This past November was the 125th anniversary of the Big Game, held annually between the rival football teams of the Bears and the Cardinal. This year’s wild ending from a Cal comeback to win 27-20 was perhaps reminiscent of all the chaos that occurred 40 years ago on what would be dubbed “The Play,” an iconic moment in football history which occurred during a Big Game on November 20, 1982 held at California Memorial Stadium.
Going into the game in 1982, a lot was at stake as Cal came in with a 6-4 record but had no bowl game invitations, while Stanford was holding on to a 5-5 record and needed one more win to secure bowl eligibility. It was also future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway’s last regular season game for the Cardinal, and as is tradition, the Stanford Axe was on the line, where the winner of the match retains the Axe up until the next Big Game.
On that beautiful sunny day, the atmosphere was electric. There was a palpable excitement among the students as the stadium started filling up to its full capacity to watch the two rivals face off. The game started off slowly, with the Bears holding onto a lead for the entirety of the first half coming off of a converted field goal and a touchdown drive to Mariet Ford. However, both teams had struggled to get their offense flowing in the first two quarters.
There was some animosity between the teams at halftime, with the Stanford band taunting the Cal fans by spelling on the field, and the fans retaliating with their flip cards. As the second half began, Cal had another opportunity to further extend its lead but missed another field goal, leaving the game well within reach.
The Cardinal responded emphatically in the second with a long touchdown drive to their halfback, Vincent White. Then following yet another touchdown pass from Elway for Stanford, they rushed into the lead with a score of 14-10.
At the start of the third quarter, the Bears responded to take back the lead with a field goal and touchdown that tipped the score 19-14 in favor of Cal. Throughout the fourth quarter as time winded down, it looked as if the Bears would take the game, but Stanford still trailed closely behind as it cut the lead to two and had the ball.
With some timely passes by Elway, they had under a minute to set up for a 35-yard field goal which was scored by Harmon, Stanford’s kicker. This let the Cardinal take the lead and only left the Bears with four seconds left on the clock to make a play.
This dashed the hopes of Cal fans in the stands, but with the score so close, everyone held their breath. To Cal alumnus Leigh Genser, who was sitting among the crowd in the middle of the Cal student section, she recalls the scene as being “so close at the end of the game — no one around me was leaving. We knew it was the last play and everyone was standing up watching the field, a little sad but with that teeny hope of some amazing comeback, and honestly, getting ready to join the slow crowds to the exits. The Stanford section was on fire, they were all on their feet, screaming and cheering.”
Even as some of the Cal players sat on the bench disheartened by the opponents’ late comeback, their tight end Richard Rodgers held out hope for a miracle, motivating his teammates in the huddle to just keep throwing the ball which would therefore keep the play alive past the remaining four seconds. Then, the players took to the field.
As Stanford’s band played in the background, kickoff began and Cal’s Kevin Moen picked up the ball that was kicked down by Harmon. As the Stanford players rushed at him, he had no chance at getting downfield so he threw the ball over to Rodgers, who made his way up the field. Then came the second of the lateral passes, as Rodgers passed the ball down to Garner who struggled down the Cal sideline before the Stanford players came barreling in.
As he was falling, he quickly passed the ball back to Rodgers. However, the controversial moment of when Garner falls is still heavily debated, as Stanford fans are adamant that Garner’s knee touched the turf before the pass, which would have resulted in the play being called dead. For those who watch the video playback now, whether you believe his knee hit the ground is really a matter of which team you support.
Nonetheless, the officials near Garner did not call the play dead and instead, Rodgers was left to gain ground downfield.
As the Stanford players closed in again, Rodgers made a pass to wide receiver Mariet Ford, who ran toward the gathering crowd of Stanford band members who had already started storming the field because Garner had been tackled and they believed they had won. Ford encountered his last obstacle of three Stanford players, jumping toward the defenders and making the last lateral pass to Moen, the man who started the play. As the jump took out the last Cardinal, all Moen had to do was dodge and weave through the band members all the way down to the end zone.
At that moment, Genser recounts that “I looked from the chaotic field, to the cheering Stanford Section — at this point, everyone was cheering … and then the official score changed, the canon went off, and everyone around me in the student section and the whole stadium went absolutely wild. Except for the Stanford section. I looked over there, and their cheers faded out and they stopped jumping around, and I might have imagined it, but they seemed absolutely stunned, in shock.”
Between the confusion, the chaos and the celebrations, the referees emerge with two hands up indicating a touchdown for the Bears and the game won between the historic rivals. The Cal students go crazy with excitement, having witnessed this unbelievable moment in history, and just “jumping and screaming and waving our fists in the air”, Genser said.
It is best said by Joe Starkey, the Cal announcer at the time: This was the “most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting finish in the history of college football.”
Now, all these years later, “The Play” is still as mystifying and awe-inspiring as the day it happened. It was only fitting that on its 40th anniversary, Cal delivered another surreal comeback that electrified the crowd. “The Play” has gone down in college football history and has been referenced as an inspiration countless times in multiple NFL plays and commercials afterwards, and even prompted a documentary.
For Genser and many of those who were lucky enough to be there to witness it in person, it was an unforgettable memory that will live on to be a symbol of hope, unpredictability and excitement for fans of the game.