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.
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.