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An oral history of The Play: Looking back on wild finish 30 years later

I never bought a videotape of the Play. On YouTube, 30 years later, the action is so grainy and jumpy and the late-afternoon light so dim that it's hard to pick myself out among the red coats madly scrambling on the fake turf in the south end zone of Cal's Memorial Stadium. But I was there on Nov. 20, 1982, when the Bears made their astonishing five-lateral kickoff return through the Cardinal defense and the Stanford band to win that year's Big Game. Somewhere in the confused throng, I was clutching my alto sax and wearing one of the white hard hats the band staff had handed out that morning to protect us from the frozen oranges and grapefruits that Cal students gleefully hurled at us during our pregame and halftime shows. And we thought flying fruit would be the biggest hazard we'd face that day.

Much about college football has changed since that bizarre afternoon, including the introduction of instant replay, the proliferation of projectile-detecting backpack searches and the influence of television money, which has forced this year's Big Game out of its traditional late-November date and into an unfamiliar Oct. 20 slot. But the Play endures -- on YouTube, on Top 10 Greatest Moments in Sports countdowns, in those videos Cal used to sell at $100 a pop and in the memories of the people who were there. To mark the Play's 30th anniversary, I reminisced with some of the key participants about what is still the craziest play in college football history, and what it all means three decades later.

Cal had led 10-0 at the half thanks in part to a spectacular diving end zone catch by Mariet Ford. Stanford had answered in the third quarter with two touchdown passes from John Elway to Vince White. Early in the fourth, Wes Howell made another flying end zone grab to put Cal up 19-14. A field goal by Stanford's Mark Harmon with 5:21 to go had closed the gap to 19-17. Then, in the final minute, Stanford's last possession was sputtering badly. Facing 4th-and-17 on the 13 yard-line with 53 seconds to go, Elway made what would have been the play of the game: He fired a pass over the middle to Emile Harry for a 29-yard gain, sparking a drive that put the Cardinal in range for a game-winning field goal. It looked like Elway, already a legend on the Farm, would finally get to play in a bowl game. (And so would the band.) In fact, a contingent from the Hall of Fame Bowl was in the press box, ready to make an offer if the Cardinal, then 5-5, won. Harmon nailed the field goal -- his first and only game-winner in his college career -- to give Stanford a 20-19 lead. There were four seconds left on the clock. What could possibly go wrong?

MARK HARMON (Stanford kicker): Before that field goal, I felt a nervousness I had never felt before. My brain was going crazy. But as soon as I got on the field, I felt calm. I don't remember a whole lot about the field goal itself ... you kind of see the snap and then it's, ba-boom! There's not much to think about but it's good, and we won! That's what I was thinking. We won the game, and if we have to kick off, we still won the game. My instructions for the kickoff -- I can't remember who gave them -- was squib the ball.

RICHARD RODGERS (Cal junior defensive back): With all the huge plays on both sides and all the ups and downs, that Big Game was probably the most emotional game I've ever been a part of. After Stanford's field goal, I had this really strong feeling: it's not over. In the huddle I said, Don't fall with the ball.

KEVIN MOEN (Cal senior defensive back): The coaches had called in our "hands" team. I was a former high school option quarterback, and so was Richard. And in our Sunday practices that year, Coach Kapp had introduced "Grabasso" or Grab-ass, which is basically a bunch of guys moving the ball around however you could move it. The Play would have a similar sense to it. But at that moment, our only strategy was Richard telling guys, don't let the ball die. When it was kicked to me, my first thought was, I'm going to score. I started running to the right. I look up and there were three or four Stanford guys. I have no idea why I looked to the left sidelines, and I have no idea why Richard was standing there waving to me. I just happened to see him and say, I've got nowhere to go -- here!

RODGERS: When I got the ball, I saw Stanford players coming at me so I immediately pitched the ball to Dwight Garner. Being the freshman he was, he just kept running. So I got behind him and yelled at him to pitch the ball back. When I got the ball a second time, I was confused, because I could see Stanford players coming on the field and then running off it.

KELLI ANDERSON: That's because most people there, including some of your own teammates and at least one ref who seemed to signal the play dead, thought Garner's knee was down before he pitched it.

RODGERS: He pitched it to me before he went down. I pretty much had the best seat in the house to see that. I ran as far as I could, then I lateraled it to Mariet Ford.

JOE STARKEY (Cal's play-by-play announcer for KGO radio): As Garner got tackled, I was ready to say, "They tried to do a couple of laterals but Garner got tackled and it's over ..." But as Garner's knee went down, the ball flew out and they kept it going. Apparently everybody else in the building thought the game was over, too. That's when several Cal players started walking on the field off their sidelines, and the Stanford Band decided to go out on the field. It was late afternoon in late November, Cal had no lights, so there were all sorts of things that were making it almost impossible to figure out what in god's name was going on down there.

PAUL WIGGIN (Stanford coach): What could I see? I saw the band, I saw our team, I saw a lateral, I saw a flag go down, I saw a guy pick up a flag, I saw all kinds of things. It was basically a 10-second nightmare.

MIKE DOTTERER (Stanford running back): From the sidelines we couldn't see Garner go down on the other side of the field, but there was an official who had his arms up like the play is over with. I think we saw that and thought, okay, someone tackled someone and all this stuff still going on is make-believe.

MOEN: Once Richard lateraled it to Mariet, the momentum of what we were doing kind of took hold. Okay, let's keep lateraling it and moving down the field that way. To me the most spectacular part of the Play was Mariet diving to take out a couple of Stanford guys and throwing it over his head in a no-look pass to me. When I got the ball the last time, I had a sense the band was on the field, but my thought was, we've kind of run our luck with this thing, I better get in the end zone. So I put my head down and started to weave through the band.

GARY ROBINSON (Assistant Stanford band manager who would take over as manager, as per tradition, immediately after the Big Game): The band had gathered behind the end zone to play a postgame concert. When I saw the guy's knee go down, I ran out on the field in celebration, along with a bunch of other people. It was totally spontaneous -- we were rushing the field. I had probably made it as far as the 20-yard line and was facing the stands when I felt this whoosh behind me. It was the Cal guy [Moen]. I thought, What's he doing? What a futile effort!

GARY TYRRELL (Stanford trombone player): I didn't run out on the field. I didn't even realize until I saw the film later that I had backed into the end zone. I'm not very tall and everyone was milling around, so I couldn't see the field. I was watching the scoreboard and the clock.

ANDERSON: I think I was also deep in the end zone. When the clock hit zero, I thought, Yay! Road trip to Birmingham! Then something really eerie happened. At the Big Game parade in San Francisco the night before, a car had driven through the band, sending the people in front of me scattering. At that moment on the field, it was the same thing -- people in red coats in front of me turning around and running for their lives. Then this guy in a blue jersey came barreling through the crowd -- and he had the ball.

TYRRELL: I saw him right before he hit me. I didn't realize how he had gotten there, so I didn't know it was a touchdown. I had seen cameramen get run over when a player gets run out of bounds, and that's what I thought had happened to me. So I just got up. It got really quiet. Then the cannon went off and the scoreboard changed, and it got really loud.

MOEN: There were so many people on the field I couldn't tell when I crossed into the end zone. That's why I was pretty deep when I did my celebratory leap. I wasn't aware of Gary at all. I was just jumping for joy. It was my first and last touchdown for Cal. In the next instant, I was suffocating at the bottom of this pile of guys celebrating. I was like, okay, now I'm going to die.

TYRRELL: I wasn't hurt, but we were wearing hard hats, so who knows if that helped? My horn wasn't dented at all. (The trombone, now on display at the College Football Hall of Fame, earned its dents in a subsequent fraternity game of catch.) The eerie thing is that photograph (of Moen jumping with the ball) is exactly what I saw before he hit me. The next day I picked up a paper and there was that photo. I was like aaaaaahh! how did they do that? The photographer had been right at my shoulder.

HARMON: The last guy who lateraled took me out when he dived to the ground. When I got up, I heard the cannon go off. And then there was just chaos. The whole time I was thinking, well, that was interesting, but the guy was down. The refs huddled over there, they'll make the right decision. I still thought we were going to end up winning the game.

DOTTERER: It was pandemonium. I remember thinking, well, we put on another great show and people got their money's worth. I went in the locker room thinking we had won. Then a teammate said, "Mike Wyman (a defensive tackle) just tore a door off a hinge." That was my signal that maybe they had called the game the other way.

MOEN: Out on the field I was running around hugging all my teammates and they're were saying, who scored? Who scored? And I said, I scored! Through all that confusion, even I couldn't really tell you what just happened. I knew I had scored, but I didn't know all the pieces that went into play. It was chaotic and so much fun to celebrate with all the students, to do our little dance with the Axe (the Big Game trophy). The field was so crammed with people it took me an hour to get off. The thought of the game result being changed never entered my mind.

ANDERSON: Back at our end zone there was an incredible spectrum of emotion: Cal fans and players dancing and celebrating, Stanford fans stunned and silent. I remember Elway and Wiggin angrily stalking by, and they both seemed seven feet tall. There was a lot of anger and confusion. I think we played one song -- Hail, Stanford, Hail -- and got out of there.

ROBINSON: The bus ride home was really quiet, and the band is never quiet. Driving through Cal's fraternity row we were getting beer thrown at us, we were getting jeered. When we got back to campus people could not wait to get out of those band uniforms. I remember this pile of band gear by the bus.

ANDERSON: I'm sure my coat was in that pile. The band would be more or less exonerated in the next few days, but that night we were guilty. I remember a little boy who had waited in the parking lot for our return so he could shout obscenities at us.

ROBINSON: When I got back from my dorm room my answering machine was full. There were calls from Switzerland and Hong Kong, saying, "I hear you're the manager of the band, can you explain yourself?" I had been in the job two seconds! But some of those calls were from Silicon Valley companies that wanted us to play at their Friday afternoon beer busts. In fact, one call was from Steve Jobs' assistant. All of the sudden people wanted to see this notorious group. So there were some silver linings.

TYRRELL: There's no question The Play opened up some interesting paths and opportunities for me. I couldn't have imagined throwing down beers with Joe Kapp, but I've done that a few times.

ROBINSON: Now it's kind of fun to think about, but for years after The Play I was pissed. And I felt a bit responsible since I was in that vanguard of people who ran on to the field. The next year I got a little revenge. The morning of The Big Game I called around to find the Cal band's bus company and cancelled their buses to Palo Alto.

ANDERSON: Stanford lost that Big Game, too, so watching the very tardy Cal band march down the ramp into the stadium midway through the second quarter was a highlight. I'm impressed they made it at all. The Cal band had that same never-say-die attitude Joe Kapp instilled in his football team.

JOE KAPP (Cal's rookie coach): I show The Play to kids groups, I show it at the prison in Soledad. The message? The game of football lasts 60 minutes, not 59! And it took a whole community to make the Play happen. It's not a sport that just one person can do. As great as Elway was, he couldn't do it all himself.

WIGGIN: The Play probably cost John the Heisman Trophy, and I've always felt bad about that. My life wasn't ended by it, though my job was. I coached another year, but I probably shouldn't have. It was not a fun year. But at some point you say, this is part of history. I mean, nobody died! Ask anyone who knows me, I can joke about it. One day during my first training camp with the Vikings, in 1985, there were two young sportswriters who were trying to be funny. One was wearing a T-shirt with The Play. The other one said, 'Coach, did you see what he's wearing?' I said, 'I did see it, Bob, and you tell that little SOB that if I ever see it again I'm going to rip it off his body!' You should have seen these guys; they didn't know what to do. Finally I had to say, 'I'm just joking!'

RODGERS: The Play impacted my life in a lot of ways. As a football coach, when I have to stand in front of a team and give them some kind of hope for winning a game, I think I have pretty good wildcard in my pocket. In fact, everyone thinks I carry a DVD of the Play in my pocket.

HARMON: I only think about The Play once a year, and I don't watch the shows with the top 10 sports moments. I do remember watching a bowl game years later where there was a play with several laterals. I thought, maybe THIS will push us down that list.

MOEN: It didn't alter my life beyond giving me a great memory and unique connection to Cal. There have been a lot dramatic endings in sports, but to me, nothing will be as unique as The Play because you very rarely see the band on the field.

STARKEY: Years ago (San Francisco Chronicle columnist) Scott Ostler showed me a website that listed famous quotes of the 20th Century. Number one was "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Number two was "Ask not what your country can do for you." Number three was "The band is on the field!" Any sportscaster wants to have made some call you can be remembered by. Al Michaels had "Do you Believe in Miracles?" Russ Hodges had "The Giants win the pennant!" The Play was mine. (To hear Starkey's full call of the Play, go here.)

DOTTERER: The Play taught me that anything can happen. I'm blown away when I see professional athletes who give up with time on the clock. That said, I never felt like we lost that game. That's why the game will go down in history. Everybody on the Stanford side believes we won the game. And it'll probably always be that way. Whenever Stanford wins the Axe we change the 1982 score back to 20-19.

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