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The Anatomy Of A Miracle
Ron Fimrite
September 01, 1983
The wildest kickoff return in history began when Kevin Moen of Cal fielded a Stanford squib (right) and ended, five laterals and a felled trombone player later, amid hysteria
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September 01, 1983

The Anatomy Of A Miracle

The wildest kickoff return in history began when Kevin Moen of Cal fielded a Stanford squib (right) and ended, five laterals and a felled trombone player later, amid hysteria

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It is now called, simply, The Play. There is no need for further explanation, because there has never been anything in the history of college football to equal it for sheer madness. You've seen The Play, of course. Anyone who so much as glanced at football on television in the final weeks of last season must have seen it, for scarcely a college or professional game was shown that did not feature The Play at halftime, usually to the musical accompaniment of the William Tell Overture. But if by some phenomenal oversight you did miss it, videotapes of it are available from the University of California at $100 a pop. Within two months of The Play, the university had sold more than 250 tapes. For a lot less—$6.50—you can buy a tape recording of announcer Joe Starkey's hysterical account of The Play from San Francisco radio station KGO. Within three weeks, more than 4,000 of these tapes had been sold. T shirts with a complex diagram of The Play, marketed by Cal's Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity, are also available for $8. Some 20,000 of these had been sold by the end of July. Glossy photographs of The Play can be purchased from the Oakland Tribune for $5 apiece. In short, The Play has become the basis of a sort of cottage industry.

It all happened as the clock ran out on the 85th Big Game between Cal and Stanford at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley last November 20 before many of the original crowd of 75,662. Stanford had gone ahead 20-19 on a 35-yard field goal by Mark Harmon with four seconds to play. At that point the game was already being acclaimed as the most thrilling in the long history of this exciting rivalry. Even Cal supporters were prepared to concede that they had witnessed a classic.

When Stanford kicked off after the field goal...well, more about that later. For now, it's enough to say that as The Play unfolded, the players shared their turf with virtually the entire Stanford band, several Stanford cheerleaders, assorted spectators, three members of the Stanford Axe Committee—to the winner of the Cal-Stanford game goes the Axe—who were holding aloft the victory trophy on the Stanford 17-yard line, and at least 11 illegal players who had wandered onto the field from the benches of the teams. A trombone player in the Stanford band would become as celebrated afterward as any of the victorious athletes, and at one point Cal would have players named Richard Rodgers and Gilbert and Sullivan on the field at once, only one of them legally. "It appeared to me that the weakest part of the Stanford defense was the woodwinds," said spectator Ellen Edmondson afterward. Actually, the band played only a minor note in an event that one Cal player, Running Back John Tuggle, described as "an act of God."

Cal has an honorable history of bizarre football plays. In the 1929 Rose Bowl game against Georgia Tech, Golden Bear Center Roy Riegels ran 69 yards in the wrong direction with a recovered fumble, a blunder that led to a safety and an 8-7 loss. In 1940, a Cal fan named Bud Brennan jumped out of his seat in the south end zone at Memorial Stadium and tried to tackle Michigan's Tommy Harmon near the goal line. And there was a beaut in 1945 against UCLA. Cal's Ed Welch picked up teammate Jack Lerond's blocked punt and headed for the UCLA goal 66 yards downfield. Hemmed in on the UCLA 40, he lateraled to Lerond, who ran the rest of the way into the end zone for the winning touchdown. Gems all, but none matched The Play. More important, none occurred in the Big Game.

The Cal-Stanford rivalry is one of the oldest west of the Mississippi, dating from 1892, a season when the student manager of the Stanford football team was an engineering major named Herbert Hoover. The designation Big Game may seem a trifle pretentious to Easterners, or even to partisans of USC and UCLA, but Cal and Stanford do have a great deal of tradition going for them. Moreover, the series has been characterized to an extraordinary extent by upsets and last-second victories. Forty games have been decided by seven points or fewer, and though Stanford leads the series 40-35-10, it has scored only 26 more points than Cal in the 85 games.

The 1982 Big Game was the fourth in a decade to be decided within the last two minutes and the third to be won on the final play. In 1972, with three seconds left, Cal freshman Vince Ferragamo (yes, that one) completed an eight-yard touchdown pass to Steve Sweeney for a 24-21 win, and in 1974, Stanford won 22-20 on Mike Langford's 50-yard field goal with no time showing on the clock. Stanford won 27-24 in 1976 with a leisurely 1:31 remaining.

The favored team in this rivalry generally stands on shaky turf. In 1947, Cal came into the Big Game with an 8-1 record in its first season under Coach Pappy Waldorf. Stanford was 0-8 and had averaged fewer than seven points a game. Only art 80-yard pass play from Jackie Jensen to injured Halfback Paul Keckley with slightly more than two minutes remaining gave the Golden Bears a 21-18 victory. In 1941, Stanford's second Wow Boy T-formation team, under Clark Shaughnessy, entered the Big Game a prohibitive favorite over a Cal team with a 3-5 record. Stanford, quarterbacked by Frankie Albert, was 6-2. A win over the Bears, coupled with an Oregon State loss to Oregon, would send Stanford to the Rose Bowl for the second straight year. Cal scored on its first play from scrimmage and went on to win 16-0.

There was little to choose between the teams in 1982. Cal, under a rookie coach, Joe Kapp, was 6-4, Stanford 5-5. In four of its losses, however, the Cardinal had been oh so close. Arizona State won 21-17 in the final 11 seconds; San Jose State won 35-31 in the last five minutes; UCLA squeaked by 38-35; and Arizona scored 28 points in the last 12 minutes to win 41-27, after Stanford had led 27-13. Stanford had also won a couple of thrillers, upsetting Ohio State 23-20 with 34 seconds left and beating Washington State 31-26 with 22 seconds to play. The Cardinal's most gratifying victory had been over No. 2-ranked Washington on Oct. 30. With that 43-21 upset and the big win over the Buckeyes, both on national television, Stanford seemed assured, despite its five losses, of an invitation to the Hall of Fame Bowl. It was an exciting team offensively, and in John Elway it had a player many observers were calling the best college quarterback ever. A win over the Golden Bears would presumably still leave Elway in the running for the Heisman Trophy, even with his team's undistinguished record. Stanford was a seven-point favorite over a Cal team that had been brutally beaten by USC (42-0), Washington (50-7), Arizona State (15-0) and UCLA (47-31). The Bears expected no bowl bids.

Still, Kapp, who had never coached at any level, was assured a winning season, refuting criticism, much of it from fellow coaches, that he had no business in a job for which he was so manifestly unqualified. The old Minnesota Viking quarterback did have some problems early on—three assistant coaches quit, and Gale Gilbert, who was to start at quarterback, threatened to—but Kapp grew in office, as the old expression goes, and after his team opened with two victories, the question of his qualifications seemed moot. And his zeal was infectious. Kapp is fond of uttering ringing bromides—"One hundred [per cent] for 60 [minutes]"; "The Bear will not quit, the Bear will not die"—as if they revealed truth. Although some of his bombast more amused than aroused the relatively sophisticated Berkeley students, he did successfully drum into his players the conviction that the game is not over until the final gun. In the 85th Big Game, this became a crucial advantage.

Kapp also insisted that playing football at Cal should be fun. He introduced a game played in Sunday workouts called, euphemistically, "garbazz" (pronounced gar-bahz). "It's Mexican-French for grab-ass, naturally," says Kapp. "We used to play it when I was with the Vikings. It's a mixture of basketball and football with elements of rugby. You just work the ball downfield" by passing it back and forth. Any pass can be a forward pass. There are no offsides. When the ball is dropped the next play starts from there. We do it on the day after a game just to break a sweat. It's the only day we have to relax and have some fun. We have to meet and look at film and get ready for the next week, but there's no reason we can't have a little fun while we're at it:" He could not have predicted that the climactic play of the Big Game would, in effect, be a variation of garbazz.

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