A lot has changed in the past 124 years. Before the Nike sponsorships and TV deals, the Big Game used to be just two budding Western schools who decided it would be a fun idea to play a football game together.
Entering 2016, the Cardinal have the better record with 61 wins compared to the Bears’ 46. While the Axe has spent more time sitting in Santa Clara County than in the East Bay, Cal has certainly produced moments that have given Stanford fits on numerous occasions.
The list of unexpected performers who have contributed their heroics to Cal in the Big Game expands well into the triple-digits as the Bears enter the 119th Big Game. Here are just a few of the many heroes who made the 46 wins and the 11 ties possible.
In 1901, Cal entered the 11th annual match as the heavy underdog, but ended up winning with the lowest mathematically possible score in football — 2-0.
Throughout the year, Stanford had the juice. Fullback Frank Slaker was arguably the most feared player in the early 20th century. Hailing all the way from out East in the University of Chicago, Stanford struck a gold mine when Slaker decided to transfer and play football in Palo Alto, California. With a combination of size and speed that was unnatural for his era, Slaker was like Leonard Fournette of his time and it seemed apparent he was going to run all over Cal. His presence alone was enough to scare opposing defenders.
But Slaker didn’t intimidate the Bears. On the opening kick-off, Cal’s center Jo Gendotti, who athletic historian Brick Morse describes as “little,” zipped past every Stanford blocker and laid Slaker out as soon as he caught the kick.
“The old timers will never forget that tackle. Neither will Slaker,” Morse says in “California Football History.”
After Gendotti’s tackle, Slaker had to sit out the game for the next three minutes. The crowd was stunned. Everybody thought Stanford’s physicality and size were enough to overmatch Cal, but Gendotti decided to set the tone himself. As soon as Gendotti made contact with Slaker, Stanford was never the same and did not look like the dominant team it had been all season long.
Neither team could get anything going on offense. Ball carriers were swarmed and tackled with multiple hats constantly in the backfield. Neither team could gain yards, and the entire game consisted of trading punts.
But on one play, everything changed. As Stanford’s Smith Hill was getting ready to boot the ball away to the other side of the field, Cal right guard Stroud Overall broke through the line and dove at the ball before it could make contact with Hill’s shoe. As the student section would say, Overall “blocked that kick.”
As the ball was rolling down the field after the block, Cal half right Whipple Womble was the closest to retrieving it. Womble was about to take the game and run with it. But, before he could recover the ball, Hill — who was in a highly unpleasant mood after what Stroud Overall did to him — held Smith from the back. With Womble unable to move, Stanford recovered the ball.
The non-Pac-12 referee, however, spotted the foul and clear injustice committed by Hill. Not only did the official nail Hill with a penalty, but Cal was also awarded a two-point safety. Neither team scored again.
Gendotti, Overall and Womble all had to make big plays in the Big Game. Despite being the overwhelming underdog, Cal was able to catch Stanford off-guard and off its game. Bears win.
But the referee’s whistle isn’t always a lovely tune for Cal. In 1924, the Bears found themselves as the wronged party because of questionable officiating.
“The old timers will never forget that tackle. Neither will Slaker.”
Like the game in 1901, it was the kicker who was the center of all the controversy. This time, however, it was Cal’s Glenn “Scoop” Carlson. Although Stanford shut the Bears out and had a 6-0 lead in the first half, Cal rallied back in the third quarter and scored consecutive touchdowns to take a 14-6 lead.
Then, the Bears scored a third touchdown. After paydirt, Carlson lined up for another routine extra point try.
But routine plays are sometimes the hardest to make. The ball did not come out cleanly after Carlson kicked it away. The kick was low and appeared to be wide. Although the PAT was ugly, the ball managed to barely hover above the crossbar between the posts. Or so Carlson thought.
Before the kick could even reach its apex, the referee prematurely signaled “no good.” As the official was waving his hands sideways across his chest, Carlson’s PAT went through. “Scoop” charged at the referee and demanded he award the Bears the extra point and change the score to 21-6 instead of 20-6.
“You may be right, but you’re so far ahead now, what do you have to worry about?” Carlson later recalled the referee asking.
As it would turn out, Cal would have a lot to worry about. Stanford went to its bench and called on the fresh legs of running back Edgar Walker, though his name probably should have been Edgar Passer because Stanford put him in at quarterback. In a matter of minutes, Walker threw two touchdowns in consecutive possessions against a Cal team that was not prepared to defend the pass.
After being down 14, Walker brought his team back by leading his team on a 14-0 run. Had Carlson’s kick been ruled good, the record books probably wouldn’t even mention Walker or Carlson. But because of a controversial call in a time where video replay did not exist, the Big Game ended in a tie.
Often times, the victor is decided by just one play. The Play in 1982 is usually the one people remember. 1947, however, was the setting of another moment where one player had to pull magic out of his bag and make a fairytale-ending scene.
Trailing 18-14 with just three minutes left at their own 20-yard line, Cal head coach Pappy Waldorf and his team were facing immense pressure in the biggest game of their season. On the sidelines, fans could hear running back Paul Keckley barking at coach Pappy.
For the past couple weeks, Keckley had been dealing with injuries and could not play. But with everything in the season coming down to one final drive, he knew he had to get on the field one last time no matter what. He wasn’t asking coach Pappy for permission to play. The shouting on the sidelines was simply Keckley letting his coach know that he was playing and there was nothing Pappy could do about it.
So Pappy sent Keckley onto the field — not like he had much choice. And that would turn out to be one of the best decisions a coach would ever make. On a lateral play, Cal running back Jackie Jansen ended up with the ball in his hand. With nowhere to run, Jansen heaved a wobbly off-target throw to Keckley at the 35-yard line.
It was a miracle Keckley could even get his hands on the ball. But the miracle didn’t stop there. Milliseconds after the catch, Keckley sidestepped past Stanford’s Don Fix. After beating one man, the rest of the defense sprinted down the field to tackle the injured ball carrier.
But Keckley was not going to let his coach and his team down. With the moves of a tap-dancer, Keckley managed to elude every defender, most of who took very poor tackling angles. After one of the most dramatic five-second periods in Cal football history, Keckley was celebrating in the endzone. The 50th Big Game went to Cal in a 20-18 victory.
There are times where one individual player goes absolutely unconscious and plays at a harrowing level. In 1967, ruthless Randy Humphries did anything he wanted against a helpless Stanford defense.
Stanford entered the game as nearly a touchdown favorite, but without starting quarterback Paul Williams, Stanford struggled to move the ball on offense.
The first half of the matchup had very little action like the 1901 game that ended 2-0. Both teams defended their end zones adequately and kept the score low. After two quarters, Stanford led just 3-2.
Whatever quarterback Humphries did during halftime, it worked. Cal scored 24 straight points in the second-half while Stanford did not score again.
In the second half, Humphries completed 14 passes for 170 yards and two passing touchdowns and ran for one more touchdown. Even though it was 1967, Humphries and his offense were letting the ball fly like it was 2016. And Stanford couldn’t do anything about it. Cal’s win in 1967 ended a six-year drought in the rivalry.
Today, Cal finds itself in a similar position to the team in 1967. It’s been six years since the Bears held the axe in victory. Although 4-6 Cal may not be having its best season in history, the Bears can redefine their year with a strong Big Game performance.
There will be drama every year and some seasons will be better than others. But, the Big Game is a time where all the outside noise falls silent and for a few hours, life is narrowed down to just two rival teams and a ball. Whether the players are wearing helmets or leather caps, the Big Game will always be a chance for the Bears to add more to their rich history.
Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact Ritchie Lee at