Forty years later, the Stanford band still can’t stop this touchdown

Washington St Stanford Football
Stanford band members perform in the first half against Washington State during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Don Feria) Don Feria/AP

Forty years later, the Stanford band still can’t stop this touchdown

Video Embed

The bandmates tried to take the field, but the players all refused to yield.

When the football teams of Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley play tomorrow in the 125th edition of the Big Game, it will be one day short of the 40th anniversary of what live announcer Joe Starkey called “the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football.”

Just in time for the occasion comes one of the most entertaining, funniest, wildest, multi-layered, pitch-perfect, sports-related books you’ll ever read. Or, perhaps rather than pitch-perfect, it’s lateral-perfect.

Five Laterals and a Trombone is by Tyler Bridges, a near-legendary political reporter based in Louisiana. It doesn’t just recount “The Play” in 1982 in which Stanford’s band rushed the field too soon, only to have the Cal Bears use the five pitches to return a kickoff for a winning touchdown, scored by dodging and eventually running over Stanford musicians.

It doesn’t just recount the game. It doesn’t just recap the season. Instead, Bridges in Five Laterals creates a rich and sensitive, but also uproarious, story of an entire subculture of college sports and music, with a cast of unforgettable characters where Everybody’s All-American meets Animal House meets Semi-Tough meets “this one time, at band camp.” The All-American, Elway, became arguably one of the five greatest quarterbacks of all-time, while opposing head coach Joe Kapp already had quarterbacked a team to a Super Bowl appearance and literally acted in Semi-Tough; and Kapp’s leading tackler, Ron Rivera, would win a Super Bowl ring as a player and lead another team to a Super Bowl as its head coach.

Elway and Rivera both wrote forewords for Five Laterals.

What Bridges accomplished with his copious research – 375 personal interviews, 1,500 news articles, 13 books, and a TV documentary, among other sources – is to capture the very essence of a college football rivalry based less on winning prowess than on geographical bragging rights and a tradition of high-spirited hijinks. He introduces us to “The Axe” – the prize for which the two teams fight – and to the astonishingly divergent character of the two college’s bands. Cal-Berkeley, playing for a public university famous as a countercultural haven, boasts a superbly drilled, buttoned-up, traditional band, while Stanford’s elite, private school collegians form a band so wild and sometimes lewd that it ends up “banned from several venues, including the [entire] state of Oregon, the University of Notre Dame, and Disneyland.”

In the years before the 1982 Stanford band rushed the field only to be bowled over by Cal player Kevin Moen, its band den on campus was festooned with a sign reading “Moaning Cavern Park” and the group called its performance-planning sessions the Stanford Marching Unit Thinkers meetings — or “SMUT meetings” for short.

Amidst the college craziness, Bridges also tells an absolutely superb football narrative. He brilliantly limns the players’ personalities and individual talents, brings us into the locker rooms and coaches’ quarters, deftly explains the minutiae of tactics and playbook options, and describes the play-by-play with well-chosen detail and vivid imagery. We count the steps Elway takes in his backdrops, see him (in our mind’s eye) as he spins counter-clockwise to avoid rushing defenders, feel the force of his throws that are so hard they sometimes tore the skin off the fingers of his receivers.

And then, of course, there is The Play – forever capitalized in the lore of both Cal and Stanford. Watch it for yourself again and again. One player’s knee may have been down before he shoved it to a teammate. Another player absolutely threw his intended lateral forward, which should have made the play illegal, but it takes slow-motion replay to realize the illegality is indisputable.

Nonetheless, the touchdown counted — as well it should have. This is what made the play truly epic, and epically absurdist. Five Laterals and a Trombone captures it all in all its epic, absurdist glory.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

Related articles

Share article

Latest articles