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The Play lives on

After 20 years, football's most famous play still reverberates

Posted: Thursday November 21, 2002 4:25 PM
Updated: Thursday November 21, 2002 4:25 PM
  Kevin Moen The Play still arouses stong emotions among the players and coaches who participated. AP

By John Donovan,

At the beginning of almost every game, the Palos Verdes Colts, a Southern California Pop Warner team, try a trick play of some kind. Taking the kickoff one way, then stopping and throwing across the field. Running a double reverse. A flea-flicker. Things like that.

"Just some ways to get a little creativity into it," says their head coach, Kevin Moen, "and keep the other team off balance."

It's a lot of fun for the 13- and 14-year-olds who play for Moen, a 41-year-old Southern California real estate agent. And it's just as much fun for Moen, who is preaching now what he pulled off to perfection two decades ago.

It was 20 years ago this week that Moen, then a senior at the University of California, capped what is easily the single most famous play in football history. Moen's name may not be up there with Flutie or Elway. But Moen belongs.

He was the one who dashed the final 25 yards through the Stanford band, finally landing deep in the end zone on an unsuspecting trombonist, to score the winning touchdown on The Play.

Twenty long years ago and The Play still reverberates. It continues to astound, to amuse, to anger. It still affects, in some way, the lives of those who were part of it then -- and those who touch them now.

"Well," Moen says of the trick plays he calls for the Colts, "none of them is going to involve five laterals Ö"


The Play is just that. The Play.

Every team in America has a memorable play in its history. But none in the collective consciousness of American football -- pro, college or peewee -- is as memorable or as meaningful as The Play. Certainly none has been as improbable.

It was Nov. 20, 1982. The Big Game, Cal vs. Stanford, was being played that year at Cal's Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif. It was a heck of a game, a quarterback shootout of sorts between Cal sophomore Gale Gilbert and Stanford senior John Elway. When Elway completed a fourth-and-17 to set up a supposedly game-winning field goal and the Cardinal went ahead 20-19, four seconds remained on the clock.

It was plenty of time for Cal.

What followed has been shown thousands of times in the past 20 years, whenever some TV producer needs an example of a fantastic finish or the annual Cal-Stanford game approaches.

The Play was a kickoff return that covered 57 yards, involved an impromptu five laterals, at least a couple of questionable calls (or non-calls) by the referees, the entire 144-piece Stanford marching band, thousands of delirious fans on one side, as many stunned ones on the other, a host of confused coaches, administrators and 700 million other people who claim they were there that day.

It was largely comical, absolutely unbelievable, unprecedented and undoubtedly unrepeatable. In the frenzied words of Cal play-by-play man Joe Starkey as The Play ended, it was this:

"The Bears have won! The Bears have won! Oh my God! The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!"

You can hear that famous call, see The Play, every year at about this time.

Several times, if you want.

"I will never think of it as being funny," says Andy Geiger, the highly successful athletics director at Ohio State who was then the athletics director at Stanford. "Every time it comes on TV, I either leave the room or switch the channel."


There have been whole documentaries done on The Play, entire dissections in newspapers across the country. There are controversies. Still, there are controversies.

Maybe the most talked-about part of The Play, other than Moen's scoring and crashing into the trombonist, was the third lateral, the one that Dwight Garner made from his knee.

OK, if it wasn't his knee, it was darn close. Darn close.

"They moan and groan and bellyache about whether I was down," says Garner, laughing. "They had 70 people on the field. It was amazing we were able to do that."

Garner, now a 38-year-old executive for a Florida-based national sporting goods retailer, was an 18-year-old freshman at the time, and when he took the second lateral from special teams captain Richard Rodgers, in between the left hash mark and the left sideline, he barely got a couple of yards before three Stanford players brought him down at midfield.

As he was going down -- or afterward, many say -- he somehow squirted the ball out to Rodgers, who ran a couple of yards before pitching it to Mariet Ford at the Stanford 45-yard line. Ford then streaked across the field to about the Stanford 28 before he pitched it to Moen.

That's another funky part about The Play. Ford flipped it blindly over his shoulder to Moen at about the 28 or so. But by the time Moen hauled it in, the laws of physics being what they are, Moen already was on the Stanford 25-yard line. A forward lateral?

It's just another part of The Play that will be talked about for the next 20 years.


After Stanford's Mark Harmon kicked the field goal that put the Cardinal ahead, Rodgers pulled his special teamers together and told them that the Bears still had a chance. He told them to keep trying, to keep the ball alive, to pitch it back if getting tackled was the alternative.

"I like to say sometimes that was my first coaching job. Now, here I am, lo and behold, doing it full scale," says Rodgers, the defensive backs coach at New Mexico State.

It was not the first time Rodgers had done something like that. He was known as a rah-rah sort. "I'm sure," he said, "they weren't surprised I was speaking at the time."

It was the last time a speech of Rodgers' would result in something like that.

Moen took the squib kickoff from Harmon, moving toward the middle to cover a gap in the line, then pitched it to Rodgers. A one-time option quarterback, Rodgers pitched it to Garner, who pitched it back as he was being tackled.

Then Rodgers pitched it to Ford on the run, Ford floated the pitch to Moen and Moen scampered through a dozen or so overzealous Stanford band members and into the end zone.

Rodgers can't say that the play has had a daily effect on his life. But the lessons he learned from The Play certainly do.

"You kind of look at it in a number of ways -- overcome obstacles, reaching your goals, that sort of thing," he says. "It can cheer you up when you have a bad day. It works for a good story, when I need one.

"It's done a lot of things for me."

It has for Garner, too.

"You look back and you go, 'Wow, you never know what life holds for you,'" Garner says. "The subconscious is an incredible tool that we as humans have. We get fed subliminal messages all the time, through music and advertising. Subconsciously, you think back and you begin to say Ö 'As long as you have a breath, there's always hope and opportunity.' I think it really helps you be an optimist.

"You think there's still four seconds on the clock in everything you do."


The Play did not do that for everyone, of course.

Immediately after The Play, an enraged Geiger and several other Stanford officials went to the referees and protested. There were shouts. There was a good bit of pleading. The Play stood.

"I was angry," Geiger admits now. "I donít think my own actions after the game would be something that I would do today. I am not proud of them."

After The Play, Stanford's football program stumbled for years. Head coach Paul Wiggin was fired after going 1-10, including another loss to Cal, in 1983.

"It was over for me, basically. They went one more year with me because I had a lot of people there who wanted me there. But had I had it to do over again, I probably should have left right after that," says Wiggin, 68, now the director of pro scouting for the Minnesota Vikings. "Probably the reason I left Stanford had more to do with that than anything else."

Stanford players, especially the seniors, were crushed. For years, Elway contended that the loss to Cal ruined his college career. As organizers have tried to pull together a reunion of players for the 20th anniversary of The Play, several Stanford players have still refused to go.

"I just think that it is in the world of the bizarre," said Geiger of The Play. "I donít think there are any lessons to be learned. It brings to mind the Stanford band, which was one of my least favorite aspects of working there."


Gary Tyrrell was a quiet, unassuming young man who played trombone for the notably irreverent Stanford marching band. As the last seconds ticked off and the band stormed the field to celebrate what the musicians thought was a sure Cardinal victory, Tyrrell lagged behind.

And as the band in front of him started to scatter as The Play came its way, Tyrrell instinctively turned toward the back of the end zone, only to be dropped by Moen coming down from his celebratory leap.

"On a day-to-day basis, I really donít know that it has affected my life that much. Did I learn any lessons?" Tyrrell asks now. "I donít know -- to maybe pay a little closer attention to where you are?"

Tyrrell is now the chief financial officer for a venture capital firm in Redwood Shores, Calif. Over the years, because of the yearly requests for interviews, the speaking engagements and the reunions, he has learned to be more comfortable in front of people.

Most importantly to him, he has forged lasting relationships with people he never would have had a chance to meet. He and the man who crashed into him, Cal's Moen, consider each other friends now. He's also become friends with the Cal coach at the time, Joe Kapp.

"It's been sort of a rose that has come out of the pile of Ö whatever," Tyrrell says.

For years after The Play, Tyrrell was not a name that Stanford fans liked to hear. Tyrrell doesn't like to discuss it now, but there was a lot of resentment toward him and the rest of the Stanford band. It's a little ironic that Tyrrell got a lot of the blame even though The Play was essentially over by the time it got to him.

"It was not a proud moment for the Stanford band. It was a pretty bad display, and not very respectful of what was going on on the field," Tyrrell says. "It maybe was a little self-absorbed."

Still, as the years have gone by, as more and more fans -- even Stanford fans -- learned to appreciate The Play for its historical significance, the negatives that came from that moment 20 years ago have begun to fade.

"I donít know if everyone will forget, but at this point, it's really 'The sins of the father,'" Tyrrell says. "This, too, shall pass."


Four Cal players touched the ball on The Play, including Rodgers twice. None of them will be in Berkeley's Memorial Stadium this weekend to see The Game.

Moen will be in Southern California coaching his youth team. Garner will be back at his home in Florida. Rodgers will be in Moscow, Idaho, as his New Mexico State team plays Idaho.

The fourth player, Ford, who made the fifth and final lateral to Moen, is serving 45 years to life at the California State Prison at Solano for the 1997 murders of his 3-year-old son, his wife and the couple's unborn child.


Usually, with moments as famous as this, the legend grows. The memories fade a little, the stories start to get embellished, the whole happening morphs into something else over the course of a few years.

Not so with The Play. It is as clear in the minds now of those who were part of it as it is on the tapes of it that are replayed every year. There is nothing to embellish. It is The Play. Nothing else comes close.

"I'd love for the myth to grow. You know, Kapp drew up the play on the dirt on the sideline or something like that," says Moen. "But the reason the myth hasnít grown because it was pretty mythical when it happened."

Says Rodgers: "I remember it vividly. If I think back, I can remember when I did what I did. This being such an extraordinary thing, I remember it for the day it happened, the way it happened, the events leading up to it and the aftermath. I remember it all."

And so do many. It isn't always looked upon as fondly as Moen and Rodgers and many other Cal players and fans look upon it.

But, 20 years later, just about everyone has come to, at the very least, accept it.

"I think it hurt a lot of senior players. That was their last game," says Wiggin. "It changed some things in my life, too, but I didnít jump in some black hole. I can't say my life has fallen apart.

"I would say, probably, my life's better. That's just the way I believe, the way I think. I damn well got over it."

Geiger still sounds a note of bitterness about The Play, but that's more for the people who were hurt at Stanford. Geiger has moved on, of course, and done well. Ohio State plays Michigan this weekend. A win would propel the unbeaten Buckeyes into the national title game at the Fiesta Bowl

"It was extremely hard on the guys that played in the game and the coaching staff that was involved there. All of us will go to our graves believing that the third guy lateraled from his knees and the play was over," Geiger says.

"I would have preferred that it never happened."


When Moen talks to his Colts, he often speaks about never giving up, about playing hard until the final whistle has blown. "Hey, it's real easy to kind of give up when things arenít looking that good," he'll say.

Once in a while, The Play comes up and he'll talk to the team about it. And every once in a while, he'll learn from those he teaches.

"My son [Matt, 13] -- we'll be at a baseball game, and it's 8-0 or something in the eighth inning and I'll be like 'Let's get out of here,'" Moen says. "And he'll say 'Dad, we can't leave too early.' He makes me stick to the very last out."

The Play, 20 years later, lives on in a lot of ways.