Joe Starkey calls final Big Game 40 years after band was out on field

ByAdam Rittenberg ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 15, 2022

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Joe Starkey thought he had blown the call.

Hours after "the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football," Starkey attended a neighborhood party near his home in Walnut Creek, California, about 15 miles East of Cal's Memorial Stadium. The date was Nov. 20, 1982, and Starkey had spent the day calling the Big Game, featuring archrivals Cal and Stanford.

Starkey, the eighth-year radio play-by-play voice for Cal, scrambled to find a highlight of what had happened in the final four seconds, a scene that would become known in sports lore simply as: The Play.

Trailing 20-19, Cal fielded a kickoff with four seconds left. The Bears made five laterals, the last going to Kevin Moen. As Starkey shouted, "The band is out on the field!" Moen weaved through Stanford band members, crossed the goal line and plowed into trombonist Gary Tyrrell.

Final score: Cal 25, Stanford 20.

"I thought I'd screwed it up completely," Starkey said. "I was too excited, not enough detail."

Even in the KGO radio booth, amid the mayhem and excitement after Cal's victory, Starkey felt fear run through him.

"I realized pretty quickly the magnitude of what had happened," he said. "Now, my fear is, did I do it right? Did I make the call right? Did I screw it up and say something I shouldn't have, or did I miss something I should have had? That haunted me."

Eventually, Starkey warmed up to the call that would change his life, the one that will forever be associated with him. He's called Super Bowls as the San Francisco 49ers radio play-by-play voice. While working for ABC at the 1980 Winter Olympics, he did an impromptu call of the third period of the U.S.-Russia "Miracle On Ice" game, which aired on ABC's West Coast radio affiliates.

But no single moment will compare to the one 40 years ago in Strawberry Canyon. The one that got him recognized on the streets of Tokyo and in a hotel pool in Rome with the drummer for the Rolling Stones. Now 81, Starkey will call his final Big Game this week as he prepares for retirement after 48 seasons as the voice of the Bears.

"They're going to bury me with it," Starkey said of his famous call. "It will be the first words when I die in the obituary. It lives on forever, apparently. This is 40 years later, and it's starting all over again."

NOVEMBER 20 BEGAN like any other football Saturday for Starkey, then 41. He drove to the game with his wife and sons, and arrived at the stadium two hours before kickoff. Pregame always began an hour before, but Starkey used the extra time to finalize his notes and chat with the broadcasters from Cal's opponents to gain a nugget or two. He knew plenty about Stanford, especially star quarterback John Elway, the son of college coach Jack Elway, and a high school standout in California.

The booth configuration was standard: Starkey and color commentator Jan Hutchins, a longtime Bay Area sportscaster; producer/engineer Neil Hogue; spotter Jim Starkey, Joe's 15-year-old son; and a statistician. The broadcast didn't include a sideline reporter.

"It was one of my first games," Jim Starkey said. "I had just started spotting for him that year."

Cal came in at 6-4, Stanford at 5-5. Joe Starkey expected "just a very normal Big Game day with a big crowd." He's not one for premonitions about events or potential historic moments, but sensed early on that the 85th Big Game would be special.

"The level of play, the amount of big plays, was so dramatic," he said. "I've always said that even if there was no band on the field and game-winning laterals, it would have been one of the best two or three Big Games I ever saw."

Cal wide receivers Mariet Ford and Wes Howell made highlight-reel touchdown catches. Elway, whose Pro Football Hall of Fame career featured many clutch drives, converted a fourth-and-17 from Stanford's 13-yard line with less than a minute left.

"If that's an incomplete pass, there is no 'Band on the field,'" Starkey said. "They lose."

Stanford set up for a field-goal attempt that everyone, including Starkey, expected to be the game winner. But rather than ensure the field-goal attempt would be the final play, Stanford took a timeout with eight seconds left. Mark Harmon converted the 35-yard field goal. Four seconds remained.

"The Stanford assistant coaches, many of whom I've known for years, have told me that there was actually a very aggressive shouting match going on between the coaches upstairs as to when they should stop the clock," Starkey said. "The guys who wanted eight seconds, unfortunately for Stanford, won out over the guys who wanted four seconds."

Stanford was flagged for excessive celebration after the field goal, a penalty Starkey hated then and hates now. Harmon kicked off from the 25-yard line rather than the 40, creating a shorter distance for Cal to ultimately cover.

"If they don't get those 15 yards, does that play work?" Starkey said. "Do they actually bring it all the way back?"

STARKEY HAS NEVER rehearsed his calls, even when a significant play is approaching. He came close in 1992 when Jerry Rice was about to set the NFL's touchdown receptions record, but ended up reacting to the moment in real-time.

As Stanford prepared for the kickoff, Starkey essentially began wrapping up the game, crediting the Cardinal for their drive despite "defeat staring them straight in the face." He could see Stanford preparing to hoist the Axe, the Big Game's rivalry trophy, which the Cardinal had won in 1981. He paid no attention to the Stanford band.

Jim Starkey stood up and stretched a bit, ready to pack up his binoculars. He briefly left the booth before returning, sitting to his father's left as Stanford kicked off. Joe's wife, Diane, sitting not far from the KGO booth, remembers seeing groups of fans leaving early.

"It wasn't like, you think 40 years later, this was going to be such a momentous event," Diane said. "But people said to me later, who were out on the street, people were at intersections and nobody was moving, because they were listening to it on the radio."

Joe expected a squib kick, which would limit the chances of a long return. That's what Harmon did.

"The Bears need to get out of bounds," Starkey began his call, thinking Cal could attempt a Hail Mary if it immediately reached the sideline.

He thought Cal might pull off a successful lateral or two before the play would end. Moen took the kickoff and passed the ball backward to Richard Rodgers, who then found Dwight Garner. The young running back's knee nearly hit the ground -- or did, according to anyone affiliated with Stanford, including a group of players who ran onto the field to celebrate -- before he pitched the ball back to Rodgers.

Things were getting interesting, but a Cal touchdown? "I still didn't believe it," Starkey said. He continued to watch the ball, which Rodgers had pitched to Ford as the action shifted closer to Stanford's sideline. By this point, Starkey's color man and spotter had become irrelevant.

"Strictly me," Starkey said. "I'm making every bit of the call."

A split second before three Stanford defenders converged, Ford pitched the ball over his shoulder to Moen at around the Stanford 25-yard line.

"It's again, serendipity, a fluke, whatever you want to call it," Starkey said. "When he throws that ball over his shoulder, he is hoping and praying that maybe there's a Cal guy behind him that can catch this, but he can't possibly know that."

The excitement in Starkey's voice built as the play continued, but after the Ford lateral to Moen, his voice amplified. Stanford band members had entered the field.

"It changes everything. How do I describe this? It's so bizarre," Starkey said. "I've broadcast nearly 1,000 college and pro football games. I've never seen anything that matches what happened at the end of that game. To this day, you'll see a game where they'll have laterals at the end of the game, trying to save a play, save a touchdown.

"But the wild card is always the band."

While Starkey tried to describe the scene before him, Hutchins started screaming, completely immersed in what was unfolding. It was similar in 1972 when, as a young sports reporter in Pittsburgh, Hutchins stood on the sideline at Three Rivers Stadium as Steelers fullback Franco Harris made the "Immaculate Reception" and ran right by him.

He's grateful his audio track has been edited out of clips that show The Play.

"I was not thinking, I was totally being, which is why I started screaming," Hutchins said. "They've taken my whole soundtrack out because I was gibberish and ruining your chance to hear what Joe had to say. I try to live like this most of the time anyhow, but I was flat-out in the moment. I was not thinking anything.

"I was experiencing what I knew was one of the most fantastic sporting results ever."

Even while shouting about Moen entering the end zone, Starkey had seen flags fly during the play and posed the essential question: "Will it count?" Would Cal's win -- and Starkey's incredible call -- be wiped away by a penalty on the Bears?

At worst, Starkey had become really excited for nothing. But it was better than the alternative.

"My theory had been, even then as a young broadcaster, is you can always apologize, but do it all the way through the first time," he said. "If you stop and then it counts, then there's no record of it, you screwed it up, and now it's lost for posterity. In any sport, whatever I was doing, it was call the play and feel free to say, 'Gee folks, I guess I messed that up.'"

Starkey's rule is why only one call of The Play truly resonates. There had been a local TV broadcast and a Stanford radio broadcast, but both cut off the call midstream, thinking there was no way the touchdown would count.

"The worst thing would be doing what the other broadcasts did," Starkey said. "They wrote it off too soon."

Starkey's eyes locked on the officials. He theorized to the audience that Cal might have made a forward lateral during the return.

"It is louder than you can ever imagine," Jim Starkey said. "Half the stadium, the red is not believing it, and the blue is saying, 'It happened.' You had the band on the field, all these bodies, and since I had binoculars, I saw [Moen] running into the end zone. But you still don't know if it's truly going to happen because it's just chaos."

The crew congregated around referee Charles Moffett, who confirmed Moen had crossed the goal line, that every lateral was legal and that the penalty was against Stanford for players and band members entering the field. Moffett raised his arms: Touchdown.

"I get kind of wacky and scream and yell," Joe Starkey said.

He then delivered the famous summation of The Play: "The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football. California has won the Big Game over Stanford!"

WHEN DIANE STARKEY saw her husband after he finished his postgame duties, she joked, "I bet you're excited about this one." But she could tell Joe, always the self critic, thought he'd left out too many details in the call. He had hit the emotional notes, but worried he missed something big. Then, Diane heard the replay.

"Amazing, unbelievable, I didn't realize he knew that many adjectives," said Diane, a longtime school teacher. "It was a true moment, full of real emotion, and people react to that. This man is so excited about the team he loves.

"He's always been on the more emotional side of broadcasting."

Starkey immediately recognized The Play and his call would resonate, but he thought it would be confined to the Bay Area or the West Coast. For a while, he was right.

Sports broadcasts were different in 1982. Media mechanics didn't allow clips to go viral, even ones that would belong among the most famous playcalls in sports history.

But the elements and emotion attached to one of the most incredible unscripted sporting moments eventually broke through the media barriers of the time and reached a larger audience. The call also made Starkey into a celebrity.

Once, Starkey and Diane were vacationing in Tokyo when a Cal fan spotted him and said, "Oh, Joe Starkey, the band is on the field." The same thing happened when they went to Athens.

"He's been recognized in all sorts of places," Diane said.

In 1987, Starkey and Diane took their youngest son Rob, then 11, on a summer trip to Italy and Greece. The vacation ended in Rome at the Cavalieri Hilton hotel. On a blisteringly hot day, Starkey's wife and son decided to take a nap, so he grabbed a book and went down to the hotel pool.

While Starkey read poolside, the Rolling Stones, who were performing in Rome, and their families sat down next to him. Starkey and Charlie Watts, the Stones' legendary drummer, struck up a conversation about the band's tour through Europe.

"Then he says, 'Ya know, mate, it really is hot, you want to go in the pool?'" Starkey said. "I said, 'Hell yes.'"

They went to the shallow end of the pool and continued to talk more about music and the Stones, a passion for Starkey. As they chatted, Lou Ferrigno, the actor and bodybuilder, and star on the TV show "The Incredible Hulk," joined them.

At this moment another man jumped into the pool and started swimming toward them. As he approached from the other side, Watts lamented that fans just wouldn't leave them alone.

"The guy comes up to the three of us and says, 'Aren't you the Cal football announcer?'" Starkey said, laughing. "Charlie said, 'What's that all about?' I said, 'I broadcast college football. He's obviously a Berkeley guy.' I didn't go into all the stuff about the laterals.

"He wouldn't have cared. He's from England."

Soon after the 1982 Big Game, people began calling KGO radio, asking for tapes of The Play. As sports director, Starkey realized he couldn't keep asking for copies to be sent out. Plus, since ABC owned the rights, there were legal hurdles to jump over before distributing.

Starkey approached KGO's station manager with a plan: Transfer him the rights to The Play. He would arrange for the tapes to be produced and would sell them solely at the manufacturing cost.

"I said, 'I guarantee you I will not do it for money, strictly for cost,'" Starkey said. "So he says, 'Gimme a buck.' So I've had the rights to The Play for 40 years for a dollar. It hasn't made me a lot of money, but there have been commercials over the years where people wanted to use it and they had to pay me whatever rates.

"But it's basically been my play."

Jim Starkey understood his dad's initial angst about the call.

"As a professional broadcaster, you're always supposed to paint the picture, especially in radio, and he's very studious about that," Jim said. "He knows the numbers, he's always very good about knowing both teams, and college teams have a lot of players. I think there are no names actually said in the [call].

"It was right for the moment, but if you look at it in a classroom, you'd probably say, 'Not the way it's supposed to go.'"

As the years went by, Starkey warmed up to his call. He now considers it his co-favorite, along with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Owens that lifted the 49ers past the Green Bay Packers in the 1999 NFL playoffs, a play known as "The Catch II," after Dwight Clark's original 17 years earlier.

The USA-Russia Olympic hockey call also sticks with Starkey, who "used a lot of the same adjectives" as he did for The Play.

"It was so unique," Hutchins said. "It would have been easy for him to get carried away or to get lost, but he stayed in his broadcaster brain the whole way through that thing. It was kind of funny to me, my reaction versus his, but it was evidence and a testimony to just how professional he always was."

The way Starkey described The Play jibed with his general broadcast style. He wasn't a football lifer, like others in the booth. The Chicago native played second-string in junior college but had no football broadcasting experience before landing the Cal job in 1975. Starkey had worked in banking in Los Angeles and the Bay Area before breaking into sports broadcasting, his dream job.

"I tend to be a fan in moments like that, where I really kind of let it loose," he said. "You hope you don't lose the detail by just screaming and yelling, but I have no problem with being excited about a particular moment. There's such exuberance and astonishment in the call.

"People get caught up in that and appreciate the pure drama of what was going on."

Despite his initial angst about the call, Starkey embraces its significance, both personally and historically. The call is an identifier and an icebreaker -- "Apparently nuns in convents know The Play," he jokes -- and so distinct that it will never be replicated.

Four decades later, Starkey's call has a place in sports history, and has far exceeded his initial assessment.

"The things I said and didn't say, I thought made sense after a while," he said. "As the years went on, I realized, 'No, that's exactly the way you should have done it,' to capture the excitement of the moment and the mystique that built up around it as this absolutely unique football play."

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