AP Sports Writer
POSTED: 12:08 p.m. HST, Oct 19, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 12:09 p.m. HST, Oct 19, 2012
BERKELEY, Calif. >> California tight end Richard Rodgers never heard of The Play for most of his childhood, even though he was raised by one of its masterminds.
Growing up in Massachusetts, he had watched the television replays of the five increasingly improbable laterals that led to the winning touchdown on the last-second kickoff return into a band-blocked end zone, with Cal’s Kevin Moen flattening a Stanford trombone player to punctuate one of the most iconic moments in college football history.
Not until about fifth grade did Rodgers recognize a particular player involved.
“Seeing it on TV all those times and then actually realizing that it was my dad, that’s basically when I knew,” said Rodgers, whose father, Richard Rodgers Sr., tossed two of the laterals that stunned Stanford 25-20 in the 1982 Big Game. “Now we laugh about it and joke with my dad about it. It’s pretty cool.”
Thirty years since those famous — or infamous, depending on which side of San Francisco Bay one belongs — laterals lifted the long running rivalry into the national spotlight, the 115th Big Game at remodeled Memorial Stadium on Saturday will be a chance for the next generation of players to make their own memories.
After all, most of them have little ties to The Play — and none were even born yet.
Stanford (4-2, 2-1) is trying to stay in contention for the Pac-12 North Division title and rebound from a devastating defeat in overtime at Notre Dame, while California (3-4, 2-2) is looking to stop a two-game losing streak to the Cardinal and move a win closer to bowl eligibility after a slow start this season.
The Play? Well, it’s just another scintillating subplot now.
“I remember when I first started getting recruited by Cal, I was like, ‘Oh, this is where The Play happened,”’ said Golden Bears center Brian Schwenke, who grew up in Hawaii and Southern California and also was recruited by Stanford. “I knew The Play, really, before I knew Cal.”
This week has been more of a history lesson than reliving the past for present players on both sides.
Rodgers, whose father is now an assistant special teams coach for the Carolina Panthers, didn’t even know until last year who Joe Starkey was. The broadcaster’s famous, frenetic call — “Oh, the band is out on the field!” — might be more synonymous with The Play than anybody actually involved.
After a game last year at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, where the Bears played during Memorial Stadium’s renovation, Rodgers’ mother told him that anybody on the street in the Bay Area would know Starkey’s name. So she pulled the car over and had him ask a stranger to prove the point.
“The person I asked was Joe Starkey,” Rodgers said, laughing. “That was pretty crazy.”
One’s perspective on The Play really depends on where his or her allegiances lie.
Most Stanford sympathizers still wonder whether The Play should have been blown dead at least twice, either on what looks like an early tackle or a late forward lateral. Those in Berkeley bristle at that notion and believe Stanford fans are bitter that they spoiled John Elway’s final game and maybe even cost him the Heisman Trophy won by Georgia’s Herschel Walker.
The contentiousness is so strong that depending on which team holds the Stanford Axe, which goes to the winner, the score of the 1982 game is changed.
“There’s a significant portion of those of us here at Stanford that just don’t believe that play should have continued,” Cardinal coach David Shaw said. “That’s never going to change, and I think that only adds to the lore of that play.”
Asked for his response this week, Cal coach Jeff Tedford said: “Of course it was a legal touchdown. What kind of question is that?”
Tedford’s ties to The Play run on both sides.
In the summer of 1979, he played quarterback opposite Elway — and with Moen — in the North-South Shrine Game at the Rose Bowl, joking, “I was just happy to be there.” Then Tedford’s Fresno State team played UNLV on Nov. 20, 1982, and he was excited to learn later that night that Moen scored Cal’s winning touchdown.
“At the time, you didn’t know what kind of impact or history it would make,” Tedford said. “It’s probably the most famous play in football history.”
While The Play has become the single largest part of the Big Game’s hefty history, it’s hardly the only memory of a rivalry that dates back to 1892 — when future President Herbert Hoover was Stanford’s team manager.
Shaw’s favorite Big Game moment came watching from the Stanford sideline as a true freshman in 1990, when Ed McCaffrey caught a 19-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds left. Stanford went for the winning two-point conversion but missed, leaving Cal ahead 25-24.
Cal fans rushed the field but referees called a 15-yard delay of game penalty because time still remained. Stanford recovered the ensuing onside kick, and somehow in the scrum kicker John Hopkins’ practice net on the sideline had been taken away.
“He just shrugs his shoulders and starts putting balls down and just starts to nail them into the stands,” Shaw said. “Here I am this freshman. I was in absolute disbelief.”
Hopkins kicked a 39-yard field goal to give Stanford a 27-24 win in what many consider the second greatest Big Game ending — or perhaps the best for those in Cardinal colors.
Tedford considers his best Big Game memory his first as Cal’s coach in 2002.
The Bears stopped Stanford’s record seven-game winning streak in the series with a 30-7 rout. Players carried quarterback Kyle Boller off the field, fans tore down the goal posts and students publicly paraded the Stanford Axe around campus all week. Even now, the photos of that game line Cal’s football offices.
“It was a great environment,” Tedford said. “I think that will be a memory of the Big Game and the Memorial Stadium environment that was really special.”
This week might take a special ending for anybody to remember.
Stanford, which has yet to score an offensive touchdown in two road losses, is hardly the force it was a year ago behind Andrew Luck and three others drafted in the top 42 picks. Cal looked awful at times in losses to Nevada and Utah, but then nearly pulled off an upset at Ohio State and has started to find its rhythm in back-to-back wins against UCLA and Washington State.
In what is the earliest Big Game since the inaugural edition played in March because of the expanded Pac-12’s squeezed schedule, an October surprise seems unlikely. Then again, as those involved always say, the Bay Area rivalry has produced some unexpected moments many times before.
“All the tradition and all the history and all that is really important. Most of the guys understand that, what the Big Game is all about,” Tedford said. “Every year, there’s always a history lesson that goes into the Big Game.”
Maybe this year more than most.