the guys, they executed what they were asked to do.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the Dartmouth sideline exploded right when the official threw his arms up to signal a touchdown. The players formed a dogpile in the end zone.

Now fifth-year safety Niko Mermigas sat further back from the sideline with his defensive teammates. He got down on his hands and knees, praying for a miracle. He remembered secondary coach Sammy McCorkle turning around, after Aerts made the catch, and exclaiming, “Did we just win the game?!”

“It’s one of those things where you don’t really remember much, but you remember the euphoria of it. You remember how happy you were,” Mermigas said on episode two of the Inside The Woods podcast earlier this season. “All we saw was everyone taking off up to the end zone, which, (I) can’t put it into words. And there (were) so many Dartmouth fans. It was really unbelievable.”

In the booth: Dartmouth’s radio booth had mixed reactions to the Hail Mary.

Analyst Wayne Young, who played on the 1970 Ivy League championship Dartmouth team, was speechless. Play-by-play broadcaster Brett Franklin exploded.

He screamed into the headset as the Big Green celebrated on the field.

“Prior to the throw, I remember thinking, ‘Maybe they can get a penalty.’ But I’m not thinking Doug Flutie Hail Mary or anything like that,” Franklin said. “I was thinking, in the back of my mind, ‘How do we sum this up as a Dartmouth loss?’ And all of a sudden, the ball’s batted around, I’m watching through my binoculars, as I usually call the game through (them), and I just see a white jersey come down with it. It was probably one of the wildest sporting finishes I’ve seen.”

He also recalled a chaotic scene in the press box around him.

“The Dartmouth coaching staff was going crazy next door to us. They were jumping in our booth and high-fiving us and giving Wayne hugs. That was pretty wild,” Franklin said. “The Harvard broadcasters were right next to us. I took a peek over to them; they couldn’t believe it.”

As the play circulated on social media and on ESPN programming, so, too, did Franklin’s call. The cameras on ESPN+ broadcast completely missed the action after Kyler released the throw. So the clip that Dartmouth video coordinator Parker Thurston captured on the sideline, which Dartmouth posted to its social media accounts with Franklin’s radio call, is what most people saw.

“It’s certainly something I will never forget,” Franklin said. “Anytime that I see Harvard or think of Harvard, that definitely comes back.”

In the crowd: Dartmouth interim athletic director Peter Roby was in the Harvard Stadium crowd that day. He wasn’t working for the college at that point; he was just there as an alumnus.

Roby remembered warm weather, tailgating with his class of 1979 peers and a fun day. And that was before the memorable finish.

From the stands, Roby thought the play was doomed as Harvard’s pass-rushers closed in on Kyler.

“We thought Derek was going to get sacked. It looked like he was going to get dropped, and that was going to be it,” Roby said. “He’s got such great quick feet and instincts, he got himself free and just uncorked it.

“There was this big convergence of players. And it (took) the right kind of bounce that you hope for in those situations. And our kid was right there and secured it. Jeez, that was amazing.”

Roby’s memories of Dartmouth athletics include many other fun and exciting moments over the years. This was right up there with those.

“After the pass, we all went crazy yelling, screaming, hugging and high-fiving,” Roby said. “And then the scene of the guys down on the field, singing the alma mater after the game and the band playing, it was pretty sweet. That’s a memory I won’t forget.”

At home: Kyler won’t soon forget the miracle. But he’s not sure he’ll get the chance to tell his kids about it.

His family might beat him to it.

While Kyler doesn’t relive the play very often, his maternal grandfather, Craig Donnelly, frequently pulls it up online. He said he watches the video at least once or twice a month.

Derek said that while his family doesn’t have a framed photo of the play, the clip is essentially framed on the television.

“(When) there’s nothing on TV, I like to watch YouTube. And that one usually pops up, so, ‘Eh, what the heck? I got three minutes to kill.’ And I watch the whole drive,” Donnelly said. “My wife says I’ve probably watched it over 100 times.”

Donnelly originally watched the game with Derek’s paternal grandfather, Mike Kyler, at the family’s barn, on a 70-inch television, in DeKalb, Ill.. Craig watches every game, sporting a Big Green jersey to root on his grandson.

He’s seen plenty of special moments from Derek on the football field. But he thought this might’ve been too tall a task.

“I’m thinking ‘Well, they’re gonna lose,’ so I already texted him condolences before it was over,” Donnelly said. “You look at that and god, if I was a Harvard parent (I’d think), ‘We got this in the bag.’

“But then I learned a valuable lesson. You never count to Derek or Dartmouth out.”

When the prayer was answered and Aerts made the catch, Donnelly and Mike Kyler went crazy. Neither could believe what they just saw. It became a moment Donnelly brings up any chance he gets.

They texted the entire family — cousins, extended family, anyone they could think of — to make sure they saw what happened. He told customers at work, he told doctors before a procedure — just anyone that would listen. He’d tell them about his grandson Derek, completing a Hail Mary for the win at Harvard.

“I probably (bring it up) once or twice a week,” Donnelly said. “Somehow, it always comes up. I still spread it out there.

‘You gotta watch. This is my grandson. Watch this play.’ ”

Seth Tow can be reached at stow@vnews.com.

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