A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft, John Elway’s NFL career ended in memorable fashion. Elway’s legendary career culminated in consecutive Super Bowl victories and MVP honors in his final game as the Denver Broncos beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIV.
For Elway, however, the ending to his college career was one to forget. Unfortunately for the legend, it was one few ever will.
On the final play of the game, California used five laterals to return a kickoff for the game-winning touchdown. In what be the final game of Elway’s Stanford career, the Golden Bears stunned the Cardinal, 25-20.
Setting the Stage
For Elway, Stanford, and head coach Paul Wiggin, much was on the line. At 5-5, a victory would have resulted in a Hall of Fame Bowl invite for the Cardinal. Stanford had finished just 4-7 the year prior, but did beat California to snap a 2-game losing streak in the series.
Cal was 6-4 in its first season under former quarterback Joe Kapp. Each of the Golden Bears’ losses had come to ranked opponents and all by a relatively large margin. Known as “The Big Game,” the two rivals annually play for the “Stanford Axe.”
Elway the Hero?
Throughout his football career, Elway was known as a player who could come through in the clutch. The rifle-armed signal caller engineered many game-winning drives throughout his career with the 1986 AFC Championship being perhaps the most notable. In his final game as a member of the Cardinal, it appeared as though that was exactly what Elway had done.
Trailing 19-17, Stanford made its way from deep in its own territory to the red zone. After converting a 4th-and-17 early on the final possession with a 29-yard completion to Emile Harry, Elway took the Cardinal all the way to the Cal 18-yard-line. With just four seconds to go, Mark Harmon connected on a 35-yard field goal to give Stanford a 20-19 lead.
As Stanford players ran onto the field, the Cardinal were assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Few would have guessed that would be of any consequence.
“The Band is on the Field”
On the ensuing kickoff, Harmon squibbed it along the ground. Kevin Moen was the first to pick it up for the Golden Bears. Richard Rodgers and Dwight Garner each received laterals, but then came controversy.
A pair of Stanford special teamers were taking Garner down when he lobbed it back to Rodgers. Many, especially those with ties to Stanford including those in the marching band, contend that Garner’s knee was down but the play continued. Thinking their school had won, the Stanford band made its was onto the field.
Mariet Ford was the next Cal player to receive a lateral and the final player to deliver one. With a trio of Stanford players coming toward him, Ford slung the final lateral over his shoulder. It was caught by Moen.
Cardinal faithful also make the case that Ford’s lateral should have been ruled an illegal forward pass, but again, the play went on. With a mixture of football players and band members on the field, Moen made the first Cal defender miss and outran others through a sea of band members. Going roughly the final 25 yards for the decisive touchdown, Moen famously finished the play by jumping into unsuspecting Stanford trombone player Gary Tyrell in the end zone.
As a result of the loss, Elway would never play in a bowl game during his time at Stanford. The Cardinal finished 5-6. After a 1-10 season in 1983, Wiggin was fired. He was replaced by Jack Elway, John’s father.
Despite a 7-4 finish, Cal did not play in a bowl game. It would be the Golden Bears’ only winning season in five years under Kapp.
While Kapp didn’t win much at Cal, he was 3-2 as a head coach against Stanford. His first win over the Cardinal was also the most memorable, thanks to a return that came to be known as “The Play”. It came on this day four decades ago.
Original photo via Tribune Publishing/repurposed many times