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Play It Again

Even 20 years later, remarkable ending to Cal-Stanford game revives vivid memories

November 22, 2002|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

You may have seen the videotape over the years and, if not, you'll no doubt get another chance this week to savor "The Play," the California Bears' wild-eyed run into college football history.

The 20th anniversary of Cal's helter-skelter dash for the Stanford end zone arrives this week and, as one who was there, I am here to say: Check out the videotape that will make the sports highlight shows this week. Listen to the sports blooper-style descriptions that spill off the commentators' tongues. And know that being there was so much better.

In Berkeley, there is many a path to personal identity. Drummers stage daylong jams on the quad. Hacky sacks fly from the feet of young men in dreadlocks. A Chaucer scholar strides across campus in combat boots. And an optimistic few wrap themselves in blue and gold and make the climb up the hill to Memorial Stadium. They make up perhaps the oddest clique of all -- that of the Cal football fan.

By the time "The Play" rolled around on Nov. 20, 1982, I had been fully indoctrinated into this quirky subculture. I had four years of undergraduate rooting under my belt. I'd joined friends on an implausible motor home odyssey all the way to Nebraska, where we met kindly farmers and watched giant red Cornhuskers roll over the scrappy Golden Bears. I'd once even broken into the stadium on the hill in Berkeley with my drunken pals and spent a night on the field near the "Andy Smith Bench". (Smith coached Cal to several undefeated seasons in the 1920s.) And, only a year before, I had been sports editor of the campus paper, the Daily Californian.

By game day two decades ago, this native Southern Californian had bought into the culture of the Golden Bears. That meant obsessing on the Cal-Stanford rivalry above all others and earnestly accepting that the annual football showdown truly was "The Big Game."

Stanfordites fill the stadium with catcalls at us "weenies," and maybe even float a giant helium-filled frankfurter over the stands to make their point. Cal fans respond by storming the field and tackling the Stanford mascot -- a giant, dancing tree. Anyone wearing "lowly Stanford red" into Cal's rooting section probably will leave shirtless and, possibly, bruised.

In the decade leading up to the 1982 game, several Cal-Stanford matchups had come down to the last possession. The schools' all-time series was close to even (OK, Stanford won a few more games) and the two teams, after nearly 100 years of football, had scored nearly an identical number of points. Who needed Rose Bowls?

Cal (6-4) had the home-field advantage that year, playing in intimate Memorial Stadium (once rated by a national sports magazine as one of the best places in the country to watch bad football). But Stanford (5-5) had something better, it seemed. It had the best player on the field and maybe the best in the country, quarterback John Elway.

Even before its sublime ending, the game unfolded as a classic.

The Bears' first two touchdowns came on brilliant catches that would have been the talk of any other season. Mariet Ford, a diminutive wide receiver, delivered the first score with a diving catch at the back of the end zone, clawing an overthrown ball into his body from a full layout position. In the fourth quarter, Cal retook the lead when beefy Wes Howell went horizontal just across the goal line and snagged the ball in his giant, basketball player hands.

By then, Stanford fans had seen enough of Cal and the referees. Each time Cal quarterback Gale Gilbert threw the ball, no matter how far off the mark, they would rise and thrust their hands over their heads in mock "touchdown!" salutes .... Smart alecks.

Cal's two early leads did not last and, as the shadows began to lengthen over Strawberry Canyon, Elway got the ball back one last time. There was only 1:27 left. Everyone present knew this uber athlete was more than prepared to bring Stanford back again.

At first, luck was with the Bears. Elway first threw for a loss, then had two passes fall incomplete. Stanford faced fourth down and 17 yards to go, deep in its own end of the field. I could say it seemed to be a miracle that Elway picked his way free of the ferocious Cal blitz on fourth down, before firing the ball 29 yards downfield in a perfect strike to wide receiver Emile Harry. It seemed to be what always happens when Cal and harsh reality collide.

Stanford kicker Mark Harmon was soon on the field and we watched, our stomachs in knots, as the inevitable field goal fell through the goal posts in the north end zone. Stanford seemed to have it won, 20-19. When the Leland Stanford Jr. University marching band struck up its fight song, "All Right Now," all we could do was gape at the field, zombie-like.

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