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To a play of a different kind now, one performed on a football field 25 years ago today. It was a play so improbable, so amazing that today it's known simply as The Play. The Play involved two fierce college football rivals, a miracle finish to their annual game, and a marching band.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: The best way to describe what happened at the end of the Stanford versus University of California football game in 1982 is to let long time Cal announcer Joe Starkey do the talking. If you can call this talking.

(Soundbite of game broadcast)

Mr. JOE STARKEY (Sportscaster): Oh my God! The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football! California has won the big game over Stanford! Oh, excuse me for my voice, but I have never, never seen anything like it - in the history have I ever seen any game in my life!

GOLDMAN: Cal and Stanford were meeting for the 85th time in an annual contest called The Big Game. They may be two brainy institutions, but they can still lose themselves in the sweat and violence of a football game that determines Bay Area supremacy.

And the game on November 20, 1982 was one of the best. The lead changed hands several times, and with a minute and half left, Stanford quarterback John Elway, who'd go on to win two Super Bowls in the NFL, led Stanford on what appeared to be a game-winning drive. It ended with a field goal and a 20 to 19 lead with only eight seconds left on the clock.

(Soundbite of marching band)

GOLDMAN: Down on the field, at the back of one the end zones, the Stanford marching band was assembling for its postgame performance, and celebrating. Gary Tyrell lead the trombone section.

Mr. GARY TYRELL (Stanford Marching Band): We were just rocking out, playing "All Right Now." While this was going on, we're high-fiving. They still had to do this kickoff behind us.

GOLDMAN: The kickoff and return would transform Gary Tyrell from an anonymous trombonist to an actor in one of college football's great dramas. Certainly, Tyrell had no inkling at the time. The final kickoff was a mere formality, really. Up in the booth, Joe Starkey said only a miracle can save Cal.

(Soundbite of game broadcast)

Mr. STARKEY: All right, here we go with the kickoff. Armen(ph) will probably try to squib it, and he does.

GOLDMAN: Even though what followed became known as The Play, it really wasn't. You can't diagram 21 seconds of crazy spontaneity. Still, there was some method to the madness.

Kevin Moen, the Cal senior defensive back who first grabbed the squib kickoff along the ground, says his coaches had put out on the field a group of players with good hands and instincts for what to do with the ball when they caught it.

Mr. KEVIN MOEN (Former Player): You know, a group of guys kind of just said, hey, don't let the ball die.

(Soundbite of game broadcast)

Mr. STARKEY: Rogers along the sidelines - another one. They're still in deep trouble in midfield. They tried to do a couple of - the ball is still loose and they get to Rogers; they get it back now to the 30.

Mr. MOEN: And then after about the third lateral, you know, everybody was in ironically great position, but it was just something that kind of took on the momentum of, hey, if we're going to get tackled, throw the ball type of thing.

GOLDMAN: The Cal players stormed toward the Stanford end zone. As one player was about to get creamed by a Stanford defender, he'd flip the ball to another Cal player running behind him.

Moen says the most spectacular lateral was the one by teammate Morrett Ford, who tossed the ball back over his head to Moen while diving in to a couple of Stanford players.

Mr. MOEN: I don't know if he knew specifically where I was, but it was kind of a - I know he's back there somewhere.

(Soundbite of game broadcast)

Mr. STARKEY: They're down to the 20! Oh, the band is out on the field! He's going to go into the end zone! He's gone into the end zone!

GOLDMAN: Indeed, as Kevin Moen grabbed the fifth and final lateral, he ran into the end zone for the winning touchdown with a few more obstacles than normal.

Remember the excited Stanford band? Members had wandered out onto the field, unaware that the play was unfolding before them. Moen dodged everyone except Gary Tyrell.

Mr. TYRELL: I saw this Cal player in the end zone going through our celebration, and he had the football. What's all that about? The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the Astroturf.

Mr. MOEN: What I recall is a bump, and then I just kept going on to celebrate. And so it really didn't register that I ran over, ran over the trombone guy. Looking back at it, it was fun. It made that the final note, as you would say, in that play perfect.

GOLDMAN: Of course, it was a sour note for Stanford. Some directed their anger at the band, although the video shows band members never really got in the way of Stanford defenders during the play. Tyrell took some personal hits. A local newspaper showed a picture of Moen about to crash into Tyrell with the headline: Stuff This in Your Trombone.

But time heals most wounds. Tyrell and Moen have become friends. Tyrell's trombone is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

COHEN: Hearing it is one thing, seeing it is another. You can check out a video of The Play. It's on our Web site, npr.org.

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