7 Saturdays: The Play

Another July 4th has come and gone and that means we just have part of July and all of August left until college football starts back up.


Stanford and California’s version of their yearly rivalry game is just called the “Big Game”. Although, outside of the Bay Area and if you are not a graduate or fan of either school it has rarely been a big game when they have played.


However, one year’s game had one of the most famous endings to a college football game of all time.


It would forever be known as simply, “The Play”.



November 20th, 1982 the Stanford Cardinal traveled across the Bay to take on it’s old rival, the Cal Golden Bears for the 85th time. Stanford leads the all time series 59-46-11.


Most of the time, when I blog about historical games,  I write about great teams against other great teams and neither of these teams were great. They really weren’t even very good teams.

The California Bears came in with a 6-4 record and Stanford came in at 5-5. However, as average as they were, Stanford did have one of the greatest QBs to ever play the game. This was Hall of Fame QB John Elway’s last game for Stanford.


Joe Kapp

Coaching Stanford was former Stanford and NFL great, Paul Wiggin. On the opposite sideline was former Cal and NFL great, Joe Kapp. If you know anything about Joe Kapp, you would probably take the 76 year old Kapp over the 79 year old Wiggin in a fist fight.


Joe Kapp still has some fight in him as shown by this video:




This game was an evenly matched pretty close game from start to finish and it had a pretty good come from behind finish even without “the Play”.

Cal had a 19 to 17 lead with time expiring. The great John Elway led Stanford on one last drive and got the Stanford Cardinal in Field Goal range with 8 seconds left.

Kicker Mark Harmon put Stanford up 20 – 19.


But, the problem was there was 4 seconds left on the clock and the fat lady wasn’t singing yet.



What happened next was total mayhem. A Stanford fan would still be mad about it. A Stanford fan would say that the Cal return man was down. They would also say that the laterals were illegal.

A Cal fan would be mad that a Stanford fan is mad. A Cal fan would say that the Cal return man, Dwight Garner, was not down. They would say that the laterals were legal.

A neutral fan, such as myself, would say that the return man could have been down but it was hard to tell from the one replay that is available. But, the laterals were all legal and not forward as the replay clearly shows.

Cal players had to run through the Stanford band to score. The band obviously thought the game was over and they were one of the biggest reasons this game is so famous. You just don’t see a football player running over a tuba player to score the game winning Touchdown.


Here is a replay that you can clearly see for yourself.






Cal 25 Stanford 20. Some Stanford people count it as Stanford 20 Cal 19. But, just as you can’t have the band on the field while the game is going,  you can’t just make up scores to fit your ideals. It’s 25- 20 in the record books no matter how you look at it.


Stanford people said that this game cost Elway the Heisman Trophy. But, the actual winner was Georgia’s Herschel Walker and I doubt Elway would have won under any circumstances but especially not on a 5-5 team when Walker’s Bulldogs were in the national title picture.


Elway said this game ruined his college career. Elway and his coach, Paul Wiggin, would not go to a Bowl Game during their time together in Palo Alto.

It’s easy to feel sorry for Paul Wiggin because he would get the ax from Stanford the following year when they won 1 game the entire season.

Not too easy to feel sorry for Elway because he went on to become the 1st pick in the NFL draft and would win 2 Super Bowls and be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.


As good as Elway was, he complained about this game forever and in a few months he was drafted #1 by the Baltimore Colts and he refused to play for them. He forced a trade between the Colts and the Broncos and the rest is history.


“The Play” has been called the most fantastic finish in the history of college football. Look for more people to call the “Kick Six” play from 2013 where Auburn upset Alabama in the Iron Bowl the most fantastic finish.

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