Oct. 24, 2012
BERKELEY -By Tim Miguel
Everybody who sat in California Memorial Stadium on November 20, 1982 - 30 years ago this fall - witnessed something that will live on forever in the annals of college football and sports history.
The 1982 Big Game between Bay Area rivals Cal and Stanford featured two teams with winning records and a bowl berth on the line for Stanford - possibly for Cal as well.
Before the final classic four seconds even happened, the game was already considered to be one of the best in the history of the series. Cal made some tremendous plays during the game, including spectacular receptions from wide receivers Wes Howell and Mariet Ford, who made a one-handed, diving touchdown catch in the second quarter to give the Bears a 10-0 halftime lead.
The Bears were leading, 19-17, late in the fourth quarter when Stanford's future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway took center stage. Backed up at his own 13-yard line on a fourth and 17, Elway got the first down with a 29-yard completion and rumblings of Stanford returning to Palo Alto with the Axe were in the works.
"I can remember the Cal players celebrating after an incomplete pass on third down," said John Crumpacker, Cal's beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle who covered that game. "But hey, hold on here, this is Elway. Sure enough, he drops back and fires a laser over the middle of the field for 29 yards. That was sort of the `uh oh' for Cal fans. Here comes Stanford, they're driving."
With eight seconds left, the Cardinal was set up to kick a game-winning field goal. Unfortunately for Stanford, they faced a difficult decision that proved to make all the difference in the game.
"When Stanford was setting up for the final field goal try, they were letting the clock run down and upstairs in the booth, the assistant coaches for Stanford were basically debating if they should stop the clock at eight seconds or four seconds," said Joe Starkey, Cal's play-by-play radio announcer, whose booth was next to the Stanford coaches. "The eight-second guys won, but the four-second guys were really upset."
Stanford's Mark Harmon made his 35-yard field goal attempt to put Stanford up 20-19. Despite the Cardinal obtaining a penalty for excessive celebration that moved the kickoff to the Stanford 25-yard line, it looked like the game was in hand. Shortly after the converted field goal, Starkey coined the famous phrase - `Only a miracle can save the Bears now.'
What happened next has been replayed over and over on television through the years, and has gone down as one of, if not the most, sensational moment in the history of college football.
Harmon squibbed the ensuing kickoff from the 25 with four ticks left on the clock. Cal's Kevin Moen received the ball inside the Cal 45-yard line near the left hash mark. After some ineffective scrambling, Moen lateraled the ball leftward to Richard Rodgers - son of current Golden Bear tight end Richard Rodgers.
"When I got the ball the first time, I wanted to take it to the end zone right then, but I ran into a wall of Stanford players," Moen said. "I looked quickly to the sidelines and there's Rich. I just threw him the ball without really thinking about it."
Dwight Garner received the next pitch from Rodgers, but Garner quickly found himself surround by Stanford players. Just before his knee hit the turf, Garner got the ball back to Rodgers, who took the ball into Stanford territory before pitching it back to Ford.
The Stanford band, believing that Garner's knee had touched the turf, thought the game was over and began trotting onto the field to being its celebratory routine.
Ford, running through Stanford band members, got caught by a couple Stanford players and blindly threw the ball over his right shoulder. Moen caught the ball at the Stanford 25-yard line and dashed for the end zone.
"I vaguely remember seeing the band come out onto the field," Moen said. "Just when it hit me that something weird was going on, I suddenly had the ball in my hands. At that point, all I was thinking about was put your head down and get in the end zone. We still had guys all the way down the field who were blocking for me. It really was a team effort."
Moen ran through the scattering Stanford Band members and the Stanford rally committee that was holding the Axe on the field at that moment and scored the historic touchdown. He completed his dash by crashing into unaware Stanford trombone player Gary Tyrrell, smashing his instrument - which now lives in the college football Hall of Fame - just before getting mobbed by Cal players and fans. Moen said he wasn't thinking about penalties or whether the play would count; he was just trying to survive being on the bottom of a huge pile of people.
Chaos ensued. Nobody could believe what they had just seen. Fans began pouring out onto the field. The referees huddled near the 20-yard line, trying to hear themselves speak to each other over the craziness because there were penalty flags all over the field.
"Not for a minute did I think it would count," Crumpacker said. "There was so much chaos, really on both sidelines. The Stanford band is in the end zone, and the Stanford cheerleaders were actually on the field as the play was happening. All these yellow flags are flying. So I'm thinking, no way is this going to count but what an effort."
The referees determined that every lateral was legal and the only penalty on the play was that Stanford had too many men on the field. The touchdown would stand.
The cannon went off with a victorious boom echoing across Strawberry Canyon and Memorial Stadium went wild.
Bud "Dog" Turner, a longtime Cal football operations assistant in charge of field security on gamedays, remembers the confusion on the field. Following the field goal, Turner had begun to walk through the north tunnel to unlock the Cal locker room, but stopped to watch The Play happen, and came charging back out onto the field with all the fans.
"Everybody started running on the field," Turner recalled. "People who had left started running back through the tunnel and onto the field. One guy grabbed me as I'm walking to the locker room and says, `What happened?!' I said, `We won the game.' He said, `No you didn't.' I said, `Yes, we did.' Then I saw he had a red shirt on."
Turner remembers the madness that continued in the locker rooms.
"I got up into the locker room, everybody's going wild," Turner said. "Joe Kapp is up there yelling, `The bear will not quit, the bear will not die.' Just then, Coach [Paul] Wiggins from Stanford comes running up to me and yells, `Where are the officials?' He was just furious."
While Cal most likely did not have a designed play for a kickoff like that, Moen gives credit to two things for making the return work. One of them is Cal special teams coach Charlie West's decision to put the hands team on the field instead of the regular kick return unit. The hands team featured more play makers like the wide receivers, running backs and defensive backs. The other credit Moen gives goes to Cal's head coach in that game - Joe Kapp.
"We owe a lot to Joe Kapp for making The Play happen," Moen said. "Each week after every game he would have us play a game. You put 20 guys on one side, 20 guys on the other side, and the objective was to keep the ball alive. Do whatever you have to do to keep the ball off the ground. It was one of his conditioning drills. So while we had no actual experience doing anything like that, the drill had somewhat helped prepare us for something like that. Joe always kept us playing hard. He had us playing hard, but relaxed."
It may have been 30 years ago, but for Cal and Stanford fans alike, that game and that play are remembered, for different reasons, as if it were yesterday.
"I've heard stories of people who have literally taken cassettes of The Play and put it in somebody's coffin with them," Starkey said. "There is nowhere I've gone in the world that the subject hasn't come up. It's bizarre. I've gone to places like Hong Kong, where somebody figured out who I was and wanted to talk about The Play."
Whether you cherish The Play as a Cal fan or loathe it as a Stanford fan, it is a moment in sports history that will undoubtedly live on for decades more to come.