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The Play Cal Stanford.jpg

The Play refers to a last-second kickoff return during a college football game between the California Golden Bears and the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday, November 20, 1982. Given the circumstances and rivalry, the wild game that preceded it, the very unusual way in which The Play unfolded, and its lingering aftermath on players and fans, it is recognized as one of the most memorable plays in college football history and among the most memorable in American Sports.

After Stanford had taken a 20–19 lead on a field goal with four seconds left in the game, the Golden Bears used five lateral passes on the ensuing kickoff return to score the winning touchdown and earn a disputed 25–20 victory. Members of the Stanford Band had come onto the field midway through the return, believing that the game was over, which added to the ensuing confusion and folklore. There remains disagreement over the legality of at least two of the laterals, adding to the passion surrounding the traditional rivalry of the annual "Big Game."


This was the two teams' 85th Big Game, and was played on Cal's home field, California Memorial Stadium. Although Cal was guaranteed a winning record (with bowl eligibility) for the season, no bowl game was looking to invite them. The implications of this game were far more important to Stanford, led by quarterback John Elway, playing in his last regular season game before heading off to become a future National Football League star enshrined in both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame. The Cardinal football squad was in the midst of an exciting season—they were 5–5 but had victories over highly ranked Ohio State and Washington—and needed a win to be eligible to play in a bowl game. In fact, representatives of the Hall of Fame Classic committee were in attendance, apparently to extend an invitation to Stanford, if the Cardinal won.

Also at stake was possession of The Stanford Axe, an axe-head trophy that is awarded to the winner of this annual matchup. Its origins date back to 1899, but in 1933, after years of increasingly more elaborate thefts of the Axe by students from one or the other school, the two schools agreed that the winner of the Big Game would take possession of the Axe. The plaque upon which the Axe is mounted carries the scores of previous Big Games.

The situation

With Cal leading 19–17 late in the fourth quarter, quarterback John Elway and the Cardinal overcame a 4th-and-17 on their own 13-yard line with a 29-yard completion, then managed to get the ball within field goal range for placekicker Mark Harmon. Elway called a timeout with 8 seconds left on the clock. Had Elway let the clock run down to four seconds before calling time, the ensuing kickoff would not have taken place since the clock would have run out on the field goal. But Elway was under instruction from coach Paul Wiggin to call timeout at the 8 second mark to allow time for a second field goal try in case Stanford drew a penalty on the first attempt. Harmon's 35-yard kick was good, putting Stanford ahead 20–19. However, the team's celebrations drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, enforced on the ensuing kickoff. This was crucial, as Stanford was now kicking off from their 25 instead of the 40. At that point, Cal announcer Joe Starkey praised Stanford and Elway for their efforts, and added, "Only a miracle can save the Bears now!"

With 4 seconds left, Stanford special teams coach Fred von Appen called for a squib kick on the kickoff. Due to confusion, Cal took the field with only ten men, one short of the regulation eleven, but still legal in American football. What happened next became one of the most debated and dissected plays in college football history.

  • Harmon squibbed the kick and Cal's Kevin Moen received the ball inside the Cal 45 near the left hash mark. After some ineffective scrambling, Moen lateraled the ball leftward to Richard Rodgers.
  • Rodgers was very quickly surrounded, gaining only one yard before looking behind him for Dwight Garner, who caught the ball around the Cal 45.
  • Garner ran straight ahead for five yards, but was swallowed up by five Stanford players. While Garner was being tackled, however, he managed to pitch the ball back to Rodgers. It was at this moment, believing that Garner had been tackled and the game was over, that several Stanford players on the sideline and the entire Stanford band (which had been waiting behind the south end zone) ran onto the field in celebration.
  • Rodgers dodged another Stanford player and took the ball to his right, toward the middle of the field, where at least four other Cal players were ready for the next pitch. Around the Stanford 45, Rodgers pitched the ball to Mariet Ford, who caught it in stride. Meanwhile, the Stanford band, all 144 members, had run out past the south end zone—the one the Cal players were trying to get to—and had advanced as far as twenty yards downfield. The scrum of players was moving towards them.
  • Ford avoided a Stanford player and sprinted upfield while moving to the right of the right hash mark, and into the band, which was scattered all over the south end of the field. Around the Stanford 28, three Stanford players smothered Ford, but while falling forward he threw a blind lateral over his right shoulder.
  • Moen caught it at about the 25 and charged toward the end zone. One Stanford player missed him, and another could not catch him from behind. Moen ran through the scattering Stanford Band members for the touchdown, which he infamously completed by running into unaware trombone player Gary Tyrrell.

The Cal players celebrated wildly—but the officials had not signaled the touchdown. Stanford coach Paul Wiggin and his players argued to the officials that Dwight Garner's knee had been down, rendering what had happened during the rest of the play moot. Meanwhile, the officials huddled. The chaos at the end of The Play made the officials' task very challenging. In particular, the questionable fifth lateral took place in the midst of the Stanford band, greatly reducing visibility. Referee Charles Moffett recalled the moment:

"I called all the officials together and there were some pale faces. The penalty flags were against Stanford for coming onto the field. I say, 'did anybody blow a whistle?' They say 'no'. I say, 'were all the laterals legal'? 'Yes'. Then the line judge, Gordon Riese, says to me, 'Charlie, the guy scored on that.' And I said, 'What?' I had no idea the guy had scored. Actually when I heard that I was kind of relieved. I thought we really would have had a problem if they hadn't scored, because, by the rules, we could have awarded a touchdown [to Cal] for [Stanford] players coming onto the field. I didn't want to have to make that call.

I wasn't nervous at all when I stepped out to make the call; maybe I was too dumb. Gee, it seems like it was yesterday. Anyway, when I stepped out of the crowd, there was dead silence in the place. Then when I raised my arms, I thought I had started World War III. It was like an atomic bomb had gone off."

After determining that Cal had scored and no one had ruled any of the laterals illegal, Moffett signaled the touchdown, rendering the illegal participation penalty on Stanford irrelevant and ending the game. The final score was Cal 25, Stanford 20.


In this photo of the fifth lateral, the ball has left Ford's hands outside the 27 yard line

Moen reaches for the ball but has not yet caught it outside the 25 yard line, but is clearly two yards downfield.

The officials' ruling of a Cal touchdown was highly controversial at the time, and The Play has remained a source of often intense disagreement throughout the intervening decades, particularly between ardent Stanford and Cal fans. The controversy centers on the legality of two of the five laterals as well as on the chaos that ensued when the Stanford team and band entered the playing field while the ball was still live.

Many Stanford players and coaches objected immediately to the third lateral, from Dwight Garner to Richard Rodgers, asserting that Garner's knee was down moments beforehand. Kevin Lamar, a Stanford player who was in on the tackle, maintains that Garner's knee had hit the turf while he was still in possession of the ball; Garner and Rodgers themselves, however, assert the opposite. TV replays were inconclusive; due to the distance from the camera and the swarm of tacklers, one cannot see the exact moment Garner's knee may have touched.

Afterward, upon viewing the game footage, some suggested that the fifth lateral, from Mariet Ford to Kevin Moen, could have been an illegal forward pass. Ford was being tackled at about the 27-yard-line when he released his blind, over-the-shoulder heave, which Moen appeared to catch while crossing the 25. Because both players were in full stride, and because the lateral traveled some distance, some thought the ball had in fact gone forward. Under the rules of football, the direction of a pass is judged relative to the field. Complicating this was the fact that Ford was falling forward upon releasing the ball, while Moen reached backwards to catch it, thus making it quite possible that the ball itself traveled sideways or backward.

Finally, while the replays of the tackle of Garner and the fifth lateral are not available to the referees, Stanford was clearly guilty of illegal participation, both from too many players on the field and the band. At least two game officials immediately threw penalty flags on Stanford for having too many men on the field. A football game cannot end on a defensive penalty (unless it is declined), so had any of the Cal ball-carriers been tackled short of the end zone from this point on, Cal would have been granted at least one unclocked play from scrimmage, and perhaps a touchdown outright for outside interference, which at the time, was not unprecedented. The game referee, Charles Moffett, noted this as a possible outcome in a subsequent interview (see above). Rule 9-1, Article 4 of official NCAA football rules, "Illegal Interference", allows the referee to award a score if "equitable" after an act of interference. But none of the Stanford band members actually impeded Moen before the end zone, making this scenario extremely remote.

Officials in the 1954 Cotton Bowl Classic awarded a touchdown to Rice after an Alabama player jumped onto the field from the sideline to tackle a Rice ball carrier.

The NCAA's instant replay rules were not adopted until 2005, more than two decades later, so the officials could not consult recorded television footage to resolve these issues. It is unclear whether instant replay would have had any impact, as a field ruling cannot be overturned unless there is "indisputable video evidence" to the contrary, and the only clear evidence is the forward lateral to Moen.

Analysis of the controversy

Many attempts have been made to analyze the disputed areas of The Play and resolve its controversies. This has proven to be a difficult task for several reasons. Only one television replay is available, and it is from an elevated midfield camera. The rules of college football do not precisely cover The Play's bizarre final seconds. Finally, the intense passion from both Cal and Stanford fans often make objective analysis of The Play a great challenge.

Among the notable attempts at deconstructing The Play are:

  • The national magazine Sports Illustrated, as part of a 12-page article that appeared the following fall ("The Anatomy of a Miracle," September 5, 1983), found no mistakes in officiating. Cal's only error was having four men in the restraining area before kickoff, an issue that did not result in a penalty. In the article, Garner said that his knee was parallel to the ground when he tossed the third lateral. Of the fifth lateral, SI determined that it was "clearly thrown backwards" and would have hit the 27 had Moen not caught it.
  • ABC, as part of the show prepared for the award of "Pontiac's Ultimate High-Performance Play of the NCAA", analyzed the video of the fifth lateral from Ford to Moen and concluded that the ball traveled laterally along the 25-yard line, thus making it a legal action.
  • In 2007, as part of the buildup to The Play's 25th anniversary, the Bay Area News Group asked Verle Sorgen, the Pac-10 Conference's supervisor of instant replay, to review the two disputed laterals according to modern NCAA instant replay review rules. After watching enhanced footage on a modern, large-screen monitor, Sorgen opined that there was insufficient video evidence to overturn the third lateral, from Garner to Rodgers. However, Sorgen believed that the fifth lateral from Ford to Moen "was released at the 22 and touched at the 20-1/2 (sic). From that, it clearly appears forward." Asked for his "ultimate call", Sorgen replied, "I would be tempted to reverse it...then go out and get the motor running in my car."


Four days after the game, students at The Stanford Daily published a bogus version of Cal's student newspaper, The Daily Californian, with the lead story claiming that the NCAA had declared Cal's last play to be dead in a ruling three days after the game. According to that bogus paper, the official score would be recorded in the NCAA record books as Stanford 20, California 19. The Stanford students then distributed 7,000 copies of the phony "extra" on the Cal campus. Some months later, blue and gold t-shirts depicting the play with Xs and Os (much like a coach's diagram) complete with squiggly lines for the laterals, appeared in the Cal bookstore and throughout the Bay Area.

The season after The Play, Stanford went 1-10 and Paul Wiggin was fired. Wiggin later said The Play "had a big effect on our program, especially on recruiting." Athletics director Andy Geiger said the loss devastated the program. Others blamed the loss on the Stanford Band. Of the band's role, Geiger said, "Although the Band did not cause the Play, it was typical that they would have been in the wrong place at the wrong time." The incumbent Stanford band manager now annually passes his or her position to the new manager with 4 seconds left in the Stanford–Cal game.

Whenever Stanford holds the Stanford Axe, the plaque is altered in protest so that the outcome reads as a 20–19 Stanford victory. When the Axe is returned to Cal's possession, the plaque is changed back to the score of California 25, Stanford 20.

For many years, John Elway was bitter, on both a personal level and on behalf of his team, about the touchdown being allowed: "This was an insult to college football... They [the officials] ruined my last game as a college football player." The Play cost Stanford an invitation to the Hall of Fame Classic, in addition to a winning season, and Elway completed his college career having never played in a bowl game. Andy Geiger, the athletics director of Stanford, said that the loss cost Elway the Heisman Trophy. Elway would nevertheless enjoy a tremendously successful NFL career, winning two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, and was inducted in the Pro Football and College Football Halls of Fame. Years later, Elway came to terms with The Play, stating that "each year it gets a little funnier."

The participants in The Play faded into relative obscurity in the years since, with the only really memorable participants in the game being Elway and announcer Joe Starkey for his famous call of The Play.

Ron Rivera, a starting defensive end for California, went on to play for the 1985 Chicago Bears, who went 15-1 during the regular season and won Super Bowl XX over the New England Patriots. Rivera was named head coach of the Carolina Panthers in January 2011.

Gary Plummer, a linebacker for the Golden Bears, was drafted into the United States Football League in 1983. He played 8 seasons with the San Diego Chargers before joining the San Francisco 49ers in 1994, as part of their Super Bowl XXIX winning team. Plummer retired from the NFL after the 1997 season.

The most infamous participant in The Play is Mariet Ford. Ford, who briefly played wide receiver for the Oakland Invaders of the United States Football League, was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and 3-year-old son in 1997. He is serving a 45 years-to-life sentence.

Kevin Moen had a short-lived professional career and is now a real estate broker in the Los Angeles area. In 2002, he coached the Palos Verdes Colts, a Pop Warner football team. He was also the head football coach at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, starting in the 2008–2009 school year.

Gary Tyrrell, the Stanford trombonist run over by Moen, is a venture capital CFO and amateur brewer. He became friends with Moen and Cal coach Joe Kapp. He appeared on television's The Tonight Show along with the key Cal players shortly after The Play; his smashed trombone is now displayed in the College Football Hall of Fame. He has also said, "I thought I'd be famous for my talent as a musician, not for being knocked down at a football game."

Dwight Garner, who later spent two years with the Washington Redskins and retired, is now a risk manager with the Sports Authority chain of sporting goods stores. Richard Rodgers played in the CFL and is now the assistant special teams coach for the Carolina Panthers after serving as the defensive coordinator at Holy Cross from 2005-11.

Gale Gilbert was the starting quarterback for the Cal Bears. Gilbert is the only player in NFL history to be a member of five straight Super Bowl teams. His son, Garrett Gilbert was the starting quarterback for the Texas Longhorns.

It was earlier in the school year that football coach Joe Kapp had a conversation with Cal rugby coach Jack Clark about having some of the running backs come play rugby in preparation for the upcoming 1983 football season. As it was, Cal rugby already had a number of the offensive line enlisted in their forward pack. Though none of the running backs stayed with the rugby team to play that season, it is suspected that "The Play" was the result of the football team's involvement with the rugby team earlier in that school year. The way in which the Play unfolded was not completely unexpected. The Cal Football Team under Coach Kapp had reportedly cooled off after practices playing a game of modified Rugby called Grabass. After the game Coach Kapp proclaimed "The Bear would not quit, the Bear would not die." The phrase became the motto of the Cal Bear team under Coach Kapp.

Where it ranks

Based on online voting, Pontiac announced the California v. Stanford game of Nov. 20, 1982, as its "Ultimate High-Performance Play of the NCAA," crowning the play as NCAA Football's most memorable moment of all-time in December 2003.

The game was placed in NCAA Football video games as a "College Classic", challenging players to recreate the ending. The challenge begins with the player controlling the Bears as the Cardinal kick the field goal leading up to the final kickoff.

Joe Starkey's call of The Play

Cal announcer Joe Starkey of KGO-AM 810 radio called the game. The following is a transcript of his famous call:

All right, here we go with the kickoff. Harmon will probably try to squib it and he does. Ball comes loose and the Bears have to get out of bounds. Rodgers, along the sideline, another one... they're still in deep trouble at midfield, they tried to do a couple of – the ball is still loose, as they get it to Rodgers! They get it back now to the 30, they're down to the 20... Oh, the band is out on the field! He's gonna go into the end zone! He got into the end zone!

Will it count? The Bears have scored, but the bands are out on the field! There were flags all over the place. Wait and see what happens; we don't know who won the game. There are flags on the field. We have to see whether or not the flags are against Stanford or Cal. The Bears may have made some illegal laterals. It could be that it won't count. The Bears, believe it or not, took it all the way into the end zone. If the penalty is against Stanford, California would win the game. If it is not, the game is over and Stanford has won.

We've heard no decision yet. Everybody is milling around on the (the conferencing officials now finally signal a touchdown) FIELD! AND THE BEARS! THE BEARS HAVE WON! The Bears have won! Oh, my God! The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending... exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football! California has won the Big Game over Stanford! Oh, excuse me for my voice, but I have never, never seen anything like it in the history of I have ever seen any game in my life! The Bears have won it! There will be no extra point!

Similar plays

The Play also provided the apparent inspiration behind the proliferation of game-ending multiple-lateral plays in the last decade. Some of the most famous game-ending lateral plays since The Play include:

Music City Miracle (January 8, 2000)

The "Music City Miracle" was, like The Play, a kickoff return with a controversial lateral that resulted in a game-winning touchdown. In an NFL Wild Card Playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and the Buffalo Bills at Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville, Tennessee, the Bills took a 16–15 lead on a 41-yard field goal by Steve Christie with 16 seconds remaining. The ensuing kickoff was fielded by the Titans' Lorenzo Neal, who handed the ball off to Frank Wycheck. Faced with oncoming defenders, Wycheck turned to his left and passed the ball across the field to Kevin Dyson, who was protected by a wall of blockers. Dyson ran untouched 75 yards down the sideline to score a touchdown. Unlike The Play, NFL rules in 2000 allowed for a replay official to call for video review of any questionable on-field call in the final two minutes of a game, and such a review was immediately declared to determine if Wycheck's pass to Dyson was an illegal forward pass. After a lengthy delay, officials determined that video evidence was inconclusive to overturn the ruling on the field, and the play was upheld as a touchdown. Although there were 3 seconds left on the clock when Dyson scored, nothing came of the Bills' ensuing kickoff return and the Titans went on to win the game 22–16. Later, computer analysis established that Dyson caught the ball on the same yard marker that Wycheck threw it from, confirming that the pass was indeed a lateral.

The Titans special teams coach at the time, Alan Lowry, said he got the inspiration for the play from another game in 1982 between Texas Tech and SMU. The idea was to draw the kickoff coverage to one side of the field and throw the ball back across the field to the other, where a wall of blockers would be set up.

On ABC's television broadcast of the game, color commentator Joe Theismann said immediately after the score, in an obvious reference to The Play, "All that's missing is the band. That's the only thing missing."

River City Relay (December 21, 2003)

The "River City Relay" was, like The Play, a game-ending multiple-lateral play resulting in a touchdown. It brought the New Orleans Saints to within one point of the Jacksonville Jaguars with no time remaining in a 2003 regular season game at ALLTEL Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. The Saints needed to win the game to remain eligible for the NFL Playoffs. Unlike The Play, the River City Relay was a play from scrimmage, not a kick-off return. The Relay began with :07 remaining on the game clock and consisted of a forward pass by the Saints which was caught and lateraled three times before they finally scored with no time left. However, the Relay did not tie the game or give New Orleans the lead, and it became as infamous for its aftermath as it was famous for its brilliance; after a long delay, Saints kicker John Carney missed the ensuing extra-point attempt that would have tied the game and resulted in overtime, therefore losing 20-19 to the Jaguars and being eliminated from playoff contention (although, as it turned out, other results on the same day would have eliminated the Saints even if they had won).

Mississippi Miracle (October 27, 2007)

  • Main article: 2007 Trinity vs. Millsaps football game

The "Mississippi Miracle" was, like The Play, a game-winning, multiple-lateral touchdown play. Similar to the "River City Relay" it was a play from scrimmage, and not a kick-off return. It occurred in a 2007 regular-season contest between Trinity University and Millsaps College, both members of the SCAC in Division III of the NCAA. It took place at Harper Davis Field on Millsaps' campus in Jackson, Mississippi (hence the name). Like the River City Relay, it consisted of a forward pass by Trinity that was caught and lateraled multiple times and resulted in a touchdown. However, the Miracle consisted of an astounding 15 laterals among seven players, six of whom touched the ball multiple times on the play, and covered 60 yards. Trinity had taken the final snap with :02 on the clock and scored after the ball was in play for over a minute of real time, possibly making it the longest play in the history of American football.

Steelers vs. Dolphins lateral (December 8, 2013)

At the end of a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field during the 2013 NFL season, the Steelers (having surrendered the lead to the Dolphins late in the game) needed to score a touchdown from 79 yards out to win the game. The game's last play, which would also be from scrimmage and not on a kick-off return, brought back memories of The Play. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a normal forward pass to Emmanuel Sanders, who then lateraled the ball to Jerricho Cotchery, who then lateraled to Le'Veon Bell, who then lateraled to Marcus Gilbert (an offensive tackle), who lateraled it back to Roethlisberger before finally lateraling it to Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown. Brown then sprinted down the sidelines into the end zone for what many thought was the game-winning touchdown. However, a referee had correctly ruled that Brown had barely stepped out of bounds at the Dolphins 12 yard line. As the clock had expired, there was no time left to run another play, and the Dolphins held on for a 34-28 victory over the Steelers, their first win in Pittsburgh since 1990.

There was debate as to whether or not the final lateral between Roethlisberger and Brown was legal as it appeared from some angles to be an illegal forward pass (similar to that of the Music City Miracle), however since no flag was thrown on the play and it was inconclusive, NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino later told that the play would have stood had Brown scored. The game wound up having playoff implications for both teams, as the Steelers (who didn't lose the rest of the season after this game) barely missed the playoffs and would have gone instead of the San Diego Chargers had they won one more game at any point during the season; the win kept the Dolphins alive, but were eliminated in the final week of the regular season and only needed a win in their final two weeks to clinch the playoff spot ahead of the Chargers.

The "Hail-Lateral" (Central Michigan vs. Western Kentucky)

In the 2014 Bahamas Bowl, Central Michigan had just came back from a 49-14 deficit to within seven points at 49-42. A Western Kentucky punt put Central Michigan at the 25 yard line with :01 left in the game. Quarterback Cooper Rush heaved the ball 48 yards to Jesse Kroll, who lateralled it to Deion Butler for 10 yards. When Butler was chased down, he lateralled it to Courtney Williams. Williams could only advance 2 yards and made another lateral to Titus Davis. Davis outran 4 other defenders to the corner of the end zone, where he dove in for the touchdown. Rather than attempt the game-tying extra point to send the game into overtime, the Chippewas elected to attempt a 2-point conversion which would win the game. Rush's pass to the end zone fell incomplete, however, and WKU held on for a 49-48 victory. This play, like "The Play", involved a series of laterals, but it also included a Hail Mary pass, another exceptionally rare play.

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