I had just returned Berkeley after spring break in late March of 1981, and of course we were using the occasion to party. It was a Sunday evening; classes didn’t start until Wednesday. As far as we were concerned, it was just another long weekend. Midway through the night, a girl who lived on another floor brought around one of her friends from high school, who was just coming into the dorm for the spring quarter. He had the unusual name of Mariet Ford, and we found out later that he was on the football team. That surprised us because he was small for a football player (not even close to threatening six feet), and because he didn’t have the arrogance and the “I’m doing you a favor by hanging around with you” attitude that you saw in a lot of the players who lived in the dorms. Basically a nice guy, and I remember that throughout that spring, even though he ended up hanging out with the other football players, he always greeted me by name, and gave me a “how’s everything going?” that made me believe that he meant it, as opposed to something that he said to people just so that he could be on his way.
Flash forward 18 months later. I’ve graduated from college, and Mariet Ford now starts for the Golden Bears, in their first season under Coach Joe Kapp. Because of his size he becomes known as a “scrappy” player, one that leaves his heart and soul on the field but never makes you think that he has a future in the pros. And then, out of nowhere, he plays a key role in The Play – to this day, the most famous play in the history of college football. If you’ve seen it, and you know you have, Ford is the guy who makes the last lateral, obviously having no idea whether there are any other Bears trailing the play. Through some combination of blind luck and divine intervention, Ford was able to hit Kevin Moen right in the hands, in stride, allowing him to run into history, plowing through an unfortunate Stanford trombone player in the process. I wasn’t at the game, but I was listening to the legendary call by Joe Starkey, and of course I went crazy. And when I found out that Ford was involved in the play, I thought to myself, “hey, that’s cool – I know that guy.”
More than ten years later, I’m living in Elk Grove, California, and somehow learn that Mariet Ford has also made Elk Grove his home. I can’t remember how I found out, but I remember thinking, again, “hey, that’s cool – one of the most famous players in Cal history lives right down the road from where I do.” I thought about trying to make some kind of contact, but ended up deciding that would be lame, and could only result in embarrassment for everyone involved – particularly myself.
A couple of years later, tragedy – Ford’s wife and young son perish in a fire at their home. He finds out when his wife fails to answer the phone; he calls his brother, who discovers the dead bodies in the smoldering home. And then a few months later, Ford is charged with the crime of killing his wife and young son, killing them in a rage and starting the fire to cover up the crime. According to the district attorney who prosecuted the case, “I just think he lost control in an angry, unpremeditated explosion of violence – and it was over within seconds. He did something rash and then he tried to weave his lies in to cover it up.”
Ford remains in prison today. Interviewed during the 20th anniversary celebration of The Play, he told a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, “When I get very depressed, I think back to that game. It brings me joy. I have a place I can always go. That one moment of time keeps me going.”
For Cal fans, it remains the terribly sad coda to the most joyous moment in the school’s football history.