Big Game Memories: A Look Back at Stanford vs. Cal Through the Years

"The Play." The 1982 Big Game.

Winston Churchill once said that history is written by the victors. And while this is true when it comes to a game story, there are some aspects of a win that can’t be found in a box score – the feeling of bodies colliding together in jubilation, the sight of a head hung in dismay or the sound of a goal post being torn from the ground.

In sports, wins and losses become even more visceral in big games – championships, playoffs, even rivalry games. Especially rivalry games. While Lafayette vs. Lehigh hold the official college football “rivalry” title for most games played at 153, Stanford vs. Cal is a close thirteenth. And as we stand on the edge of the 121st edition of the Battle for the Axe, I decided to traipse backwards in time and recall some of the best Big Game moments through the memories of those who lived them.

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne (Stanford ‘01) recalls the 1997 Big Game from the stands:

We won the game and we were really excited; it was really big for us to win the game. And the Cal fans stormed the field. We won, but they came down out of the stands onto our field and they tore down our goalpost. I remember a bunch of us in the student section were all excited and we started to run on to the field, but as soon as we saw the Cal fans run on to the field, we all turned around and went back up into the stands. We didn’t want to get into any fights with them; we didn’t want to get into any trouble. It was the most Stanford thing ever.

Stanford football color analyst Todd Husak (Stanford ‘00) recalls 1999 from the field:

Knowing what was on the line – our first conference championship in 27 years was pretty important. They were terrible offensively, they had a backup quarterback and Deltha O’Neal was their best player. He played special teams and we ended up just kicking the ball out of bounds rather than risk kicking it to him and having him do something special. Sure enough, a couple of early touchdown passes and we sort of cruised to victory and brought the roses out – guys had them in their mouths. So to secure that and celebrate in the locker room with everybody was a lot of fun.

NFL Network’s Michael Silver (Cal ‘88) recalls the legendary 1982 Big Game from the stands as a high school senior:

It was really the perfect rivalry game – seniors playing the best games of their lives, so much passion, great catches, swings, and John Elway throwing an amazing pass on fourth down. As a spectator, we knew something lateral related and crazy was happening, but once you saw the band it was like you entered this surreal universe – it was hard to accept it. Eventually you see a ref just step out and raise his arms and then this incredible sound and celebration started. My future wife it turns out was there also as a high school senior across the stadium so it will always be special.

Former Stanford running back Toby Gerhart (Stanford ’09) recalls 2009 from the locker room:

For me the most memorable one would be my last one – we didn’t win. But more so because Tiger Woods was our honorary captain. Tiger Woods has this huge persona, but he’s kind of quiet and he was just kind of standing there. But he gave us this pre-game speech – it was totally unexpected. I was a captain for the team, so I was able to walk out on to the field with him and talk to him a little bit. He was fired up, kind of yelling and swearing but basically the gist of the speech was about why he wears red on Sundays – because he’s out for blood. He was fired up yelling "my mama always told me, don’t give them a chance when you have someone down, step on their throat, that’s why I wear red." It was a very cool moment with Tiger, catching everybody off guard with how riled up he was before the game.

Atlanta Falcons placekicker Giorgio Tavecchio (Cal ’11) recalls 2009 from the bench:

I was a part of the team that last won the Axe in 2009. It was bittersweet at the time because I was the starting kicker on both field goals and kickoffs and I had a really bad warm-up on field goals, so I got benched. We ended up winning by six points, two field goals that my best friend Vincenzo D’Amato, who I had been competing with that whole season, stepped up and nailed and we ended up winning the game. So I guess it worked out for everybody. But I look back at that game and remember that I had a really bad warm-up. But in my defense, Stanford has that grass field and they had kept it purposely untamed. They did that because we had Javid Best, who was a stud running back and they wanted to slow him down, which didn’t work because we won anyways.

San Francisco 49ers DE Solomon Thomas (Stanford '17) recalls the 2016 Big Game:

Christian McCaffrey’s 90-yard touchdown when he did the sprint finish at the end! Big Game is just so full of pride. The Axe means the world to us. We take pride in keeping it on the good side of the Bay. The Axe was made for the Stanford Cardinal!

Stanford placekicker Conrad Ukropina (Stanford ’16) recalls the 2016 game:

The last year that we played at Cal, that game was really wet and rainy and just absolutely freezing. And I was layered up, because as a kicker it doesn’t matter what you are wearing. On the sideline we had these heaters that literally shoot out heat – they were so incredibly hot. So it was almost halftime and we are driving down and I’m freezing, so I put my helmet next to the heater thinking it would warm it up and then I could run in and kick a field goal if we kick one here. I put my helmet too close to the heater and so when I grabbed it to run on to the field, the back half of my helmet and the inside padding was melted. So I freak out and yell for the equipment manager because it was third down and we were about to kick a field goal. They then rip off all the padding inside the helmet! So I kicked a 40-yard field goal to end the half and I did it with legitimately zero padding in my helmet. It was literally a plastic shell on top of my head. But we won the game, so everything was good.

Former Stanford defensive end Jordan Watkins (Stanford '16) recalls 2014 :

I remember my junior year, we are at Berkeley, and they had like two or three plays that were touchdowns in a row taken back by penalties. Their fans were pissed! They started throwing bottles on the field, and one almost hit me. I remember looking up where it came from, and then picked the bottle up. I acted like I was drinking the water from the bottle just to piss them off! Almost to say no matter what y’all do, it doesn’t matter. Can’t phase me, can’t beat us... it’s almost like a little brother because we know we’ll win in the end.

The odds favor the Cardinal for this one, a game rescheduled due to air quality concerns of the recent wildfires in the Bay Area. Yet, as the alums for both schools will tell you, The Big Game promises something special no matter which school has bragging rights for the next year.

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