In a large room up at Memorial Stadium, the travel squad defense of the Cal football team is lifting weights, grunting as they do rep after rep after rep. Suddenly, the Bears’ head strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington yells out a question: Has anyone here touched the Axe?
The players stop for a second. They put the weights down and look around. Cal last won the Big Game in 2009, a time when the younger guys on the team were in seventh or eighth grade. Back then, the biggest concern was puberty and girls and not looking awkward at school dances, not the biggest and best rivalry game in the West. It seems like a dumb question.
But in the back of the room, defensive tackle Austin Clark slowly raises his hand. Clark, a sixth-year senior and a self-professed “old guy” of the team at 24 years old, was a freshman in his redshirt season and was on the sideline in 2009 as the Bears beat the Cardinal 34-28 in a dramatic finish. He’s the only guy on the team who knows what it’s like to touch the Axe, what it’s like to feel the elation of the entire campus.
And it’s the greatest feeling in the world.
The 2009 game featured two teams ranked in the BCS — No. 25 Cal and No. 17 Stanford — and the pregame conversation focused on Stanford’s chances to go to the Rose Bowl. The matchup featured future pros Andrew Luck, Toby Gerhart, Coby Fleener, Griff Whalen, Tyler Gaffney and Richard Sherman on the Cardinal side with head coach Jim Harbaugh on the sideline and Shane Vereen, Bryan Anger, Marvin Jones, Mychal Kendricks and Cameron Jordan on the Cal side. These two teams were stacked.
But it’s another name Cal fans remember.
The Bears had just driven down the field and scored, putting them up by six. A Cardinal touchdown would win the game. And, with Luck and Gerhart in the backfield, fans on both sides held their breath. Stanford got the ball on its own 42 and took it all the way to the Cal 13. Less than two minutes remained. Tension reigned.
But then the unimaginable happened: Luck made a bad decision and threw the ball right into the hands of Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed, who it looked like Luck just didn’t see. The Bears came out and took a knee. Game over. Cal fans stormed the Stanford field.
“It was crazy,” Clark says. “It is still, hands down, the most fun game I’ve ever been a part of, even though I didn’t play a down, just because of the tradition and the way it ended, a last-second play against your rival in the Big Game at their stadium. (Stanford was) a great team.”
The team stayed on the field to all take pictures with the Axe — Clark still has his pictures with it on his phone and regularly looks at them — before heading to the locker room with chants of “This is Bear Territory” shaking the walls.
Players started yelling “Sunday off, Sunday off” as then-head coach Jeff Tedford prepared to give the postgame talk. He looked at them.
“What day is tomorrow?” he asked.
“Sunday,” the team responded.
“Sunday off!” Tedford yelled.
The team went nuts, a celebration that lasted well into the night.
“At the time, I don’t think I realized how big a deal it was,” Clark says. “Once you don’t have it, you’re like, ‘Wow.’”
The next year, 2010, Clark again watched the game from the sideline, this time due to injury. Many things had gone wrong for the Bears heading into the game that season, and Stanford handed the Bears a loss, 48-14, taking the Axe away from its resting spot in the old stadium’s Big Game room.
“That was tough,” Clark says.
“Any player who has been at Cal, at the end of the season, if they haven’t held that Axe, that’s something I know sticks with them.”
— Austin Clark
In 2011, the game was a closer affair, though the Cardinal still won 31-28 after Cal failed to recover an onside kick in the waning seconds of an attempted comeback. Clark was able to play that year, but it might have been better to watch from the sideline as the game felt like a letdown.
“We brought it to them, it was close at the end,” Clark says. “That one was hard to be part of.”
Then, the Big Game in 2012 and in 2013 were easy wins for Stanford. In 2012, the Cardinal held Cal to three points, winning 21-3. And the blowout in 2013 is a game most Cal players and fans don’t even want to mention. The Cardinal cruised to an incredibly easy 63-13 victory, the largest margin of victory in the Big Game’s 116-game history.
“The past two years, they’ve beat the crap out of us, there’s no doubt about that,” Clark says. “Every year, this is one where you put everything off to the side. Every week is a new challenge, but this one, everyone puts it all out there. Losing the way we lost, especially last year, that was a beatdown.
“To beat us by 50 like that, that’s pretty insulting.”
Heading into Saturday’s game, Clark has been talking to the “young guys” on the team about what the Axe means. He’s also been talking to former Cal players, players who have been getting in his ear all week about bringing the Axe back home to Berkeley. And he loves it.
As the last player who remembers what it feels like to win the Big Game, Clark has been trying to share that feeling of absolute elation that comes along with raising that Axe high. He’s told stories of the 2009 game and has been talking about the Axe itself — it’s much heavier than you’d think it would be — to try and get the team prepared for what is to come.
Unlike almost every football game the team plays, the Big Game is bigger than just two football teams lining up on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage and duking it out until there’s a winner. It’s a game steeped in so much history and tradition, and it means so much to so many different people. When someone holds that Axe, they’re not just holding a game trophy — that trophy belongs to the university, to the students, to all the players who had won the trophy before.
Clark says that before Saturday, the importance of the game will hit the “young guys.” This game is different, this game is more important, this game has more on the line.
“It’s crazy one game can mean that much to people,” Clark says. “People will say, ‘This was your record, but did you beat Stanford that year?’ That’s all they care about. … There’s a sense of urgency. Any player who has been at Cal, at the end of the season, if they haven’t held that Axe, that’s something I know sticks with them.”
Defensive teammate Hardy Nickerson says Clark has been talking about bringing the Axe back to Berkeley since spring.
“He shows me the picture all the time of him touching the Axe,” Nickerson says. “He wants everyone to experience that locker room after the Big Game win.”
Bringing the Axe “home” would be the perfect bookend to Clark’s career, which started so many years ago. He says he never thought he’d be at Cal for as long as he has, he thought he’d graduate in four and a half years. But injuries hampered his playing ability — he’s had five surgeries for a torn ACL, a broken foot, two peroneal nerve decompressions and an ankle surgery — so he petitioned the NCAA for another year of eligibility.
Now, this is his last chance to hold that Axe high once again. And he wants to do just that. Badly.
“It would be a big deal for me, just to go out the way I came in,” Clark says. “We’re hungry to get the Axe. We’re going to do everything we can to experience that locker room and home stadium with the Axe. It would be something electric.
“You just get to party with the Axe, and I don’t know what’s better than that.”