At the 20-yard line Roy Riegels, captain-elect of California's 1929 football team, was running exultantly free and clear. In this Rose Bowl game, of all games, chance had picked him to carry California's destiny—a center, for once he had the ball. A touchdown lay ahead, but a nagging voice kept shouting at him above the roar of the crowd: "Stop, stop! You're running the wrong way!"
The voice belonged to Riegels' teammate, Benny Lom, who had been desperately chasing his score-happy captain for more than 40 yards. At the 10-yard line, Lom managed to grab him, but Riegels shook him off. "Get away from me," he shouted. "This is my touchdown." At the three-yard line Lom grabbed him again and this time held on. Riegels finally realized that something was wrong and turned around. But a wave of Georgia Tech men rolled over him, leaving him stranded and gasping on his own one-yard line. He had run 62 yards in the wrong direction, chased by Lom and an incredulous Georgia Tech team, to produce what was probably the zaniest play in football history.
Up in the stands, radio announcer Graham McNamee sputtered incoherently into his microphone: "What's the matter with me? Am I crazy?"
He might well have wondered; and he wasn't the only one who did. It was early in the second quarter and Georgia Tech's halfback, J.C. Thomason, had fumbled the ball. Riegels recovered it on the first bounce and started to run with it (which today's rules would not allow), turning toward the Georgia Tech goal. He took a few steps, then spun to avoid being tackled. Suddenly an open field lay before him. The rest is history. Tackle Steve Bancroft, watching him go, yelled to Guard Bert Schwartz: "Boy, am I glad I didn't pick up that fumble! I'd have run the other way!"
January 3, 1955
Riegels' mistake, which set up the margin of defeat for California, inspired a massive mail. He was immediately dubbed "Wrong Way Riegels." One letter writer proposed marriage. Others wanted to arrange sponsorship of upside-down cakes, a backward walkathon, a necktie with stripes running the wrong way. Although the 165-pound center put in a fine season with California in 1929 (even making a few All America teams), he remained Wrong Way Riegels.
Now 44, Riegels is an executive of a large cannery, lives in a comfortable Sacramento home with his wife and two boys. "I used to be sensitive," he says, "but everybody else thought it was funny and I finally decided that all I could do was laugh with them. Sometimes my 10-year-old son calls me 'Wrong Way Riegels'—and I don't even spank him for it."