The approaching 25th anniversary of what’s widely considered the strangest ending ever of a college football game prompts thoughts about gridiron miracles and mishaps.
It’s been nearly a quarter century since radio announcer Joe Starkey’s historic call (“Oh, the band is out on the field!”) of a five-lateral kickoff return for a touchdown as time expired in the November 1982 California-Stanford game.
It took Starkey another 19 words to sum up Cal’s 25-20 victory: “Oh my God, the most amazing, sensational, traumatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!” But players, coaches, administrators and alumni who viewed that game — and many of the millions who have watched the countless replays and heard Starkey’s description since then — remember the event today with just two words: “The Play.”
Any list of the most “amazing and sensational” finishes of history — games that maybe are a notch higher on the ingenuity (or depending on fans’ perspective, notoriety) scale than great achievements like Boston College’s “Hail Flutie” to beat Miami (Florida) or Kordell Stewart’s winning toss for Colorado in “The Miracle at Michigan,” — probably includes The Play at the top. It’s unquestionably a defining moment in college football.
However, such a list of great finishes also should include moments as the “Bluegrass Miracle” (LSU’s 2002 victory over Kentucky), the “Flea Kicker” (Nebraska snatching a booted pass out of the air for a game-saving touchdown against Missouri) and Northwestern’s “Victory Right” against Minnesota in 2000.
It also will include games still in search of a label, like Boise State’s trick-play-laden, overtime victory over Oklahoma (topped by an on-field marriage proposal) in last season’s Fiesta Bowl.
And it probably should include at least one game that hasn’t benefited from wide media exposure: “The Miracle/Mishap in the Mud” between Central College (Iowa) and Linfield College in the second round of the 2000 Division III Football Championship.
The 1982 Cal-Stanford game is just one of many college football games that have helped distinguish intercollegiate athletics from other levels of sport — and such games seem to have occurred on a fairly regular basis during the past 25 years.
“In retrospect, I realize this was one of the great things that occasionally happen in college sports,” former Stanford President Donald Kennedy told writer Jackie Krentzman in a 2002 Stanford Magazine article marking the 20th anniversary of The Play.
“That is, every once in a while, something happens that reminds you that this isn’t the National Football League. Instead, this is a game conducted largely by 19- and 20-year-olds, and every once in a while, something marvelously unexpected happens.”
Following are just a few of those “marvelously unexpected” moments:
Linfield was protecting a three-point lead on a sloppy field in overtime of its Division III playoff game against Central as the visitors lined up for a 38-yard, do-or-die field-goal attempt. When Central kicker Tim O’Neil slipped to the ground and weakly booted the ball into the line of scrimmage, the game appeared to be over, and Linfield players and fans poured onto the field.
However, the play wasn’t blown dead by officials, who explained later that the ball had hit a Central player behind the line of scrimmage and could be advanced. Central center Reid Evans found the ball in the midst of a scrum of players, picked it up and handed it after a couple of seconds to fullback Joe Ritzert, who squirted out of the crowd in his mud-caked jersey and ran 21 yards past astonished bystanders for the winning score.
“I just tried to find the ball,” Evans told the McMinnville (Oregon) News-Register. “It bounced right in front of me. It was the luck of the draw. I started looking for anyone on our team I could give the ball to. I just wanted to keep our hopes alive. I looked to my left and there was Joe. He reached out and grabbed it.”
Central coach Rich Kacmarynski immediately made the connection between his team’s victory and the Cal-Stanford game nearly two decades earlier.
“This kind of reminded me of that game,” he told the News-Register. “You had all the Linfield players on the field as the play was finishing.”
The play quickly was dubbed The Miracle in the Mud by Central radio play-by-play announcer J.B. Connoley, but Linfield fans understandably have a different take, dubbing it the “Mishap.”
A key moment in Northwestern’s 2000 march to the Rose Bowl came as time was expiring against Minnesota in the Metrodome, and the Wildcats lined up with receivers stacked to the right side for a fourth-down play at Minnesota’s 45-yard line. Quarterback Zak Kustok rolled right with the snap and threw to the end zone, where receiver Kunle Patrick tipped the ball volleyball-style — as the Wildcats frequently had practiced doing — to wide-open teammate Sam Simmons.
Simmons stepped over the goal line then set off on a celebratory dash back to midfield, stunning the Gopher faithful and leaving delirious Wildcat fans slightly doubtful whether Simmons actually reached the end zone. He did, wrapping up one of a series of close wins by Northwestern en route to the Big Ten championship.
“I got hit when I threw it, and when I got up I saw Sam running around,” Kustok told the Minneapolis Star Tribune after the game. “I didn’t know if he caught it, but when I saw everybody jumping around, I figured we scored.”
Undefeated Nebraska trailed host Missouri by a touchdown during the 1997 season as the Cornhuskers lined up at the 12-yard line with seven seconds left in the game. Quarterback Scott Frost threw to wingback Shevin Wiggins in the end zone, but Wiggins bobbled the ball as he was hit by Missouri safety Julian Jones.
As Wiggins fell to the turf, his leg popped up and kicked the ball into the air. Teammate Matt Davison dived for the ball and cupped it in his hands just before it fell to the ground — setting up Nebraska’s overtime victory and ultimately a share of the national championship, and shooing celebrating Missouri fans from the field in shock.
“The kids will remember this forever,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Charlie McBride told the Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star after the game. “Heck, all of us will remember this forever.”
Boise State and Oklahoma combined for five touchdowns, three point-after kicks and a pair of two-point conversions through a series of 15 offensive plays beginning with just two minutes left in regulation at the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The three most memorable plays were run by Boise State, which won in overtime when running back Vinny Perretta took the snap from center and rolled right for a touchdown, then the Broncos ended the game by running the Statue of Liberty play for a two-point score.
The play for the ages, however, came with less than 20 seconds left in regulation and Boise State facing fourth-and-18 at midfield. Bronco coaches called a desperation hook-and-lateral play, in which quarterback Jared Zabransky threw 15 yards downfield to receiver Drisan James, who briefly held the ball as defenders converged then lateraled it to teammate Jerard Rabb. Rabb streaked 35 yards unchallenged before diving past a Sooner defender at the goal line for the score.
“It’s the best that play has ever worked,” Zabransky told The Idaho Statesman afterward. “I’ve never seen anything like that. The Doug Flutie pass. The Cal-Stanford play. It’s got to be up there.”
Caught up in the celebration, Boise State running back Ian Johnson found cheerleader girlfriend Chrissy Popadics on the field and asked her to marry him. The couple were wed July 28.
Kentucky fans were primed to celebrate a home-field upset of LSU as the Tigers found themselves at their own 26-yard line with two seconds left in the game. Feeling confident of stopping one last play, Kentucky players on the sideline doused coach Guy Morriss in Gatorade, and fans stormed the field under a fireworks display as LSU quarterback Marcus Randall heaved a pass downfield.
Randall’s pass floated into a gaggle of defenders and receivers, but wideout Devery Henderson, whose instincts told him to run past the group, found himself in the right place at the 20-yard line as the ball was tipped. Henderson grabbed the ball, avoided a diving tackler and ran for the winning score.
A couple of months later, as LSU prepared for its Cotton Bowl game against Texas, Tiger players recalled the moment for the Austin American-Statesman.
“It’s something people will always talk about,” running back Domanick Davis said. “We made history that day.”
Still, for all the heroics college football fans have enjoyed during the past quarter century, The Play remains the standard against which all other wild finishes are compared.
It’s four Cal players tossing the ball around to find Kevin Moen in position to ramble toward the end zone. It’s Moen skipping into the end zone through the Stanford band, ultimately flattening trombone player Gary Tyrell. It’s the confusion and then the officials’ ruling that set off Starkey’s 19-word football equivalent of the Gettysburg Address.
“I was a screaming lunatic,” Starkey recalled for the Santa Rosa (California) Press Democrat in 2002. “It took me a long time to realize why I was screaming. The crowd noise was so loud I couldn’t hear myself in the headset. There was clearly a point I reached a higher octave as the band came on the field. That’s when I went nuts. And now I’m stunned because they get to the end zone. I reach another level there. Then I yell, ‘Oh my God!’ ”
“Nobody knew exactly what happened; in the haze of The Play even I was not sure what had taken place,” Moen wrote 20 years later in his alma mater’s alumni publication, California magazine. “But everybody was running around hugging each other. It was the start of a celebration that would last a lifetime.”
That celebration almost surely will reach another peak later this fall, as California and Stanford tee up the ball December 1 during The Play’s 25th anniversary season.