- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

“My God, the Bears have won! The Bears have won! The most amazing, sensational, traumatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!”

OK, so University of California broadcaster Joe Starkey rolled out a few redundancies late on the afternoon of Nov.20, 1982, at the Golden Bears’ chaotic stadium in Berkeley, Calif. — he was entitled. It’s hard to remember a more bizarre finish to any sports event.

It has become known, simply and evocatively, as “The Play.” It turns up frequently on TV, and the wonder of watching it never fades.

Stanford, which leads California 20-19 with four seconds to play, squibs a kickoff after going ahead moments earlier on Mark Harmon’s 35-yard field goal. The ball is handled by three California players who toss a total of five laterals before Kevin “Moon Dog” Moen completes a 57-yard run by sprinting through members of the Stanford band who have come onto the field in premature celebration.

Here’s one adjective Starkey didn’t use: unbelievable.

And if Stanford fans were looking for a villain, they could find a most unlikely one: John Elway, the Cardinal’s brilliant senior quarterback who later made a specialty of winning last-minute decisions on behalf of the Denver Broncos.

Immediately, after the running play that preceded Stanford’s field goal, Elway turned to an official and signaled for a timeout. Then he looked at the scoreboard clock and banged both hands on the sides of his helmet, as in “what have I done?”

Why did Elway, regarded then and now as one of football’s smartest quarterbacks, call time out with eight seconds left? Why not wait until two or three seconds, eliminating the need to kick off after the field goal.

It was a mental error that Elway never explained and probably couldn’t.

His father, Jack, was driving to a game scheduled for his San Jose State team and listening to Starkey’s broadcast. After the surreal kickoff return, the elder Elway said, “I pulled over and beat my head against the steering wheel. Sixty-two times. I counted.”

Though nobody remembers the details now, the game was important for many reasons. At stake between the traditional Northern California rivals was a bowl bid and possession of “The Axe,” claimed annually by the winner. More than 75,000 spectators saw a seesaw game in which Stanford overcame a 10-0 halftime deficit by scoring two touchdowns in the third period.

Following Harmon’s go-ahead field goal, California safety Richard Rodgers gathered his teammates and exhorted them to go for broke on the kickoff, saying, “If you’re gonna get tackled, lateral the ball. Don’t fall down with the ball.”

Meanwhile, the Stanford band gathered in the end zone and prepared to march onto the field playing its victory song. The squibbed kick bounced into Moen’s hands at his 43, and after he ran a few yards he tossed an overhand lateral to Rodgers at the Cal 46 and circled around behind him.

Rodgers, in turn, lateraled to Dwight Garner, who soon found himself in trouble and appeared to be going down. Just before his knee hit the turf — or perhaps just after — he shoveled the ball to Rodgers. Around the Stanford 30, Rodgers lateraled to Mariet Ford. With three Stanford defenders in front of him, Ford desperately tossed a blind pass over his shoulder. Moen caught it and took off with nothing between him and the goal except Stanford’s 144-member band.

Racing down the field, Moen juked a tuba player and burst triumphantly into the end zone, flattening trombone player Gary Tyrrell. The trombone was dented, but that was nothing compared to what the touchdown did to the premature Stanford celebration.

“I remember seeing the band there and there wasn’t really a lane to go through, but to me they were all Stanford players, and I just busted through,” Moen said.

After it was over, bedlam ensued. California and its fans argued the final play should have ended midway because Garner was down. Among Stanford partisans yelling at the officials was athletic director Andy Geiger, who later held the same position at Maryland and now is the AD at Ohio State.

“I don’t think my actions were something I would do today,” Geiger said two years ago. “I’m not proud of them.”

Said Stanford player Jack Gilmete: “I was the third player [to tackle Garner], and I’m sure he was down. I even saw the referee signal the play over.”

Garner had a different version, sort of: “I remember falling, and [Rodgers] calling, but they had my arms. At the last moment, I got the ball out [and lateraled to him]. … Honestly, if you’re from Stanford, I was down, and if you’re from California, I wasn’t.”

How shocking was “The Play”? It moved instantly to the top of craziest-ending lists. Almost two decades later, it survives on “greatest moment” sports highlights for the 20th century. And Tyrrell’s dented trombone is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Games come and go. This one, and its frenetic finish, remains in our memories. Nor has time erased the bitterness that resulted. Whenever one of the schools takes The Axe trophy away from the other in a given season, it changes the score for the 1982 game. Cal, of course, lists it as 25-20. Stanford’s version is 20-19.

And did that game affect its participants over the long haul?

“Sure,” said Garner. “You look back and you go, ‘Wow, you never know what life holds for you. … As long as you have a breath, there’s hope and opportunity.’”

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