The Bay Area’s most famous trombone player has hardly picked up his instrument in the last decade.
Gary Tyrrell lives in Half Moon Bay, Calif. He works as a chief financial officer for a venture capital company and brews beer in his free time. On Saturdays in the fall, he drives 35 minutes east to Palo Alto to attend his alma mater’s football games.
He graduated from Stanford in 1983 with a degree in industrial engineering and a dent in his brass. The infamous Stanford trombonist from The Play, Tyrrell is forever immortalized for being knocked down in the end zone by a touchdown-scoring Kevin Moen.
“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 says. “Wherever I might be, they remember that play.”
It was Nov. 20, 1982, and Tyrrell and the rest of the Stanford band headed down to the field with a minute remaining in the 85th Big Game.
After the Cardinal kicked a field goal to take a 20-19 lead with four seconds left, the band started playing its signature tune, “All Right Now,” confident its team was just moments away from a bowl game berth.
“There was no thought in my mind Stanford wasn’t gonna win,” Tyrrell says.
He never saw the five laterals that ensued. He saw the clock hit zero on the south scoreboard and the scores of people who ran onto the field presumably to celebrate the Cardinal’s win. When Tyrrell turned around and saw a Cal football player running through the end zone, the trombonist thought little of it.
“I was thinking, he just wants to get the heck out of here,” Tyrrell says. “Then I realized he had the ball.
“The next thing I knew, I was down.”
At the time Tyrrell had no idea what happened. Until the cannon went off, he did not even know the Bears had scored.
“As loud as the Stanford fan section had been, it was eerily silent when that scoreboard changed,” he says. “It was not a good time to be part of the Stanford band.”
The band played its alma mater but left once Cal fans, per tradition, began throwing bottles and frozen food. The mood on the bus was morose, as the band drove silently back to the Farm.
“It was a very gloomy time on the Stanford campus in the aftermath of that game,” he says. “The band got scapegoated for that. It was not a very pleasant scene.”
As the unsuspecting victim, Tyrrell tried to lay low after the game. With finals approaching, he was relieved to simply study and avoid the public eye.
Initially, The Play was a great disappointment to Tyrrell. His team lost the game and he became a laughing stock. It was challenging to talk about at first, but he soon embraced his place in college football history.
“At some point, after a few months, I realized that as long as other people were having a laugh at my expense, I might as well have some laughs too,” Tyrrell says. “It’s somewhat humorous to be able to look back and say, ‘What a crazy scene,’ or, ‘Man what a hit I took.’”
Rarely does a month go by when he he’s not asked about The Play. He’s given hundreds of interviews over the last three decades, though his memory of the events has gotten cloudy. After several years, he found himself recollecting recollections.
Friends and acquaintances, meanwhile, still question the actions of a confused, 21-year-old trombonist.
“(They say), ‘You should have tackled him,’” Tyrrell says. “Obviously I’ve been hearing that for 30 years.”
While his renowned past might not always play in Palo Alto, Tyrrell is simultaneously cherished and ridiculed in Berkeley. He is easily Cal fans’ all-time favorite Stanford band member.
“I’ve certainly been treated to several cold brews courtesy of Bear fans thanks to my exploits,” he says.
Still, The Play does not define him. It was just two seconds of his life, more than half a lifetime ago.
He still thinks about it. He ventures to say he’s seen the replay of The Play several hundred times. And he’s still bitter but not because of his involvement. Forever a Stanford fan, Tyrrell believes his team should have won that game; there is no question in his mind as to whether Cal running back Dwight Garner’s knee hit the ground prior to Moen’s touchdown.
“Of course (it did),” Tyrrell says. “Duh.”
Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at [email protected]