What a Lovely Thing a Rose Is

January/February 2013

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At 4:50 p.m. on the first day of 2013, the Los Angeles sun slanted sideways through the gaps of the Rose Bowl, leaving a patchwork pattern of shadows. The day that had begun frosty had redeemed itself with an afternoon straight out of central casting: Brilliant blue sky, punctuated by the mountains perched over Pasadena’s shoulder, bathed in the golden last light. There was every reason to be in a pleasant state of mind. But with a little more than two minutes left in the 99th Rose Bowl Game, those in Section B, row 53 found it difficult to smile. Deep in a throng of Stanford red, everyone was on their feet, and everyone was nervous.

The turnout and the enthusiasm among these supposedly dainty 40,000 fans adds to the growing body of evidence that Stanford football has burrowed into the hearts and minds of alumni. Nate Mims, '08, sported a Stanford Tree cut from green foam and attached to his jacket. Sam Boot, ’70, came down from Portland, Ore., and dozens of other LSJUMB alumni came from dozens of other hometowns, swelling the band's ranks to more than 300 (which came in handy while spelling out “Honey” and “Badger” in their spoof of Wisconsin during the pre-game routine). In Columbia, Md., Rodney Murphy was getting a steady feed of photos texted to him from Class of ’88 friends determined to include him in the fun.

But in those last few minutes, so much that was satisfying about this improbable season seemed up for grabs, vulnerable to a final disappointment that would diminish all that had happened earlier. Beating USC. That crazy comeback against Arizona on Reunion Homecoming Weekend. Rallying to whip Oregon State. Shocking top-ranked Oregon. And then taking down UCLA two weeks in a row to earn the PAC-12 title. Stanford came into the Granddaddy of Them All with a seven-game winning streak, bolstered by the emergence of rookie quarterback Kevin Hogan—who replaced junior Josh Nunes nine games into the season—and a defense made of iron.

This was a Stanford team that came within a play or two of being undefeated: Tough-luck losses on the road at Washington and at No. 1 Notre Dame kept them out of the national championship picture. And early in the New Year's Day game against unranked Wisconsin, it looked like Stanford might cruise to victory. A spectacular catch by senior wide receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson set up the first touchdown, and a brilliant pass from sophomore Hogan to senior All-American tight end Zach Ertz set up the second score. With 10 minutes gone in the game, Stanford led 14-0.

We should have known not to relax.

Led by star running back Montee Ball and an uncharacteristically scrambling quarterback, Curt Phillips, the Badgers climbed back into the game with a touchdown early in the second quarter. Stanford answered with a nice drive and a field goal by junior Jordan Williamson, but Wisconsin closed the first half with another TD. What had looked like a potential blowout became a game Stanford fans should almost be used to by now—close, grinding and tense as hell.

Stanford’s defense had forced punts on every Wisconsin possession of the second half, but now, suddenly, with the game on the line at 20-14 and the clock winding down, the Badgers were moving the ball. In Section B, a rising chorus became a deafening roar as the Stanford contingent exhorted the defense to stop Wisconsin one more time.

Wisconsin's Phillips back to pass. He throws over the middle and Cardinal cornerback Usua Amanam pedals to his right, in front of the Wisconsin receiver, cradling the ball as he rolls to the turf. (Later, Amanam, '13, would say he was merely “in the right place at the right time.”) Interception. Stanford ball with 2:03 to play.

In Section B, delirium. And relief.

Senior Stepfan Taylor, the game's offensive MVP, did the rest. Three punishing runs gave the Cardinal a first down and ensured Wisconsin wouldn't get the ball again. One kneel down and it was over. Stanford had won its first Rose Bowl in 41 years.

Losing wouldn’t have crushed anyone’s spirit. Stanford fans haven’t lost their sense of perspective about where a football team should reside on the scale of What’s Important. Yet, after 40,000 tickets sold, after more than 15,000 assembled for the largest out-of-town tailgater in school history, after a pep rally in downtown Los Angeles where former Olympic swimmer Summer Sanders, ’94 (a friend and classmate of head coach David Shaw), introduced former Stanford football greats, this victory did seem special, and meaningful.

The Band poured onto the field. Trombonists hugged trumpeters. Five African-American players—sophomores Wayne Lyons, Remound Wright and James Vaughters, and seniors Jemari Roberts and Patterson—squeezed together in the end zone for photos with Condoleezza Rice. A few players wandered aimlessly, as if in a dream. Senior Ryan Hewitt, the bruising fullback with the General Custer hair, whacked a buddy on the back and declared the accomplishment with glee: “Dude, we won the Rose Bowl!”

Gradually, as the confetti settled and the stadium began to empty, the players walked toward the tunnel leading to the locker rooms. One of them, a quarterback, paused when a little boy quietly stepped in front of him and extended a Stanford cap. “Can I get your autograph?”

The player stopped, smiled, and signed on the bill. Then he jogged toward his teammates.

Brandon Zumalt, 9, fingered his cap gently and lifted it to take a closer look at his latest prize. He beamed. It somehow made sense: in a season marked by the improbable, a memorable moment had come from an unlikely source. “Josh Nunes, #6.”

Kevin Cool is the former executive editor of Stanford.

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