Top 50 Cal Sports Moments -- No. 25: Absent Crowd, 2020

COVID-19 was a global pandemic and in the fall of 2020 it meant playing the 123rd Big Game in an empty Memorial Stadium 
The 2020 Big Game without fans
The 2020 Big Game without fans / Photo courtesy of Cal Athletics

As the Pac-12 Conference era comes to a close after more than a century, we count down the Top 50 moments involving Cal athletics.

THE MOMENT: On the day after Thanksgiving in 2020, while settling into my seat in the press box at Memorial Stadium to watch Cal play Stanford, I gazed out the window to empty grandstands. Obviously, the pandemic had wreaked much greater harm elsewhere. But on this afternoon, in this venue, COVID-19 claimed one more victim: Normalcy in the 123rd Big Game.

THE STORY: In 1952, a Big Game record crowd of 83,000 jammed Memorial Stadium to watch Cal beat Stanford 26-0. 

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed a throng of 90,000 at Memorial Stadium on Cal’s Charter Day.

And in 1982, a capacity crowd of 75,662 fans watched the Bears pull off The Play to spoil John Elway’s final college game.

Opened in 1923, Memorial Stadium has always known how to pack ‘em in.

But on Nov. 27, 2020, the Bears and Cardinal met in Berkeley before a crowd of . . . no one. 

This was at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fans were not invited. No parents, no bands, no cheerleaders, no halftime show, no view from Tightwad Hill, no Stanford Tree, no Oski. 

Both coaches were sympathetic to what fans and players would miss. “I feel awful for them,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “This is a sport that was made to be seen by other people. There’s an energy that’s brought in the stadium, home or away, there’s the initial reactions from the crowd, and even when you’re locked in there’s moments where you do hear it and it gives you energy, whether they’re rooting for you or against you.”

The game was played on a Friday for the first time in its 123-year history, and for the first time both teams were winless for the Big Game, each 0-2 in a season that featured a series of cancellations.

Cal held a virtual Big Game rally the night before the game, replacing the traditional bonfire at the Greek Theater.

I covered the game in person, masked up and separated from the few fellow scribes who attended by newly installed clear plastic dividers between our seats in the press box. 

After months of experiencing life remotely, it was a relief to see a live sporting event. It was also, undeniably weird to sit in an empty stadium to take in what for more than a century had been one of the Bay Area’s biggest days in sports.

The game was a microcosm of Cal’s season, a collage of inevitable mistakes. Against Stanford, Dario Longhetto’s PAT kick was blocked with 58 seconds left, sealing Cal’s 24-23 defeat. 

At least no one was there to see it.

* Top 50 Moment No. 26: Oski-Tree Fights

* Top 50 Moment No. 27:  Papa Bear

Only specific acts that occurred while the team or athlete was at Cal were considered for the Top 50 list, and accomplishments spanning a season or a career were not included. 

Leslie Mitchell of the Cal Bears History Twitter site aided in the selection of the top 50 moments.

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo


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Jeff Faraudo

JEFF FARAUDO

Jeff Faraudo was a sports writer for Bay Area daily newspapers since he was 17 years old, and was the Oakland Tribune's Cal beat writer for 24 years. He covered eight Final Fours, four NBA Finals and four Summer Olympics.