November 20, 1982
"Oh, the band is out on the field! He's gonna go into the end zone!"
You've seen The Play before. Dozens of times, in all likelihood. And you remember Joe Starkey's famous commentary as Cal completed "the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!"
It's a moment that lives in college football history. A wild, multi-lateral, last-second kickoff return between fierce rivals? Even that memory would fade in time. That memory doesn't become required viewing in every 'greatest plays' montage, it doesn't get replayed in commercials for decades, and it certainly doesn't define a program. But The Play does.
Because unlike other great events in college football history, The Play represented something more fundamental at its core. It represented the perils of hubris—of celebrating too soon only to have your heart broken—in one iconic instant.
And that one instant has never left Stanford fans.
November 8, 2013
The clock strikes 4:30 a.m. in London on Friday morning. My Cardinal are ahead four scores at home with under a quarter to play, and my emotional state can best be described as 'terrified'.
On the face of it, this is an irrational way to be feeling. Stanford has manhandled the mighty Oregon Ducks for the entire game, holding one of the country's most explosive offenses completely scoreless. There are Ducks literally crying on the sideline. It's been a dream script for almost 50 minutes of football, and here I am, completely unable to appreciate any of it. I get an email from my Mom at the game—she feels the same way.
But as time creeps onward, hope begins seeping in. Treacherous, backstabbing hope. The kind of excruciating hope I'd learned to avoid through years of experience.
"I should know better. I'm a Stanford fan."
And yet here I am, breaking the Cardinal rule (pardon the pun).
Every minute that ticks off the clock will make Oregon's inevitable comeback all the more painful. I know that, and I still can't help myself. We're going to win this game. We're going to beat Oregon. OREGON. Again!
By the time the rally begins, we're in 'legendary collapse' territory.
October 28, 2000
This wasn't when it all began. At age 12, I'd been a Stanford fan long enough to understand the territory. I'd been going to games since I was literally 10 days old (debuting with a win, surprisingly enough).
It isn't where it all began, no, but it's the game that sticks with me. No. 9 Washington was visiting The Farm, with prolific QB Marques Tuiasosopo at the helm. The Huskies jumped out to an early lead. A light drizzle turned into a pouring rain. A terrible on-field tragedy caused a stop in the action, and the drenched fans waited with hearts in their throats for play to resume.
Many began to file out. My mother took my younger sister and joined the rush. My father and I were left in row 79 of the gargantuan Stanford Stadium, the uppermost island in a small red archipelago dotting an ocean of empty bleachers.
Play resumed, and it was more of the same. Washington built the lead, time ticked down, and Stanford looked well beaten by a better team. A Willie Hurst touchdown run just inside the six-minute mark pushed the score to 24-6 and seemingly wrapped things up. The stadium was nearly empty now, with only the most stubborn fans remaining—the kind of fans who hold out hope beyond all reasonable limits and wait for a miracle. Tonight, they'd see two.
First, Randy Fasani found Luke Powell on a 60-yard pass, leading to a DeRonnie Pitts touchdown and two-point conversion.
Then, Ruben Carter recovered Mike Biselli's onside kick, the Cardinal drove downfield again, and Fasani rushed his way into the end zone for another score. 24-20 with 2:30 remaining.
And then they did it again. A second perfect onside kick from Biselli fell into the hands of Carter, and destiny was with the Cardinal. Ninety seconds later, Stanford led 27-24.
It was a spectacular comeback in surreal circumstances, with rain dumping by the gallon in the California autumn. The celebrations were immense. I distinctly remember the unbridled joy...the excitement...the hubris.
There were still 53 seconds left. It took Marques Tuiasosopo three plays to undo everything.
That was the night I became a true Stanford fan.
November 8, 2013, 4:37 a.m. GMT
The score is now 26-7. The shutout is off. Commentators around the country lament the lost shutout but write it off as garbage-time points. I get a text from my sister.
The comeback is on. I know it, she knows it, every Stanford fan in the world knows it. We've seen this movie before.
October 29, 2005
It's 5 years and one day after the Washington loss, and Stanford football has fallen apart. The departure of Tyrone Willingham left the program in the hands of Buddy Teevens, who proceeded to screw the whole thing up in spectacular fashion. That said, he was gone now after three terrible seasons, and new coach Walt Harris had the Cardinal on the brink of bowl eligibility.
Undefeated UCLA rode into town on the back of superstar playmaker Maurice Drew, ready to make a statement. But Stanford flipped the script.
After one quarter, Stanford led 7-0. After two quarters, 7-3. After three, 14-3. With 8:26 to go in the fourth, it was 24-3. Then the wheels fell off.
I don't remember what the weather was like in that fourth quarter. I don't remember exactly how I felt when the score was 24-3. I'd seen enough Stanford football by that point that any excitement I had was tempered, but I certainly didn't expect what came next.
UCLA, who had been comeback artists all season long, finally figured it out. Three possessions and three touchdowns later, it was tied. Some stuff happened in between (most notably an outrageous over-reliance on the prevent defense and the most conservative offensive play-calling imaginable from Walt Harris and Co.), but those details aren't what cling in the deep recesses of my mind.
What I remember is the strange inevitability of it all. We were winning by 21, then by 14, then by 7, but we were still winning. But everyone in attendance that day knew what was happening and couldn't do anything about it. The script was written, Stanford was going to lose, and we would have to watch the end of the movie knowing full well how much it was going to hurt.
The box score says Maurice Drew only caught 4 passes during the comeback, but as far as I remember he must have caught 20. They were all screen passes. They were all obvious. And they all worked to absolute perfection.
UCLA won in overtime.
November 8, 2013, 4:50 a.m. GMT
My sister has stopped responding to my texts. She's gone off the grid. I get another email from my Mom, saying only "OMG- this is horrible". Stanford's clock-killing drive has ended with a field goal attempt, blocked and returned for a touchdown by Oregon. The score is now 26-13, and the Ducks attempt an onside kick.
They convert it.
"Deep breaths, John."
I try to calm myself down.
"We're the No. 5 team in the country. We're leading by 13 points at home with five minutes to go. I'd rather be us than them."
But do I really even believe it?
November 26, 2005
Less than a month after the heartbreak against UCLA, it was time for the old Stanford Stadium to host its final game. Resurgent, 8-2 Notre Dame needed a win to secure a BCS berth, while the Cardinal needed one just to make a bowl at all.
After 84 years of playing football in the same building, Stanford had a chance to send it out in style. Bulldozers were literally set to break ground as soon as the game ended, and fans were encouraged to help dismantle the stadium and take home whatever souvenirs they could get their hands on.
The game itself ended up being a classic. In a thrilling fourth quarter, Stanford came back twice from nine points down and claimed a one-point lead inside the two-minute mark. It didn't even take the Irish the full 106 seconds to drive down the field and score. Heck, they even left time on the clock for the Cardinal to mount a furious drive of their own.
And what a finish that would have been: Driving downfield in the final game at Stanford Stadium, with everything on the line, and beating your bitter rivals to secure the first bowl berth of an era. Wouldn't that have been special?
Instead, T.C. Ostrander was ignominiously sacked on 4th-and-19, and it was the Notre Dame fans that celebrated. They rushed Stanford's field, on Stanford's day, and took down the goalposts. They tore through the Stadium and scoured for our artifacts—our history—as a keepsake of their BCS berth.
This was what it meant to be a Stanford fan, all rolled up into one exceptionally crummy moment.
November 8, 2013, 5:02 a.m. GMT
It's over. Another touchdown, another onside kick, and this time Stanford had recovered. Three heart-attack-inducing running plays later ("Don't fumble, don't fumble, please God don't fumble") the Cardinal had won.
I can't tell how I feel exactly. It's not unbridled jubilation, but it's far from mere relief. The Stanford of my present had just squared off head-to-head with the Stanford of my past, and the good guys had come out on top.
It's tough to contextualize Stanford fandom, to be honest. It's a proud legacy, but not on the level of the true college football powerhouses. There have always been lean years scattered among the good, and none were leaner than those I grew up in.
But then came Jim Harbaugh, and with him a new dawn. When he came to town in 2007, spouting off about "an enthusiasm unknown to mankind" and using the word 'championship' not ironically, people laughed at him. A scattered bowl appearance here or there was all this attendance-starved, academics-driven program had any right to expect. Harbaugh was just a crazy coach with no idea what challenges he was about to face.
While the 'crazy' part is still up for debate, the rest is history. Stanford improved every year under Harbaugh, garnering some of the most memorable wins in program history ("What's your deal?"), and culminating in a BCS bowl win.
But when he left, another miraculous thing happened. Stanford didn't drop off. David Shaw has proven to be as good if not better than his predecessor. This is the fourth straight season the Cardinal have been a real national force, but also just the fourth of my lifetime. It's now a program that wins the big games, that other teams circle on their calendars, that coaches around the country try to emulate. How can Stanford fans rectify the present-day reality with the one that they've known forever?
And that's why this Oregon game was so meaningful. Programs can change. The new Stanford is not a mirage, and it slew some serious demons on Thursday night.
The old Stanford isn't dead, of course. It lives on every time we fans get petrified over an opponent's 3rd-and-long, or an old-timer yells "Short-side sweep!" from the stands in a call back to the inglorious days.
And it lives on in the very DNA of the program. This is a fanbase that has been burned too many times before. It can never take anything for granted. Every success must be appreciated, and every bit of glowing praise taken with a grain of salt.
There can be no hubris among Stanford fans. The band cannot be on the field. Not again. Never again.