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Up was down

The author, and Cal alum, recalls The Play

Posted: Wednesday July 18, 2007 2:41PM; Updated: Thursday July 26, 2007 11:55AM
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Sweet music: Cal's Kevin Moen exulted after his mad dash through the Stanford marching band in 1982.
Sweet music: Cal's Kevin Moen exulted after his mad dash through the Stanford marching band in 1982.
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By Michael Silver

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The crazy people rose in unison, their movements guided by the brisk, familiar beat of drums, the folly of youth and, from deep in their guts, a communal wave of indefatigable defiance.

Plain as the cloudless day, the scoreboard at California Memorial Stadium read Stanford 20, Cal 19, 0:04 remaining. By all logical accounting, the crazy people's beloved Golden Bears had just suffered the most crushing defeat imaginable in one of those incredible rivalry games that bring out the best in every passionate participant.

Yet, after all the Bears and their committed fans had gone through on this invigorating November Saturday -- the spectacular one-handed touchdown catches by Wes Howell and Mariet Ford, the fourth-quarter fumble that seemed to clinch the game -- John Elway and his god-like right arm had punched them in the gut again. The Stanford senior's pass on fourth-and-17 begat Mark Harmon's go-ahead field goal, and now a third of the stadium was celebrating madly as Cardinal players and band members bounced up and down on the playing field.

It had been a great game, to be sure, but now Cal's promise had turned to brutal disappointment: Elway and Stanford would head for the Hall of Fame Bowl while the Bears, in Joe Kapp's first season as coach, would fall to 6-5.

So why were the blue and gold-clad students dancing like all was right in their universe, doing their usual pre-kickoff cheer with a "We are NOT losing this game" verve? Even by Berkeley standards, this was weird. What the hell were they tripping on?

I was a 17-year-old high school senior, attending the game 350 miles north of my home after my dad surprised me by scoring tickets in the Cal alumni section. Even if the greatest finish in college football history had not played out over the next few moments, I'd have remembered those crazy people and their delusional dance for a long, long time.

What happened next -- The Play, Cal's five-lateral kickoff return through the Stanford band and into the annals of sports history -- we've all seen replays of it dozens of times. My memory of the moment is simultaneously vivid and blurred; The Play played out in waves of motion and emotion, and summoned a scary, exhilarating sensation that this simply cannot be.

You've heard Joe Starkey's delirious call; here's what I would have said had I been able to breathe: "Cal guy, No. 26, gets it, throws it back toward the sidelines... another lateral to the little guy in the middle -- he's dead. Stanford players stop his motion, it's over... No, no, NO! Ball is free, they're still running, a bunch of them together... red band in the way! They're everywhere! Stop! Stop! Not allowed... But they're not stopping! Blue guy throws it again, he's not even looking, 26 has it... They're going in! They're in? They're In! They're IN! Flags! Had to be a forward lateral. Had to be. Refs in a circle, they're calling it back, right? ... Wish there was a replay screen... They're taking forever... Come on, come on, COME ON! ... Everybody's talking, pointing... No one really knows... Come on! ... Look, the ref is stepping out of the circle; what's he doing?... HIS ARMS ARE UP! HIS ARMS ARE UP! MY ARMS ARE UP! ... They're pointing to the sky..."

More than 30 minutes later, still smiling and standing atop our seats, we saw the students stream out of the stadium and into Strawberry Canyon, chanting and hugging and basking in the glory of the Miracle of Memorial that they somehow seemed to have seen coming. Or, as absurd as it sounds, had they somehow provoked the miracle, collectively willing an alternate ending to a phenomenal passion play?

Squinting into the late-afternoon sunshine, I couldn't really be sure, and I still can't. All I knew was that the crazy people, like the players they cheered, had battled blithely to the bitter end, logic be damned.

Nine months later I stood among them, proudly and resolutely certain that up was down.

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