Joe Starkey’s call of The Play — 288 words of pure chaos and excitement — is unlike anything ever heard in sports.
Thirty years have passed since the longtime Cal radio broadcaster’s frantic call started to percolate on radio shows and ESPN tape reels, and it has since become as much a part of college football lore as The Play itself.
“It’s probably like having a hit record, when sometimes you’re surprised that people still want to see and hear it over and over again,” Starkey says. “But it doesn’t surprise me at all, and it’s fun to be part of it. I have a tougher time repeating the words than some Cal fans.”
This season marks Starkey’s 37th year as the voice of Cal football — a fact that he still really can’t believe. And yet, his entire career can essentially be summed up in one phrase from that call: The band is out on the field.
A recent compilation of the most famous quotes from the 20th century pegged that quip third, right behind “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and “Ask not what your country can do for your you, ask what you can do for your country.”
It was an absurd phrase to hear in a sports call, matching an absurd series of events stemming from an absurd situation.
“It was a late November game, there were no lights in Berkeley, and with all the band members on the field, I didn’t even know who carried it into the endzone until I saw the replay later on,” Starkey says.
In terms of its descriptiveness, Starkey’s call is subpar — a fact that he is a little embarrassed about. As much as he enjoys watching The Play, it pains him to never hear the word “lateral” for a play that included five. And he’s haunted by the fact that the only name he ever calls is “Rodgers.”
“I was waiting for the play to end and summarize it,” Starkey says. “I never thought it would go all the way to the end zone. I was assuming that Kevin (Moen) would get the ball, make an attempt to get upfield and then the play would be over.”
But an ordinary call wouldn’t have been fitting. Starkey’s turbulent stream of consciousness captured the essence of The Play more so than any other standard play-by-play would have.
And an ordinary call wouldn’t have transcended generations like his has.
Now, the two have become intertwined. Watching The Play with the sound turned off just isn’t the same. One cannot exist without the other.
“I knew it was a big deal, but I didn’t know it would become such a big deal,” Starkey says. “There was no internet, there was no cable, there were no places that you could just pull things up. It wasn’t until all this amazing coverage where you could find it anywhere that it became bigger than life.”
But it isn’t just media hype that has given The Play its legendary status.
In the 30 years that have passed, neither a drive nor a call has matched the unique chaos and insanity captured by The Play. The sheer absurdity mixed with impossibility that has allowed it to stand the test of time.
“It’s absolutely the best finish in college football history,” Starkey says. “I don’t know how you would ever match it.”
Connor Byrne covers football. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org