Will the first man to signal the most famous touchdown in history please come to the courtesy phone?
The 30th anniversary of the The Play approaches this fall with its legion of honor seemingly set in stone: The Fantastic Four—Kevin Moen, Richard Rodgers, Dwight Garner, and Mariet Ford—earned their spot in history with a touchdown that seemed to flout the space–time continuum; Stanford trombonist Gary Tyrrell gave the legends an amiable foil, absorbing his end zone mugging with panache; and the wonder of it all will live forever in a beautifully unhinged radio call. Thank you, Joe Starkey.
But another figure close to the event has evaded public notice for too long. The man in question, seemingly an ordinary spectator, took the field that day and all but huddled with head referee Charles Moffett and crew at the critical moment just after 4 p.m. on Nov. 20, 1982, when everyone in Memorial Stadium held their breath, waiting to see whether Moen’s impossible dash would count.
The refs decided it would, but they kept their heads together to discuss whether or not Cal should kick an extra point (really, they did). And so, even before the officials made the call, Fan X pivoted toward the Cal alumni section and threw his arms into the air. Touchdown Bears!
The triumphal signal gave the 75,000 or so in attendance that day their first clear indication that the game would go down as a 25–20 Cal victory. It also set off bedlam. And Stanford recriminations. It spawned “The Play” T-shirts. And play-of-all-time declarations. It inspired copy-cat lateralling. And video retrospectives. And more T-shirts. And joy in Bear Land.
A few fans (me and my pals, at least, all Cal alums) first drew a bead on Fan X almost 30 years ago, as we obsessively reviewed video of The Play. Who was that guy practically leaning on the refs? Budding Nobel laureate? Work-release miscreant? Zelig? How did he get there? And where has he been since?
Three decades later, still no answers.
Here’s what is known: Screen grabs from the 1982 television coverage—dubbed to DVD—show Fan X to be a white male, roughly 25–35 years old. The subject wears a beige jacket and light-colored pants. He has longish brown hair, is slightly balding on top, and appears to be carrying a blue backpack. If he arrived at the stadium that day with friends, they don’t appear with him on the stadium floor. Not long after his touchdown celebration, he disappears from camera view.
Also pressing in on Moffett & Co.’s huddle that afternoon were various other Cal fans, a couple of band members, and several Cal football players. Cal punter Mike Ahr, wearing number 7, dipped his head close to the zebras and listened intently. He recalled referee Moffett saying to his frazzled comrades, “It looks like we have a penalty on Stanford [for too many men on the field during a premature celebration]. Do we have any penalties on Cal?” Ahr said the other officials all shook their heads no. “Then they just looked at each other and he said, ‘I guess we have a touchdown.’”
The punter pulled on his helmet and threw himself into the frenzied celebration.
Now a bank executive in the Bay Area, Ahr has no knowledge of the random fan who also eavesdropped on the decision. It seemed possible that Fan X had some connection to Cal Athletics, since he appeared on the field so quickly after Moen crossed the goal line. But several Athletics Department employees and sportswriters from that era said they didn’t recognize the obscure man with the backpack.
Former Cal sports information director John McCasey took a look at the freeze frames recently and offered a guess. Fan X looked to him like Steve Grealish, who played linebacker for the Bears in the early 1970s.
Grealish made a likely suspect. He reputedly crashed the field at the end of the 1974 Cal-USC football game at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. SC had tied Cal 15–15 that day, and Grealish didn’t like the way Tommy Trojan and Traveler the horse seemed to celebrate the draw. So he left the stands, approached the Trojan mascots, and punched the big white horse square in the jaw.
It was with a surge of anticipation, then, that I called Grealish recently at Shanghai Kelly’s, one of the San Francisco bars he owns. The suspense didn’t last. “No, I wasn’t at the ‘82 game,” Grealish said. “I was on a trip in the Virgin Islands.” Then he added, “Man, I wish it had been me.”
And so it stands. We still don’t know the identity of Fan X. But maybe that’s okay. It’s somehow in keeping with the wonderful weirdness of The Play itself. Cal’s madcap improvisation that day ended with a touchdown signal from another Bear also coloring outside the lines. A perfect symmetry.