It’s the 35th anniversary of the greatest play in the history of college football

For the uninitiated, here’s the context: On Nov. 20, 1982, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley (henceforth “Cal”)-arch-rivals across the San Francisco Bay-held the 85th meeting of their annal showdown called, somewhat pretentiously, “The Big Game.” (Distinguishing it from the annual Harvard-Yale matchup called, even more pretentiously, “The Game.”)

We’re talking, of course, about the Cal-Stanford band play.

If you haven’t seen it, here it is (don’t worry, it’s just 46 seconds):

After a close game, Stanford took a one-point lead on a field goal with four seconds left to play. Cal received the ensuing kick, needing to run it back for a touchdown to win. Then all hell broke loose.

There are essentially two components that combine to make this the greatest play in the history of college football:

1. There’s the improbable high-wire act of Cal completing five lateral passes as time expires. When an NFL team completed one lateral in a similar end-of-game situation, it became so famous the play got its own nickname (The Music City Miracle). Five such passes is unheard of, particularly with so much pressure on the players (Stanford partisans maintain to this day that there are two points where either a Cal’s players knees were down, or the ball was passed forward, making it illegal. Ignore them, because that’s not the point).

2, Then there’s the blissful insanity of Stanford’s marching band wandering onto the field before the game was over, interfering with the play, and-the pièce de résistance-Cal’s Kevin Moen spiking the ball on the head of an oblivious trombone player. You can sort of understand how it happened-the clock reached zero, the game looked over, and the band took the field-but there’s something surreally Monty Python-esque about the silly band stumbling into the carnage of the football field. (By the way, the trombone player, Gary Tyrrell, turned out fine and had a long career in venture capital. Even when Stanford guys lose, they win.)

There are arguably more exciting plays in college football, where the stakes where higher, or the athleticism more impressive (the 2013 Alabama-Auburn “Kick Six” game comes to mind). But the greatness of the band play comes not from its football elements, but from the absurdity of introducing non-football elements. Sports fans resist the intrusion of real life into their games, but occasionally it can make the game so much better.

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