Play It Again?

The pain of past defeats helps make Stanford vs. Cal special.

November/December 2002

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Play It Again?

Ken del Rossi

As they say in this business, we’re going to get letters.

By now, you have noticed that the cover of this issue recalls an event some Stanford people would just as soon forget. It happened 20 years ago, when a confluence of mistakes, chaos and overzealous kids with brass instruments produced a devastating outcome for the Stanford football team. Ever since, those wild final seconds have been known simply as “the Play.”

Until now, the Play has mostly been owned by Cal, which has squeezed it for as much juice as possible. One could argue convincingly that Bears fans have, uh, overplayed the whole thing. Stanford alumni who hear Cal friends brag about it have a number of comebacks at their disposal, starting with, “Are you still talking about that?”

Similarly, if a few Stanford folks still clutch their indignation a bit too tightly, perhaps it’s time to let that go, too. “If 20 years later, we still can say that being on the Stanford side of the Play is one of the more unpleasant things in our lives, then we have been very lucky,” says John Platz, ’83, JD/MBA ’89, the longtime color commentator for Stanford basketball.

The Play has seldom suffered from understatement. A website operated by Joe Kapp, who was head coach of the Bears when the Play occurred, refers to it as “the greatest display of teamwork in the history of sport.” Ohhh-kay.

Yet, despite such occasional lapses in perspective, it is true that the Play is famous. So famous that when sportscaster Bob Costas produced a book a couple of years ago chronicling the 25 greatest moments in sports history, the Play made the list, right up there with the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s victory over the Soviets and Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning homer against the Dodgers, the so-called “shot heard ’round the world.” Moreover, it brought Big Game to national prominence and cemented the Cal-Stanford football series as one of the most interesting rivalries in college athletics. As years of replays accumulated, the Play probably did more to heighten interest in the Cal-Stanford rivalry than any marketing program could have hoped. It’s been 20 years of free publicity.

But here’s the thing: Stanford lost. Why drag out a memory from a low moment in Stanford history?

The answer lies in the importance of the rivalry itself. In several ways, Cal and Stanford are inseparable. Each has contributed to the other’s identity, reputation and character. And the football series is the emblem of that relationship—competitive, collaborative and essentially positive.

Lately, though, the Stanford-Cal football games have less and less resembled a battle between peers. Stanford has dominated the Big Game so thoroughly in recent years—the Cardinal has won 14 of the last 19 and seven in a row—that interest has begun to wane. “It helps us when Cal is good,” concedes Bob Carruesco, assistant athletic director, who is charged with promoting the Stanford football program.

A good rivalry needs a past. How much fun would Stanford vs. Cal be without the accumulated stumbles, mishaps and downright indignities visited upon both sides over the years? Accepting the disappointments is part of what makes the victories so delicious.

Which is not to say that losing a game the way Stanford did on November 20, 1982, should ever be wished upon any young athlete. The pain it produced was real. But 20 years is a long time. The scars are now indiscernible, and even the guys who were on the field that day for Stanford are able to look back and understand that the Play is larger than who won and who lost. It’s a piece of history, and it belongs to both schools.

The rivalry can use the Play. Stanford can use it. Because no matter how far into the future Big Game goes, the Play will be there, like a beacon of injustice, firing us up and reminding us why we care so much about 11 young men on a gridiron on a Saturday in November.

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