We write sports history through the nicknames bestowed upon its biggest moments. In 1951, Bobby Thomson clubbed the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to send his team to the World Series. Miami’s “No-Name Defense” aided the first and only perfect NFL season in 1972. Michael Jordan hit “The Shot” in 1989, foreshadowing the unparalleled decade ahead. Auburn’s “Kick Six” will give me chills for years to come.
Mythical moments deserve equally iconic designations. But when we’re talking about “the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football,” as Cal announcer Joe Starkey eloquently described it, the name is simple, yet perfect.
Today, we remember “The Play.”
Stanford Cardinal vs. California Golden Bears
“The Big Game” was already established as one of college football’s best rivalries, and the 85th addition bubbled with storylines. For the University of California, Berkeley, a win boosted their resume in hopes of reaching a bowl game. Stanford quarterback John Elway, a future College Football Hall of Fame inductee, was playing his final game for the Cardinal before the 1983 NFL Draft.
Elway delivered. After converting a 4th-and-17 deep in Stanford territory, Elway drove his team down for the go-ahead field goal. Stanford took a 20-19 lead with four seconds on the clock, and Joe Starkey told his audience, “Only a miracle can save the Bears now.”
A miracle descended on California Memorial Stadium that day.
Stanford-Cal: The Play
After over-celebrating taking the lead, Stanford was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. That meant the ensuing kickoff moved back to the 25-yard line as opposed to its usual spot on the 40. Stanford’s Mark Harmon sent a squib kick that was fielded at Cal’s 45-yard line. Chaos ensued.
Lateral 1: Cal’s Kevin Moen scooped up the ball, turned and quickly tossed left to Richard Rodgers.
Lateral 2: Rodgers, trapped along the sideline, patiently flipped back to Dwight Garner.
Lateral 3: Garner pushed forward into a pile, but was met immediately. He managed to free the ball and toss back to Rodgers. Stanford players thought Garner was tackled and down, making this the pivotal point of the sequence. At this moment, all 144 members of the Stanford band meandered onto the end of the field, thinking the kickoff return was over.
Lateral 4: Now free, Rodgers peeled right and crossed midfield. Using a formation rugby players can’t help but admire, he tossed back into a crowd of blue jerseys, finding Mariet Ford, who was Cal’s Most Valuable Player in 1982. (Ford was sentenced to 45 years in prison in 1998 for killing his pregnant wife and toddler son.)
Lateral 5: Screaming upfield, Ford dove into three Stanford defenders and lobbed the ball backwards. That final pitch landed into Kevin Moen’s hands at Stanford’s 25-yard line. No one stopped him from reaching the end zone, not even the Cardinal marching band.
Controversy prevails to this day. Was Dwight Garner’s knee down? Did that final lateral pass travel forward, therefore making it illegal? With cameras, instant replay and challenges not being the (dare I say) advanced tools used in today’s game, the referees conferred and deemed the play a legal touchdown.
Forgotten amidst the calamity was that UC Berkeley accidentally took the field with only 10 players. Down by one AND going on the power play? They deserved the win.
Final score: Cal 25, Stanford 20.
“The Band Is Out On The Field”
This Cal-Stanford college football game ranks among the greatest in NCAA history, but Kevin Moen wasn’t the only hero created that day.
Stanford band member and trombone player Gary Tyrrell, who Moen ran over after scoring the game-winning touchdown, became a symbol of “wrong place, wrong time.”
“When I’m introduced to someone new and the person doing the introducing says I was the trombone player in The Play, there’s recognition all around the world,” Tyrrell told The Daily Californian in 2012. “Wherever I might be, they remember that play.”
The most popular trombonist since J.J. Johnson says most people’s initial reaction is something like, ‘You should have tackled him.’
Could you even imagine…
Joe Starkey, the man behind the mythological call, went on to call games for the San Francisco 49ers’ radio broadcasts. He presided over two Super Bowls and numerous 49ers moments over two decades. He was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in 2009. The radio booth at California Memorial Stadium is called the “Joe Starkey Broadcast Booth.”
This post was originally published on May 28, 2020.