This Saturday at California Memorial Stadium, the California Golden Bears and the Stanford Cardinal will face off for the 125th Big Game. It also marks the 40th anniversary of The Play, the biggest and most unlikely end of any college football game in history. In a recently published and thoroughly researched book, Five laterals and a tromboneVeteran journalist and former Stanford trombonist Tyler Bridges puts readers back in the action, providing unparalleled context and insight into that moment in 1982 when the football gods proved to fans around the world that the clichés really were true: anything can happen, and it does. not over until it’s over.
California caught up with Bridges earlier in the week. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where were you when The Play transpired?
The play took place on November 20, 1982. I was then in Washington, DC. And there was a radio connection to the game for Stanford and Cal alumni, which was an amazing thing at the time, to be in Washington and be able to listen to a game on the radio in the Bay Area. It was in a boathouse in Georgetown. And so I was there with a bunch of buddies from Stanford. I don’t remember the match very well, except for the end when Mark Harmon threw that “winning” basket. My buddies and I shouted “Give ’em the ax” and then we went partying. I didn’t know until the next day when I picked up the Washington Postthat Stanford actually lost the game on that incredible ending.
Having been a recent alumnus of Stanford and the Stanford band, did you immediately come into contact with any old friends who were there?
Yes, I was. Gary Tyrrell and I had played trombone together in the band. He was always carrying a bottle of Jameson Whiskey with him and I wondered if when he got hit the bottle was broken? He told me he already finished it and threw it before he and Kevin Moen met in the end zone.
It’s a great detail. So what convinced you to revisit the story 40 years later?
It’s a very Californian story. I went skiing in Tahoe in 2016 with my daughter, Luciana, who was 14 at the time. So after the day’s skiing, we step into the outdoor hot tub, and another family and I start talking to dad, Kris Van Giesen, a Cal alum. He finds out I’m a guy from Stanford and immediately starts making fun of me about the 1982 Big Game. He tells me in that whiny voice, “John Elway says it ruined his last game at Stanford.” And so I said, “Yeah, but you know, you haven’t been back to the Rose Bowl since 1959.” And we go back and forth like this, but we end up laughing and shaking hands. And in fact, we are still in touch.
Afterwards, I took Luciana back to where we were staying and, since she didn’t know what we were talking about, I showed her The Play. I got emotional when I watched it. I was about to cry. And it wasn’t the first time. Because I grew up in Palo Alto, went to Stanford football games with my dad, and then played in the Stanford band, I felt like that was my story. to tell.
Was it a difficult book to present, given the time that had passed?
Well, I’ll tell you two things I learned. The first is that it’s still well known across the country, as ESPN shows it every year. And it’s such an iconic ending. This will never be repeated. When I mentioned that I was doing a book on it, people could stop for a moment. And then they’ll say, “You mean, when the band was in the field?”
The other thing I will say is that the collective memory is much greater at Berkeley and among California graduates than among Stanford fans. I think it’s partly because Stanford lost and they want to forget about it. But also, you know, unfortunately for Cal, they haven’t been back to the Rose Bowl since 1959, when Joe Kapp was quarterback. So there’s not much to cheer for in recent California football history. For Cal fans, The Play becomes something of an enduring image of a glorious big moment for the Golden Bears.
You’re a seasoned journalist, but also a Stanford fan through and through. How did you maintain your objectivity for this project?
You’re right: I grew up in Palo Alto, my dad went to law school on the GI Bill after the war. My mother was a secretary at Stanford. Now I have a daughter there. So yeah, I’m Stanford through and through, but I approached it the same way I cover politics. I’m the chief political reporter for Louisiana’s largest newspaper. And here I have to be able to talk to Democrats and Republicans, and I have to put aside my own political opinions, and try to be fair and objective and give everyone a voice. And sometimes I’ll write stories that Democrats won’t like, and sometimes I’ll write stories that Republicans won’t like. And so I just approached it the same way. That’s why I interviewed so many people on both sides. I really just wanted to tell an entertaining story – the story behind the story of the craziest finish in college football history.
You really interviewed a lot of people. And there are plenty of great characters in the book, including quarterback John Elway and coaches Joe Kapp and Paul Wiggins. Who stands out for you as the most interesting or surprising character that comes out of your research?
One guy I really enjoyed tracking down was the guy who signaled the win for most people. Everyone who was there admits that at the end of the game there was complete confusion. Most people at Memorial Stadium didn’t know who won. And they figured it out thanks to the Tightwad Hill cannon. Everyone knew when that cannon shot went off that Cal had scored. So I made it my mission to find this guy and tell it from his perspective. This is the level of detail I was looking for.
As you say, there were only four seconds on the clock when The Play started. How many pages do you think you devoted to those four seconds?
Good, Sports Illustrated published a review by a guy named Ron Fimrite – a Cal alum – in 1983. And it was the best version of The Play that was ever written. All the other stories were retrospective, and I didn’t want to tell a retrospective story, I wanted to give you the impression that you had to turn the page to find out what happened next. And Fimrite did, in a much smaller version. So the goal was to take what he had done and build on it. I interviewed 21 of the 22 players who were on this pitch for the final kick-off. Only Mariet Ford didn’t answer my letters in prison. And for this last Stanford drive, I interviewed everyone on the field except for a Stanford player who died and a Cal defensive back who didn’t respond to me. I just tried to get as many perspectives as possible and then weave it all together into what I hoped would be a seamless narrative.
Okay, so the questions that will always be asked: Was Garner’s knee down? And was the last side forward or not? What are you saying?
I agree with what the officials say. I interviewed the five surviving officials and the two guys who had a clear vision. One of them said it was inconclusive. He couldn’t tell, but he didn’t whistle. And the other official said he was sure Garner wasn’t down. Now there is good evidence to suggest that the last lateral was forward, but my feeling is that is ancient history. I didn’t try to write the book to prove that Stanford actually won the game. Cal won the game, 25-20. I know my friends at Stanford will disagree. It was a terrible loss for Stanford seniors and fans, but the reason we’re still talking about it is because of how it happened. And, you know, it’s about the improbabilities of life, the importance of never giving up. You never know, sometimes, where things might go.
Where do you think things will go this Saturday at the 125th Big Game?
I will not make a prediction. But I will tell you this. You know, when we go against each other, Stanford and Cal, each team wants to beat the other. But we go out into the world after we graduate and work with people from the other school and become friends. There’s a real camaraderie there and I think it’s epitomized by Kevin Moen and Gary Tyrrell who have become friends over the years. You know, they collided at that time in the end zone 40 years ago, but now they’re good friends. They laugh about it. And I think that’s how it should be.