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?