Why didn't I tackle him?
Six years later and 3,000 miles away, the question still haunts me. So sometimes, on brisk Saturday mornings in the fall, I head for New York City's Central Park with my saxophone to reenact that tragic day when I, along with the rest of the Stanford Band (actually, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band), changed the fortunes of the Cardinal football team. I play a few of my favorite tunes as I watch pickup football games on the park's Great Lawn. And invariably, when one team kicks off to the other, I feel an urge to run onto the field. I turn toward the ballcarrier, and duck my head to make the tackle. But I never go through with it. I'm just not the type to interfere.
The situation was pretty much the same six years ago, on Nov. 20, 1982, at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif. In the closing seconds, Stanford scored what appeared to be a game-winning field goal. But with four seconds remaining in the game, the University of California ran a five-lateral kickoff return past me and through the Stanford Band, which was on the field, in what has been known ever since simply as The Play. Brushing by future engineers and physicists before leveling a trombone player in the end zone, the last Cal ballcarrier scored the winning touchdown and marched into football history.
I know, because I was in the band. And to this day, I honestly believe that last play was my fault. I feel responsible for having led the Stanford Band onto the field before the game was over, a move that caused Stanford's painful loss of the Big Game—the all-important season finale.
November 21, 1988
It turns out that other band members blame themselves, too. In fact, we'll never know for sure who led the band onto the field. On the videotape of the game, you can catch a glimpse of me carrying a tenor saxophone and sporting a tall, cone-shaped headpiece. (With the last name of Kohn, I was known in the band as "Kohnhead," after the old Saturday Night Live routine.) But the camera focused on the ball, not the band, during those last few moments, so nobody knows for sure who was at the front of the pack.
This is the way I remember it: I was waiting just outside the Stanford end zone in my official band uniform—red jacket, black pants, white sneakers and, as prescribed in our handbook, "the ugliest tie you can find." We also wore white hard hats that day to protect us from the frozen oranges hurled by Cal fans.
The Cardinal, led by senior quarterback John Elway, had just taken a 20-19 lead after a long drive capped by a dramatic field goal, and with only four seconds left, the ensuing kick-off would end the game. Anxious to lead the charge from the end zone, I pushed my way to the front of the band. I slung my sax under my right arm and reached up with my left hand to keep the hard hat from falling off my cone. Going into a slight crouch, I dug the toes of my white hightops into the artificial turf and peered over my sunglasses to watch for my cue to march onto the field.
With a roar from the stands, Stanford kicked off to Cal. The Bears then started to bring the ball up the field toward us. The Stanford players moved in to make the final tackle, as the fans behind us bellowed out the countdown. "Four, three, two, one!" I was off, screaming at the top of my lungs while sprinting onto the field: "Wedidit! Wedidit! We...Damn it."
I was somewhere near the Cardinal 40-yard line when, about 20 yards away, a Cal player erupted from what had appeared to be the game-ending tackle. He had the ball! I broke out in a sweat as I realized what a fool I had been. The play wasn't over.
My mind raced as my embarrassment turned to panic. Why had I run? What had triggered me? Had I actually heard the final whistle? I had played football in high school, and I knew that a game wasn't necessarily over when the clock expired—you had to wait for the final tackle. Here I was, caught on the field in front of 76,000 howling fans, not to mention all those TV viewers.
At that moment, it dawned on me that I hadn't yet actually interfered with the play. There was time to escape, a chance that my errant jaunt might go unnoticed. But when I turned to retreat, I was nearly trampled by a rampaging mass of redcoats. The band! Had they come to lynch me for disgracing the mighty Stanford name? No, they stormed right past me. They, too, had come to celebrate.
I dodged the onslaught of my fellow madcap musicians, some of whom turned and joined me as I scampered back toward the end zone. My panic started to subside as I ran beneath the goalpost, but then I remembered Stanford head coach Paul Wiggin.
Coach Wiggin was surely going to come after me for leading the band onto the field. I pictured him in hot pursuit of my highly conspicuous headpiece. I had to shed my identity. First I pulled the cone off my head and drop-kicked it among the bug-eyed band members who now pressed close around me. Then I looked around desperately and saw—yes!—my roommate, Jake Jeakle. I grabbed the trumpet from beneath Jake's arm, and thrust my saxophone toward him, demanding a trade. Jake was confused, but seemed to sympathize. He cowered next to me, but I quickly moved away, leaving him to fend for himself.
Meanwhile, all eyes were directed at the game's officials, who huddled near midfield. I was sure they were deciding my fate. As the crowd waited restlessly for the decree, I prayed the officials would just decide to take the play over. I couldn't understand why they were making such a fuss.
I was completely ignorant of the fact that a touchdown had been scored—oblivious even to the fact that trombonist Gary Tyrrell had been clobbered by ballcarrier Kevin Moen in the end zone. (It wasn't until later that evening, when I saw the replay, that I realized Moen had run past several band members—within tackling distance—down the Stanford sideline.)
Finally, the officials emerged from their meeting with a ruling. Touchdown! "Touchdown?" I said to myself. Were they punishing the band? Because I hadn't seen Moen make it to the end zone, I wondered if they had awarded Cal a touchdown because of the possibility the Bears might have scored if the band hadn't interfered. I thought the decision was preposterous, but I was in no position to complain—I had caused this mess. I was devastated.
A boom from the cannon atop the hill overlooking Memorial Stadium announced the Cal victory and ignited a roar from the home crowd, which spilled onto the field. We stood in shock as three members of Stanford's Axe Committee, guardians of the game's trophy (the head of an axe mounted on a plaque), removed the chains that had attached them to the trophy, and relinquished the Axe to a Cal committee. Cal 25, Stanford 20. (Stanford, by the way, has never accepted that score, and continues to change it on the trophy to "20-19" whenever it takes home the Axe after the Big Game. Cal, of course, changes it back when it gets the Axe.)
Our drum major blew his whistle, suddenly bringing the band back to reality. We despondently began playing Hail, Stanford, Hail, making a lame attempt to absolve ourselves of any wrongdoing. Stanford fans stood dumbfounded. I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to find a fuming Wiggin rushing toward me. My glances were met instead by Cal fans who applauded and mouthed thank you's to the Stanford band members in the stadium din.
The ovation continued as our bus slowly rolled out of Berkeley. I realized that not only had the loss spoiled Elway's last chance for a winning season (we would have had a 6-5 record), but it also ruined Stanford's shot at a postseason appearance at the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham.
I was doomed. We were on our way back to Palo Alto, where I was sure I would be collected by the authorities. Coach Wiggin would probably spit on me as they loaded me into the paddy wagon. The conehead, which had been my key to acceptance in the band, had now been my downfall.
But back at Stanford it became apparent that, although the band would bear the brunt of the guilt for the calamity, many other factors surfaced to relieve us of the ultimate blame. A penalty flag had been thrown during the play, but it was against Stanford so the penalty was declined. Stanford's coaches contended that Cal didn't have the required number of players on the front line for the last play (it didn't, but the officials didn't see it); that one of the officials had whistled the play dead when the third ballcarrier's knee touched the ground; and that one of the five laterals had actually been a forward pass. More important to me personally was the revelation that many players from both benches, including some of the Stanford players who now accused the band of causing the loss, had also gone onto the field prematurely, thinking that the game was over.
Not only was the band eventually exonerated by most people, but The Play also turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us. It brought exposure, publicity, fame and talk-show appearances to the bandsmen, especially to our famous, or infamous, tackled trombone player, Tyrrell. On network TV he received an apology from none other than Kevin Moen, as well as $500 from the show.
"Why didn't you tackle him?" band members were often asked. "Well, he was huge, for one thing," I heard one bandsman mumble. Six years later I can't help wondering how the sequence of events might have changed if we had actually tackled Moen. There were 200 of us. We could have taken him.
Jim Kohn works for a toy company in Manhattan when he's not dreaming of tackling.