Joe Starkey put the play-by-play in ‘The Play’
This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of Cal’s spectacular, game-winning score during the 1982 Big Game. Cal’s longtime football announcer shares his recollections of that memorable – and most unlikely – climax.

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs



Joe Starkey says that his broadcast of “The Play,” which has enthralled football fans for the last two decades, is the highlight of his nearly 30-year career as Cal’s football announcer.

20 November 2002 | “Oh my god, the most amazing, sensational, traumatic, heart rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!”

So spoke – actually, shouted — Cal football broadcaster Joe Starkey after the Bears’ miraculous Big Game win over Stanford in 1982. What transpired in the last four seconds of that contest left him, the 75,000 fans in Memorial Stadium, and radio listeners in the Bay Area in a state of shock.

Twenty years later, the legend of “The Play” continues to grow among sports fans everywhere. In an online poll conducted by ESPN earlier this year, it was named the "most fantastic finish" of any college-football game ever played.

And indeed, it was a feat of football wizardry that by most accounts should never have happened. But the stars lined up for Cal that day, and Starkey, then a play-by-play announcer for KGO radio (he’s now the station’s sports director), was in the right place at the right time.

“Even before The Play happened, it was still one of the best Big Games ever,” Starkey recalls. “The score was close the whole time, and there were some incredible touchdown passes.“

But the real drama was yet to unfold. With just under a minute left in the game, Cal was leading by two razor-thin points. With his team buried on its own 13-yard line on fourth down, Stanford’s John Elway managed to march his team downfield to set up a field goal. The kick was good, and Stanford took a 20-19 lead with just eight seconds to go.

"I really thought the game was over at this point," Starkey says. But Stanford made a key error when Elway and head coach Paul Wiggin failed to pay attention to how much time was left on the clock. "Instead of leaving eight seconds on the clock, they should have let it run down to four, then kicked the field goal. That would have left no time for The Play to happen."

Another break for Cal came when Stanford was penalized 15 yards because its team ran on the field to celebrate what it thought was the game-winning field goal. But even with these advantages, what happened next was unfathomable.

Cal defensive back Kevin Moen picked up Stanford’s squibbed kickoff at the 46-yard line. He tossed the ball to Richard Rodgers, who lateraled it to freshman Dwight Garner. Just as he was being tackled by two Cardinal, Garner pitched the ball back to Rodgers.

“This part was very controversial,” Starkey recalls. “Stanford later insisted that Garner’s knee was down, thereby ending the game. To this day, I can watch the film and see that it was so close, the call could have gone either way.”

[In a recent column for “California Monthly,” Kevin Moen drolly wrote: “I don’t know why there was such a controversy over this part of The Play. …[F]rom my vantage point it was clear as day that [Garner] got rid of the ball with a good quarter-inch to go.”]

At the same time that Cal was juggling the pigskin down the field, the Stanford band, thinking the game was over, ran into the end zone — which proved a costly mistake.

Rodgers made it to the 46-yard line, then shoveled the ball to wide receiver Mariet Ford. Trapped by three Stanford players near the 25, Ford tossed the ball over his shoulder toward Moen, who – thanks to Ford’s body-block of the three Cardinal players trapping him — plowed through the Stanford band into the end zone for a touchdown.

Traffic at a standstill
Starkey’s loud and sometimes frenzied call of those final seconds — the recording is among the most famous sports broadcasts in history — may be the only complete audio description of The Play.

“Normally in TV and radio,” Starkey says, “when you know it’s the last play of the game, you don’t call it as it occurs. You wait until it’s played out, then give a recap. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to stick with it.”
Many reporters covering the game that day didn’t even see The Play, he says. Thinking Stanford’s field goal had ended the game, they went to the locker room or left the stadium to beat the traffic.

“One colleague of mine was in his car at a red light when he heard me calling out Cal’s last play,” says Starkey. “When the light turned green, he didn’t move, and neither did any of the other cars at the intersection. It was obvious everyone was listening to the same thing; he said the light changed twice before anyone moved.”

Another friend driving home during The Play, Starkey remembers, tried to pull over to listen to the broadcast, but was so distracted by what was transpiring that he ended up in a nearby ditch.

No matter where they were listening, football fans all over Northern California were able to share in the jubilation, thanks to Starkey’s thorough and emotionally charged description, which concluded with these words: “From here in Berkeley…where the serenading, and the songs, and the music, and the parties will go on late into the night as people years from now…will say they were here today for what has to be, as of this moment, the greatest Big Game in history.”


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