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The Essential Stories: 'The band is on the field!' - The greatest play in college history

The Essential Stories: 'The band is on the field!' - The greatest play in college history

10/10/2019 at 14:05Updated 15/11/2019 at 08:49

THE ESSENTIAL STORIES – The play that beat the band. You really had to see it to believe it. On November 20, 1982 the University of California beat its rival Stanford with an unbelievable play in the dying seconds of the 85th edition of the Big Game. Still viewed as the greatest play in the history of college football, this improbable sequence of uncanny events has obtained cult status.

"This was an insult to college football. It was just a farce. It's something I'm going to have to live with for the rest of my life." John Elway is a monument of American football: one of the 10 best quarterbacks in history; a double winner of the Super Bowl; recipient of the NFL's Most Valuable Player award; one of the most "clutch" players ever to grace the pitch.

Jon Elway in action for Stanford

Jon Elway in action for StanfordGetty Images

Four seconds from eternity

The Big Game is more than a match; it is the match. Every year, in the fall, the student footballers of Stanford take on the University of California, Berkeley (henceforth "Cal") – at Berkeley in the even-numbered years, and Stanford in the odd-numbered years. In 1982, Elway was four seconds away from not only being a winner in his last Big Game, but the hero of the encounter. From those four seconds of the sixty-minute game came what remains, even today, the most debated and dissected play (certainly the craziest) in the history of American college sport and, arguably, in the entire game.

These four seconds would become simply known as "The Play" – putting this particular moment on a pedestal above all others. These four seconds made a lasting impact on protagonists, spectators, viewers and listeners alike, uniting the collective memory of strangers all over the US. And through the middle of all this flowed John Elway's tears of anger.

This is the remarkable story that weaves together in its unlikely thatch of improbability a mistaken marching band, an oblivious trombone player, a ballsy referee, two extraordinarily special teams, a hoarse commentator, an unwelcome timeout, a struggle dating back two or three centuries, an opportunistic photographer and even a gigantic case of Fake News well before its time.

California Golden Bears vs Stanford Cardinal

The arch-rivalry between Cal and Stanford is the oldest in American football. On one side there is the private University of Stanford, nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley, at Palo Alto, the home city of Facebook; on the other, there is the public University of California, based in Berkeley, the small city with an immense aura across the San Francisco Bay. During sports games, these two facets of the same prestigious American college elite go head to head in an intense rivalry.

On a sporting plane, Alabama-verses-Auburn or Michigan-verses-Ohio State probably surpass this rivalry in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). But Cal-Stanford, with its secular history and their geographic proximity in the Bay of San Francisco (barely 50km separate the two institutions) makes this fixture as close as you can get to a local derby in the United States.

It's hardly a science when it comes to nicknaming the sporting clashes between these two fabled faculties. There's the Big Spike in volleyball, the Big Splash in water-polo, the Big Tip Off in basketball, the Big Freeze in hockey, the Big Meet in athletics and so on – whether it's baseball, sailing or even rugby. But it is American football's Big Game which forms the epicentre of the Cal-Stanford rivalry.

"The Play erased everything and that's a shame"

Fast forward 90 years to November 20, 1982. Before the farce – or the miracle, depending on your point of view – there were 59 minutes and 56 seconds of a close contest which, even without its delirious epilogue, had offered enough twists and turns to anchor itself among the most famous duels in the NCAA's golden history.

But all that is really remembered today of the game is the last four seconds, which blew away everything which preceded it like a tornado. Here lies one of John Elway's biggest regrets, as he made clear in 2007 on the 25th anniversary of the game: "It's as if The Play erased everything else that happened. That's a shame because, until then, it had been a really great football match."

And Elway should know. He played an integral role in what looked set to be a win for the Cardinal: 25 completed passes out of 39 for 330 yards and two touchdowns. And above all one of those decisive downfield drives to set up what would have been the winning field goal – the kind of piercing, eye-of-the-needle 29-yard pass that would become his trademark during 15 years in the NFL in the colours of Denver.

Leading 10-0 at half-time, Stanford found themselves two points down (19-17) going into the final minute. The situation appeared to be desperate when Elway and the Cardinal faced fourth down and 17 on their own 13-yard line.

"But because John Elway was John Elway, we knew that it was not over. He already had everything: the arm, vision, leadership. Even with a fourth and 40 yards, it would not have been over." This view came from Cal defensive back Kevin Moen, speaking to Sports Illustrated 30 years ago.

Despite his clear admiration of Elway's excellence, Moen made the cardinal sin of giving his rival too much time and space. Elway gambled his season and college career with a game of double-or-quits – a game that Moen, minutes later, would himself win, garnering legendary status in the process. But for now, Moen hesitated and allowed Elway to complete the throw which put Stanford on the brink of victory. But perhaps it was for the best.

From an unforgettable victory to an indelible trauma

"Because of the outcome, I forgot a lot of what actually went on during that game," Elway admits today. "But I remember the fourth-and-17 pass. It was without a doubt the most beautiful of my four years in the NCAA, and one of the most memorable of my entire career." As precise as a gunshot, and crossing the whole axis of the field, the throw picked out its recipient Emile Harry surrounded by three defenders. It was a piece of art, signed by Elway. A gain of 29 yards, more than enough to turn the tables on the opponent.

As Cal's Kevin Moen remembers: "Elway pulled off this miraculous pass, the guy made this superb take, and having been so close to victory, we had to go back to battle. There was barely 50 seconds left on the clock, but it seemed like an eternity."

Three plays and around 40 seconds later, placekicker Mark Harmon hit a field goal from 35 yards – almost a formality for him. Stanford duly took over the lead: 20-19. The Cardinal's bench was euphoric to the point of hysteric. To come and win by such a slender margin, away at Berkeley, in the Big Game, was the stuff of dreams. It would certainly be one of the most significant victories in college history.

Except that Stanford committed two mistakes – two mistakes which would combine to transform an unforgettable victory into an indelible trauma.

The California Memorial Stadium

The California Memorial Stadium Getty Images

The crux of the impossible

First of all, there's the matter of a timeout taken too early. There were eight seconds on the clock when Elway, on the orders of his coach, Paul Wiggin, made a sign for Stanford to use its last timeout. Had he allowed the clock to run for four or five seconds longer, the match would have finished after Harmon's field goal. At this distance, from the snap to the passage of the ball between the bars, the kick took four seconds: exactly the same time Stanford would leave the Golden Bears to try the impossible.

In celebrating this supposedly victorious field goal too much for the taste of the officials, Stanford then copped a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the ensuing kick-off, placing Cal in a more favourable situation to run it back for a touchdown. These two seemingly insignificant mental errors could easily have remained innocuous, but ultimately laid the foundations for the improbable scenes that followed.

Meanwhile, a few hundred of the 75,662 spectators at Berkeley's California Memorial Stadium had already started to leave the ground. Some of these miffed Bears fans learned of their team's last-gasp victory only the next morning when they read about it in the newspapers. In retrospect, it is tempting to mock them. But they were just like everyone else: convinced that the match was over. Like Joe Starkey.

When four seconds become twenty

Since 1975, Starkey had commented on Cal matches on the radio. He would do the same for the San Francisco 49ers for 20 seasons, from 1989 to 2008. If the 41-year-old Starkey was already a small-time local celebrity in the Bay of San Francisco, then at the end of this particular Big Game he would take on national notoriety for the rest of his life. After that 29-yard pass, Starkey delivered what he thought would be his final verdict on the game: "For John Elway to pull this out with less than a minute to go is one of the most remarkable finishes you'll ever see. Only a miracle could save the Bears as Stanford piles out on the field."

There were four seconds remaining; one last sequence of play. Stanford kicked off to give Cal one last throw of the dice. What should be four seconds stretched out to twenty – the time separating Harmon's kick and the winning touchdown. Twenty gloriously confused seconds. Everything, absolutely everything, which followed was absurd. Starting with the presence of only 10 Cal players on the pitch for this last play, one short of the regulation 11.

Stanford opted for a squib kick – a short, rasping kick similar to a grubber in rugby. Traditionally, this allows the opponent to take possession of the ball in a more favourable position on the field, but it facilitates coverage for the defending formation. Kevin Moen gathered the ball on his own 45-yard line but, from the outset, Cal's safety was smothered by four Stanford players. For the Golden Bears there was only one option: keep possession and don't go to ground, otherwise the final whistle will sound.

The break of the century

American football then became rugby. To keep the ball alive, a lateral pass was the only way out. The Bears used this improbable high-wire act five times:

1. Kevin Moen to Richard Rodgers (on the Cal 46)
2. Richard Rodgers to Dwight Garner (on the Cal 44)
3. Dwight Garner to Richard Rodgers (on the Cal 48)

After three initial passes, with Cal very much in survival mode, the home players had effectively made no progress and were still in their own half. But Rodgers suddenly found a gap. If the miracle was still far away, hope had started to creep in:

4. Richard Rodgers to Mariet Ford (on the Stanford 47)

This time, Ford saw a sea part in front of him. He surged forward 20 yards amid growing panic from the Cardinal. Then came the coup de grâce:

5. Mariet Ford to Kevin Moen (on the Stanford 26)

This was the most spectacular pitchback – delivered blind, over Ford's right shoulder as he was falling.

Nothing would stop the Golden Bears safety until the Stanford end zone. Twenty seconds. Five passes. And a touchdown from nowhere for the break of the century. The first and the last of Kevin Moen's college career. If that was the long and short of it, this final sequence would already have assumed epic proportions. But in telling only half the story, the above skips over the mad essentials of what made the whole episode so memorable.

A forest of red jackets and white hats

While delivering the third pitch, Garner was swamped by five Stanford defenders. His knee may also have been on the ground when feeding Rodgers. At least, that was the opinion of the several Cardinal players who ran onto the field from the bench to celebrate what they believed to be a sweet victory. One of the officials also indicated the end of the play. But not the main referee, Charles Moffett.

"I was filled with doubt when I got up because I saw the Stanford players all over the field. I thought that the match was over, but I then saw Richard (Rodgers) continuing to run with the ball," Garner recounted in a documentary filmed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Play.

The Stanford players were not the only people who had entered the field. The same could be said for the 144 musicians comprising the Stanford marching band. They also believed the match to be over and so, naturally, they started to play. The entire troupe advanced in formation onto the ground, some as far as the 20-yard line. When Moen received the ball to score, he had to dodge his way through a forest of red jackets and white hats. It's a surreal scene, a portrait of chaos.

The Stanford band

The Stanford bandGetty Images

But what's he doing? The game's over!

Musician Gary Robinson was one of the leaders of the band. "We were sure that the play had finished," he says. "So, spontaneously, we came on. I must have reached the 20-yard line when I felt a gust of wind behind me. It was this guy from Cal who was running with the ball. I thought, 'But what's he doing? The game's over!'"

The guy in question was Kevin Moen, who pressed on despite the abnormality of the situation. "Without really understanding what was going on, I saw that I was running through the middle of the band. But I was just obsessed with reaching the end zone to score, so I slalomed through the musicians. Some looked panicked and were running in all directions, others didn't move. It was crazy and I didn't really understand until I watched the replays back. At the time, I just played on."

The total confusion of the scene was enhanced by the twilight. It was the end of November but, back then, the Berkeley California Memorial Stadium did not have any lighting. The match had dragged on. At the moment of the dénouement, the light had faded, enveloping this last action in an almost mysterious hue.

Oh, the band is out on the field!

On the mic, Joe Starkey was almost in a trance. The script of his frenzied and exuberant commentary was so striking that it would be transcribed in full in the newspapers a few days later, and in many books and on the web since. Starkey articulated the madness in two stages: the mind-boggling play itself, then the announcement from the officials, for it would take lengthy discussions before the touchdown was officially given. (Moffett, the head referee, who was officiating his last game, later admitted it was as if he "had started World War III" when he gave the touchdown.)

The most memorable moment happened when Starkey, screaming, realised that the musicians had entered the field. At this point, Moen had the ball in his hand and was about to score: "Oh, the band is out on the field! He's gonna go into the end zone!! He got into the end zone!"

Later, when Charles Moffett raised his arms to signal the touchdown and Cal's victory, Starkey practically lost his voice:

" And the bears! The Bears have won! The Bears have won! Oh my God, the most amazing, sensational, traumatic, heart-rendering, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football! California has won… the Big Game… over Stanford. Oh, excuse me for my voice, but I have never, never seen anything like it in my life."

Starkey with Roosevelt and Kennedy

The stirring commentary ensured that Starkey went down in American sporting folklore. The two inflections of his voice on, "Oh, the band is on the field" and, then, "The Bears have won", captured quite perfectly both the emotion and absurdity of the moment.

Starkey's words were right up there with Al Michael's "Do you believe in miracles?" on the evening of the 'Miracle on Ice' during the Lake Placid Winter Olympics of 1980 – except that Michael had prepared his commentary in advance, while Starkey was totally ad-libbing. In any case, Starkey's delivery is without a doubt the most famous in the history of American television sporting commentary. Perhaps even more than that.

At the end of the 90s, Starkey discovered in a magazine that his immortal line – "The band is on the field!" – came third in a list of the most famous sentences uttered in the twentieth century in the United States. Ahead of him were just Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" and Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country".

Starkey in the company of Presidents. It may seem absurd, but it goes to show the impact his words made across the entire nation.

Funny place to bump into someone

Gary Tyrrell did not utter a word that day. But he is probably the other most prominent protagonist in The Play. Not that he had any say in the matter. He was the trombone player in the Stanford band – the one person everyone remembered. When the 144 musicians advanced onto the field, Tyrrell stayed obliviously in the south end zone blowing into his instrument. In the images, he is the man who Kevin Moen collides into hard while scoring his touchdown. Funny place to bump into someone.

The most famous photo of The Play was taken by Bob Stinnett who, ironically, was also there by chance. Stinnett was only there to photograph the trophy for the Oakland Tribune at the end of the game. He was wisely waiting at the end of the field when he captured Moen colliding with the trombonist. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. His photo, which appeared in Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated, would sell tens of thousands of copies in poster format.

Moen and Tyrrell have been forever linked by this snapshot. A chance encounter that changed their lives. "There were so many people on the field that I could not even tell if I had really crossed the line," Moen said in 2006 in the Los Angeles Times. "That's why I had already advanced a long way in the end zone when I started celebrating. I did not see Gary. I just jumped for joy and hit him."

"I didn't see anything," Tyrrell said. "I'm not very big and, in the middle of the crowd, I couldn't see the field. I remember looking up at the clock, and I turned to watch all kinds of folks rushing onto the field. I only saw Kevin at the very moment he ran into me. When I saw the photo the next day, I thought, 'Wow, how did the guy manage to capture that exact moment?'."

Quite a unique connection

The image of Gary Tyrrell rising from the Astroturf totally dumbstruck is like something from a Tex Avery cartoon, accentuating the impact of the Monty Python-esque scene. Fortunately, he was not hurt – and even emerged with his pride intact. "Somehow, I managed to keep hold of my trombone!" Although dented, it is now exhibited at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana.

Gary Tyrrell's trombone

Moen and Tyrrell even became friends. Amused and, eventually, happy with this shared memory, they never lost contact. Even if the Stanford trombonist took a long time to admit his part in the story. "It wasn't very funny at first," he recalls. "The band was already pretty unpopular at the time, because we used to play mainly rock tunes and not traditional band pieces. This didn't go down too well. And for many people, what happened to Stanford on the field was our fault."

"Gary is one of those few Stanford guys who I know who can put this whole thing in perspective," Moen admits. "There's still a lot of bitterness for many. But he looks at it all with an amused eye and in good faith. He knows that he was part of a memorable moment. It wasn't a matter of life or death, either." Tyrrell concurs: "Over time, I started to appreciate the fact that we share quite a unique connection."

When it comes to the bitterness that Moen mentions, John Elway and coach Paul Wiggin were at the top of the pile. Stanford's defeat marked the end of the college career of the quarterback. In the event of a victory, Stanford would have been invited to play a bowl game – something Elway never managed to do despite his otherwise accomplished college career.

"The Play also probably cost John the Heisman Trophy [awarded to the best NCAA player] and I never digested that," Wiggin admits. "For me, life did not stop there, but professionally… I coached for another year at Stanford, but I shouldn't have because it was not a very happy year." The Cardinal went 1-10 the next season, after which Wiggin was fired. But he eventually managed to turn the page. "No one died that day. We are all part of a story now. Ask around, I can laugh at it all now."

Fake News from The Stanford Daily

Stanford would get their revenge on two occasions. The first, four days after the game, thanks to the playfulness and ingenuity of a handful of students, including Adam Berns and Mark Zeigler from The Stanford Daily.

In record time, they managed to produce 7,000 copies of a bogus version of Cal's corresponding student newspaper, The Daily Californian, with a lead story claiming that the NCAA, relying on the fictitious Rule 55 (Section C), had decided to overturn the referees' decision and award Stanford the victory. Inside the paper, which they distributed on the Cal campus, there were a series of articles and false interviews, including one with Cal coach Joe Kapp, which ran over eight columns under the quote: "Life isn't fair, I swear to God it isn't."

The fake edition of the Daily Californian.

This gigantic hoax was all the more commendable because it was Thanksgiving week. In The Stanford Daily, Zeigler spoke a few years ago of how the vengeful prank came about. "Adam had a hard time convincing me. I was depressed after the defeat, and I was behind in a lot of my college work. Then he said to me: 'In 20 years, we'll both be on my yacht in Greece and you won't remember these missed deadlines. But you will remember this newspaper.' That settled it. Even if I'm not sure where this yacht story in Greece came from. In fact, we never went there and I'm still waiting for his invitation…"

Greece or not, Berns was right. The "extra" edition of The Daily Californian on November 24, 1982 would make national headlines and stand the test of time. In 2010, a documentary series on HBO on the biggest fan stories in sports devoted an entire episode to this early example of Fake News.

Stanford's tasty revenge in 1990

On the field, Stanford had to wait eight years to enjoy a revenge sweet enough to offset the bitterness. During the Big Game in 1990, Cal led 25-18 before Stanford scored nine points in the last… 12 seconds of the match. Yet another delirious conclusion to this annual match-up had seen Cal supporters flood the pitch to celebrate what they thought was the victory. But their actions were a little too premature – just like the Stanford band…

"The Axe"

"The Axe"Getty Images

An ongoing source of inspiration

The history of American football was irrevocably changed by the events of 20 November 1982. The Play led to the widespread use of video refereeing while, as a source of inspiration, it also convinced teams losing by a few points near the end of a game into pushing for a miracle. Before, there was never such a proliferation of backwards passes in similar circumstances.

For 37 years, everyone has tried their best to imitate it. Just last season, in the NFL, Miami scored a touchdown against New England on a similar kind of play.

But the craziest, most implausible and longest known play in the history of American football came in a third college division game between the Trinity Tigers and the Millsaps Majors in 2007: 15 lateral passes and 63 seconds for a play dubbed "The Mississippi Miracle" or the "Lateralpalooza".

But as Gary Tyrrell rightly points out: "There will be other plays like that from the Big Game in 1982, but you will certainly never see it again with dozens of people on the field among the players." In that regard, Saturday 20 November 1982 will forever remain the benchmark. Whenever anything of its type crops up, all the American TV channels dig out footage of The Play from the archives. It has earned this right to immortality.

Written by Laurent Vergne, translated by Felix Lowe

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