Monday, January 3, 2005

“What am I seeing? What’s wrong with me? Am I crazy? Am I crazy? Am I crazy?”

Broadcaster Graham McNamee, Jan.1, 1929

Ghastly gaffes punctuate sports history. Fred Merkle didn’t touch second base. Roberto De Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard. Bill Buckner let a simple ground ball squirt between his legs. Chris Webber called an extra timeout.

Yet no one ever has topped the mistake by California junior center Roy Riegels in the 1929 Rose Bowl — one so improbable it made mikeman McNamee doubt his senses.

In a scoreless game, Riegels snatched a second-quarter fumble by Georgia Tech back Stumpy Thomason and raced 60 yards toward his own goal line, setting up a safety that ultimately gave the Yellow Jackets an 8-7 victory.

Though a fine player who was elected to Cal’s Athletic Sports Hall of Fame posthumously in 1998, he would be stuck forevermore with the notorious nickname of “Wrong-Way” Riegels.

More than three-quarters of a century later, Riegels’ infamy has outlived him. Sermons cite his ability to survive adversity. Supporters of Bill Simon’s unsuccessful 2002 campaign for governor described a subsequent recall petition against Gov. Gray Davis as a second chance for Californians to make good as Riegels had. And by way of criticizing the president’s policies in Iraq, a blogger recently described him as “Wrong-Way” Bush.

Most of the nation’s top sportswriters were in Pasadena that day for what was then the only bowl game, and they filed tons of unsympathetic copy — 450,000 inches by one count — describing Riegels as a buffoon. Commenting on the play a short time later, pioneer coach Amos Alonzo Stagg remarked ungraciously, “Well, what did you expect — football centers are dumb.”

Much was at stake on New Year’s Day 1929 as a capacity throng of 70,000 watched a stirring defensive struggle between two extremely strong teams.

In the nation’s capital, President Herbert Hoover was preparing for his inauguration in March, blissfully and mercifully unaware of the Great Depression that would begin nine months later with the Wall Street crash. In Philadelphia, the also-ran Athletics were girding for a run of three straight pennants. Around the country, people were listening to “Amos and Andy” on radio and flocking to theaters to see the early “talkies.”

In Pasadena, however, football was on everyone’s mind. The undefeated (9-0) Yellow Jackets were favored, but California fans hoped the Golden Bears (6-2-2) would draw sustenance from the largely partisan crowd.

Indeed, the teams were battling on even terms in the second quarter when Tech’s Thomason took a snap in the single-wing formation and swung to his left behind blockers. But as he was hit by two tacklers, the ball squirted loose and bounced along the turf around the Georgia Tech 40 into Riegels’ hands.

Nowadays the ball would be ruled dead, but then … well, let Riegels himself describe what happened:

“I was playing roving center on defense, and as the ball came loose, I picked it up and ran. I started in the right direction but made a complete horseshoe turn when I saw tacklers coming at me. I wasn’t out of my head, and I wasn’t hurt. In pivoting to get away, I just completely lost my bearings.”

Did he ever.

As Riegels streaked downfield, teammate Benny Lom, a halfback, took after him. Today the thought of a center outrunning a back seems ludicrous, but back then linemen weren’t that much bigger than backs. Besides, Riegels was galloping like a man possessed.

Gradually, Lom gained on him, shouting, “Stop! Stop! You’re going the wrong way!”

There are differing versions of Riegels’ reaction. One subsequent account quoted him as saying, “As we neared the [California] goal line, I thought I heard Benny shouting for me to throw him the ball. Shucks, I wasn’t going to throw it to him after that run.”

Instead he yelled, “Get outta here, Benny, this is my ball!”

By the time Lom grabbed Riegels’ hand and spun him around, they were at the California 1. Now Riegels realized something was wrong, but before he could move a wave of tacklers flattened him. Teammates gathered around to console Riegels as he sat on the ground, head in hands as the awful truth dawned.

In those days, teams did not pass often, much less from deep in their own territory. The Golden Bears lined up to punt, and the shaken Riegels snapped the ball accurately to Lom. But Tech’s Vance Maree blocked the kick, and Cal’s Stan Barr was the last to touch the ball before it rolled out of the end zone, giving the Yellow Jackets a safety.

In the locker room shortly before the start of the second half, California coach Clarence “Nibs” Price announced, “The same team will start the second half.” Other players got up and started toward the field, but Riegels didn’t budge. Price asked him why.

“Coach, I can’t do it,” said Riegels, his face wet with tears. “I’ve ruined you, I’ve ruined myself, I’ve ruined the University of California. I couldn’t face that crowd to save my life.”

Price put his hand on Riegels’ shoulder. “Roy, get up and go back out there — the game is only half over.”

Riegels did and played brilliantly, blocking a punt at one point. The following season, as captain of a 7-1-1 team, he would be selected by some for All-American mention. But on this dark day there was nothing for him but chagrin and sorrow.

Tech added a touchdown in the third quarter for an 8-0 lead. Unfortunately for Riegels, California also scored in the final two minutes — making the safety the margin of victory and fitting him with a set of goat horns for athletic eternity.

Such a mistake can and has wrecked lives. Fortunately, Riegels was able to accept his goof with equanimity. Presented with an honorary membership card in the Georgia Tech Lettermen’s Club at a 1971 ceremony honoring the ‘28 Yellow Jackets, he said jokingly, “I’ve really earned this.”

The rest of Riegels’ life proceeded in the right direction: He was a high school football coach, served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, worked as sales manager of a cannery in Sacramento and owned his own fertilizer business in Woodland, Calif. But always, until his death from Parkinson’s disease in 1993 at age 84, he was known as the player who ran the wrong way.

It was unfair, of course, but then life often is unfair.

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