Posted: Thursday October 18, 2012 12:53PM ; Updated: Thursday October 18, 2012 3:24PM

An oral history of The Play: Looking back on wild finish 30 years later

Story Highlights

In 1982, Stanford and Cal staged one of most memorable finishes in sports history

A five-lateral kickoff return with the Stanford band on field resulted in a touchdown

Key participants reflected on The Play in oral history written by a member of band

By Kelli Anderson,

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Kevin Moen
Kevin Moen's touchdown to beat Stanford in 1982 capped what is still considered the most famous finish in college football history.
Robert Stinnett/Oakland Tribune/AP
Where are they now?
Mike Dotterer: Independent investor in social commerce networks living in the Bay Area.

John Elway: A Denver Broncos executive after winning two Super Bowls with the organization. Can be seen declaring his "comfort" with The Play in a recent Dove soap commercial.

Mark Harmon: Employee of Liberty Mutual Insurance in Portland, Ore.

Gary Robinson: Owner of a health care firm in the Bay Area. Twenty six years ago, an essay on The Play helped gain him admission into Stanford's Business School.

Gary Tyrrell: Stanford season ticket holder and chief financial officer of the Woodside Fund in the Bay Area.

Paul Wiggin: Has held various positions with the Minnesota Vikings since 1985. When Stanford's former star defensive end fwas inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005, the cover of the program featured a picture of the trombone from the Play.

Mariet Ford: Serving a 45-years-to-life prison term in California for the 1997 murder of his pregnant wife and three-year-old son.

Kevin Moen: Runs his own real estate agency in Southern California.

Dwight Garner: Director of Risk and Insurance at Interim HealthCare in Coral Springs, Fla.

Joe Kapp: Resident of the Bay Area and available for speaking engagements.

Richard Rodgers: Special teams assistant with the Carolina Panthers. Panthers coach Ron Rivera also played for Cal in the 1982 Big Game. They try not to discuss The Play in staff meetings.

Joe Starkey: Cal's radio play-by-play announcer for KGO. Has met several people who can recite his call of The Play verbatim, something even he can't do anymore.

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?

MARK HARMON (Stanford kicker): Before that field goal, I felt a nervousness I had never felt before. My brain was going crazy. But as soon as I got on the field, I felt calm. I don't remember a whole lot about the field goal itself ... you kind of see the snap and then it's, ba-boom! There's not much to think about but it's good, and we won! That's what I was thinking. We won the game, and if we have to kick off, we still won the game. My instructions for the kickoff -- I can't remember who gave them -- was squib the ball.

RICHARD RODGERS (Cal junior defensive back): With all the huge plays on both sides and all the ups and downs, that Big Game was probably the most emotional game I've ever been a part of. After Stanford's field goal, I had this really strong feeling: it's not over. In the huddle I said, Don't fall with the ball.

KEVIN MOEN (Cal senior defensive back): The coaches had called in our "hands" team. I was a former high school option quarterback, and so was Richard. And in our Sunday practices that year, Coach Kapp had introduced "Grabasso" or Grab-ass, which is basically a bunch of guys moving the ball around however you could move it. The Play would have a similar sense to it. But at that moment, our only strategy was Richard telling guys, don't let the ball die. When it was kicked to me, my first thought was, I'm going to score. I started running to the right. I look up and there were three or four Stanford guys. I have no idea why I looked to the left sidelines, and I have no idea why Richard was standing there waving to me. I just happened to see him and say, I've got nowhere to go -- here!

RODGERS: When I got the ball, I saw Stanford players coming at me so I immediately pitched the ball to Dwight Garner. Being the freshman he was, he just kept running. So I got behind him and yelled at him to pitch the ball back. When I got the ball a second time, I was confused, because I could see Stanford players coming on the field and then running off it.

KELLI ANDERSON: That's because most people there, including some of your own teammates and at least one ref who seemed to signal the play dead, thought Garner's knee was down before he pitched it.

RODGERS: He pitched it to me before he went down. I pretty much had the best seat in the house to see that. I ran as far as I could, then I lateraled it to Mariet Ford.

JOE STARKEY (Cal's play-by-play announcer for KGO radio): As Garner got tackled, I was ready to say, "They tried to do a couple of laterals but Garner got tackled and it's over ..." But as Garner's knee went down, the ball flew out and they kept it going. Apparently everybody else in the building thought the game was over, too. That's when several Cal players started walking on the field off their sidelines, and the Stanford Band decided to go out on the field. It was late afternoon in late November, Cal had no lights, so there were all sorts of things that were making it almost impossible to figure out what in god's name was going on down there.

PAUL WIGGIN (Stanford coach): What could I see? I saw the band, I saw our team, I saw a lateral, I saw a flag go down, I saw a guy pick up a flag, I saw all kinds of things. It was basically a 10-second nightmare.

MIKE DOTTERER (Stanford running back): From the sidelines we couldn't see Garner go down on the other side of the field, but there was an official who had his arms up like the play is over with. I think we saw that and thought, okay, someone tackled someone and all this stuff still going on is make-believe.

MOEN: Once Richard lateraled it to Mariet, the momentum of what we were doing kind of took hold. Okay, let's keep lateraling it and moving down the field that way. To me the most spectacular part of the Play was Mariet diving to take out a couple of Stanford guys and throwing it over his head in a no-look pass to me. When I got the ball the last time, I had a sense the band was on the field, but my thought was, we've kind of run our luck with this thing, I better get in the end zone. So I put my head down and started to weave through the band.

GARY ROBINSON (Assistant Stanford band manager who would take over as manager, as per tradition, immediately after the Big Game): The band had gathered behind the end zone to play a postgame concert. When I saw the guy's knee go down, I ran out on the field in celebration, along with a bunch of other people. It was totally spontaneous -- we were rushing the field. I had probably made it as far as the 20-yard line and was facing the stands when I felt this whoosh behind me. It was the Cal guy [Moen]. I thought, What's he doing? What a futile effort!

GARY TYRRELL (Stanford trombone player): I didn't run out on the field. I didn't even realize until I saw the film later that I had backed into the end zone. I'm not very tall and everyone was milling around, so I couldn't see the field. I was watching the scoreboard and the clock.

ANDERSON: I think I was also deep in the end zone. When the clock hit zero, I thought, Yay! Road trip to Birmingham! Then something really eerie happened. At the Big Game parade in San Francisco the night before, a car had driven through the band, sending the people in front of me scattering. At that moment on the field, it was the same thing -- people in red coats in front of me turning around and running for their lives. Then this guy in a blue jersey came barreling through the crowd -- and he had the ball.

TYRRELL: I saw him right before he hit me. I didn't realize how he had gotten there, so I didn't know it was a touchdown. I had seen cameramen get run over when a player gets run out of bounds, and that's what I thought had happened to me. So I just got up. It got really quiet. Then the cannon went off and the scoreboard changed, and it got really loud.
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