By Art Spander
STANFORD, Calif. - The man was the "Cadillac of college kickers." A strong statement and, in a town, Berkeley, where transportation was more apt to be Toyotas, Volkswagens or used Chevys, such an unexpected one.
But the declaration from the late Bruce Snyder, the Cal coach that season of 1988, was hardly off the mark because the kicker, Robbie Keen, who had made 17 of 19 field goals and all 23 of his extra-point attempts was hardly off the mark.
So when Keen, an All-American, trotted out with four seconds remaining at Memorial Stadium in the 91st Big Game, the ball on the Stanford three and the score, 19-19, a Cal win appeared certain. In sports nothing is certain.
Major leaguers drop pop flies, PGA Tour pros miss short putts. And gimmee field goals occasionally don't even get off the ground. Not when there's a redshirt freshman from Stanford, Tuan Van Le, born in Vietnam, raised in California, on other side of the line of scrimmage.
Thump. Thump. A kicker's nightmare, contact with the ball, someone else's subsequent contact. "It was weird,'' said Van Le. "Before the field goal, I had a feeling I could [block it]. So many times I had come close. I lined up on the left side, and the only way I could do it was to jump the ball. It felt good they didn't beat us.''
Said Mr. Cadillac, "I have no idea who or how the kick was blocked...I hit it perfectly, so it was unfortunate.''
It also was the first Big Game tie in 25 years, since 21-21 in 1953 and, because college football adopted the overtime rule in 1996, it will be the last.
No question "The Play," that multi-lateral kickoff return in 1982 during which a couple of Cal ballcarriers may have been downed-oh, to dream-still rankles. Retribution came eight years later.
The story is as gleefully repeated around The Farm as the other event is gleefully ignored. (If a Cal runner runs into a trombone player and no one hears it, did it happen?)
That 1990 game at Cal, the Golden Bears postured and penalized their way to defeat. John Hardy of Cal had intercepted Jason Palumbis' 2-point conversion attempt for an apparent 25-24 win. But too much celebrating brought Cal back an extra 15 yards on the kickoff. Then with 5 seconds remaining, Cal's John Belli blindsided Palumbis. John Hopkins needed only - only? - to hit a 39-yard field goal for a 27-25 Stanford win as time ran out.
"Twenty years from now, when I'm sitting around and some Cal fan comes around talking smack, I'll say, `I've got something for you, pal.'"
Stanford linebacker Jono Tunney
What Stanford had in 1997, the 100th Big Game, was a frantic, 21-20 win. Both schools wore copies throwback uniforms from the 1930s. Maybe that had something to do with Stanford's old-fashioned attempt at throwing away the game.
The Cardinal was breezing, then Cal scored 10 points in the last 4:20, the last two on a safety when Stanford's Kevin Miller kneeled in the end zone for an intentional safety.
The tactic worked. Stanford cornerback Chris Draft picked off a pass by Cal's Justin Vedder at the Cardinal 27 with 1:27 left. "There have been a lot of crazy finishes in this game," said Stanford running back Anthony Bookman. "My heart was racing. I wish we didn't make it that close."
It wasn't that close in 1985. Stanford won by two points, 24-22. After leading, 24-0, just 2:14 into the third quarter.
The Golden Bears scored all their points in a dizzying span of 5 minutes 24 seconds and could have gone in front had placekicker Leland Rix not been wide right on a 30-yard field goal attempt with 8:32 left in the game.
"They had momentum up to that point," Stanford defensive back Toi Cook. "That was the biggest play of the game.'" Until a bigger one. On third and 23 from the Stanford 7 with some two minutes remaining, Cardinal quarterback John Paye, who had passed for two touchdowns and run for one, threw a 34-yard completion to Jeff James.
"As far as I'm concerned," said Jack Elway, then Stanford coach, "It was the best I've ever seen in my life. He buggy-whipped it in there, and Jeff made the play."
Numerous people made plays when Stanford beat Cal, 36-30, in overtime in 2000. Cal rallied from a disastrous first half - two interceptions, two blocked punts, four false starts -to take the lead, then fellbehind on Luke Powell's 75-yard TD reception. But not for long. Joe Igber went nine yards to set up the only overtime in the history of the series.
Cal's Mark Jensen hooked his field goal attempt in OT, got another chance because Cal false-started and the play was dead, and again missed.
It was a dull game in which, suddenly, the teams combined for 31 points in the fourth quarter and from which Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham improved his Big Game record to 6-0.
As Stanford has proved, Cal doesn't have a monopoly on great Big Game finishes.