Saturday afternoon, Panthers coach Ron Rivera and special teams assistant Richard Rodgers will find televisions to watch their alma mater, California, play rival Stanford in what is called the Big Game.
Both of them will think back to the magical Saturday exactly 30 years ago, when both played for the Bears and Rodgers was in the middle of perhaps the most famous play in college football history.
It’s known, in fact, as simply “The Play,” a five-lateral kick return for a touchdown that ended with California’s Kevin Moen rumbling into a Stanford trombone player in the Memorial Stadium end zone.
Rivera, then a junior at Cal, was on the sideline, stunned that Cardinal quarterback John Elway had led his team to a field goal and 20-19 lead with four seconds remaining.
Rodgers, the Bears’ special teams captain, huddled his unit together and gave them a simple message. Do whatever it takes to keep the game’s final play alive.
No one imagined it would turn out the way it did.
“It was just crazy,” Rivera remembers.
All these years later, The Play remains an iconic moment in college football.
“I wouldn’t say I created it. It was more spontaneity than anything,” says Rodgers, who joined the Panthers’ staff this year. “Being special teams captain we were in the huddle and I said keep the ball alive, don’t drop the ball, just keep pitching the ball. Everybody responded.
“It wasn’t a planned thing.”
But it wasn’t totally foreign, either.
On Sunday afternoons that season, Cal coach Joe Kapp would meet some of his players for a casual workout that involved running around the field and tossing the ball back and forth without getting touched. It was a way to begin working out the soreness from the previous day’s game.
No one knew it was an unplanned rehearsal for The Play.
“We’d all take a few steps and pitch the ball and throw it around,” Rodgers says. “A lot of credit goes to that. That was the only preparation we had going into the game and having the ability to keep the ball alive.”
Hoping to prevent a long return, Stanford squibbed the kickoff, and it was picked up by Moen near the Cal 45-yard line. As Cardinal defenders closed in, Moen quickly lateraled to Rodgers, who didn’t have much room to run. Rodgers found teammate Dwight Garner and tossed the ball to him, keeping the play alive.
“Then I kind of circled back around Dwight,” Rodgers recalls. “As the Stanford players kind of corralled him, I yelled at him to pitch it. As I was yelling, the ball was coming out.
“When I got the ball the second time, I kind of headed toward the other sideline and I could see some of their players who thought the play was over running on (the field). Then they turned around and were running off. I start working my way up the field and there’s a Stanford player that’s legally on the field. I kind of attracted him to me.”
Before the defender could hit him, Rodgers tossed a lateral to Mariet Ford who was in full stride in Stanford territory.
All the while, the Stanford band had begun to move onto the field, thinking the game was over.
One more pitch
Inside the Stanford 30 the play nearly ended, but Ford kept it alive by tossing a lateral over his shoulder. Moen was there to grab it and picked his way between a lone Stanford defender and members of the band, flattening a trombone player as he scored the incredible touchdown.
“I knew when it happened, when we were in the end zone, I knew it was a touchdown,” Rodgers says. “There was no way this was no touchdown. There was no whistles blown. We knew there were flags on the field, but for what we had no idea. I knew it was a touchdown.”
Amid the chaos, the officials gathered to discuss the flags that had been thrown.
“When the referees huddled up, a bunch of us went running over there to find out what was going on,” Rivera says. “The referees tried to keep everybody away and they’re all talking. One of the things I remember the referee asking was were there any penalties, anything like that? They all said no. So he stepped away from them and signaled touchdown."
When the Bears score a touchdown at home, a cannon fires. Rodgers waited to hear the boom.
“The cannon went off and the world turned blue and gold,” Rodgers says.
The party was on.
“You couldn’t walk anywhere on campus without someone trying to hand you a beer. It was pandemonium. Wherever you went, people were celebrating,” Rivera says.
Not over yet?
Early Monday morning, two days after the game, Rivera was on his way to class when he shocked by a newspaper headline.
“We had what’s called the Daily Cal. It was the Monday morning edition. I was on my way to class about 6:45 or 7 in the morning, stopped to get my coffee and grabbed one of the papers,” Rivera says.
“As I start looking at it, the paper says NCAA rules in favor of Stanford, takes away the victory or something like that. Man, I called Richard and a couple of my other teammates. Everybody’s kind of running around trying to figure out what’s going on.”
It was a spoof, perpetrated by Stanford students.
“He bought into it,” Rodgers says of Rivera.
All these years later, the glow remains from The Play.
“I get excited about it,” Rivera says. “I still do.”
So does Rodgers.
“You don’t imagine 30 years later you’re going to be talking about something like that,” Rodgers says. “To us, it was just what we had to do to win the game and we did that. Thirty years later, you’re going, wow, that was pretty impressive.”
Green: 704-358-5118; Twitter: @rongreenjr