The fall of 1980 was my first quarter at Cal, and along with my last quarter, probably the most fun I had in my two years there. There was something incredibly liberating about being away from home for the first time in my life, and sharing that experience with a dorm full of people experiencing exactly the same thing. It took me a while to find an appropriate balance between "fun" and school (that D+ on a midterm helped a lot in that regard), and it also took me a while to realize that I needed to start pacing myself in the spending department if I was going to make it through two years without taking out major student loans. Over the course of the quarter I got better at it, and still managed to partake in a lot of activities outside the classroom - including my first Bruce Springsteen concert, as well as an incredible show by Talking Heads and The English Beat - to this day, one of the five best concerts I've ever seen.
And of course there was football. Cal was actually expected to contend for the Rose Bowl that fall, but unfortunately I had been accepted so late in the process (due to a mixup with my community college transcripts) that it was too late for me to get a student football pass. I still managed to hit most of the games, using the pass of someone who couldn't go or just didn't care. As the season progressed, the latter reason prevailed most often, because the team underachieved to a spectacular degree, and really stunk up the joint after starting quarterback Rich Campbell went down for the season with an injury. His successor was a guy named J Torchio (that's right, just the letter J), who was around 5'11" and was obviously not a threat to go on to a professional career. His first three starts were all blowouts, and heading into the Big Game the team was a desultory 2-8.
I wasn't expecting to go to the game, but miraculously, on Friday evening one of my dorm-mates (in fact, a classmate from my high school) decided he didn't really care one way or another about the game, and gave me his ticket. Needless to say, that made the evening, and I remember calling home to let everyone know (and no, they didn't really care) that I was going to THE BIG GAME!
If I recall correctly, Stanford was 6-4, and only needing a victory "over lowly Cal" (we saw that a lot in the papers that week) to wrap up a bowl bid. This was before the days when 2/3 of Division I teams went to a bowl game, so a winning record was no guarantee of a postseason berth. They were favored by about two touchdowns, and their quarterback was this arrogant bratty sophomore by the name of John Elway. Of course, we had no chance.
But strange things happen in the Big Game, and this one was no exception. Cal took the opening kickoff and drove down the field as if the Stanford defense was made of cheese, and of course we all went batsh*t crazy. The group I went to the game with had gotten there two hours early, just so we could stake out perfect seats on the 50-yard line. The first keg had been tapped about 10 a.m., so you can imagine we were already having a good time.
Stanford came right back and scored, and we figured the rout was on, but to our surprise and glee, Cal dominated the rest of the first half, and went into halftime with a 21-7 lead. Back in those days, they still allowed Cal fans to throw oranges at the Stanford band while they were performing, and all of us tried to get our orange into the tuba, to no avail. The band dedicated their first song to "the losers of the world," and then spelled out "Theder," the name of Cal's coach. Naturally that infuriated everyone, and the orange throwing became a little more urgent (not to mention dangerous).
In the third quarter, Stanford scored two touchdowns while Cal did absolutely nothing, and we fully expected to be disappointed. But then, after a great punt which was downed on the Stanford 4-yard line, the Cardinal fumbled the snap on first down and the Bears recovered. Two plays later they scored to take a 28-21 lead, and somehow the defense held on to that lead, despite a barrage of deep Elway passes that had us holding our breath with each heave. When Cal took over on downs with less than a minute to go, deep in their own territory, they were able to wind down the clock, take a safety, and kick the ball out of danger - or so we thought. As people around the world would learn later, that Elway kid had a bit of a gun as an arm, and he managed to get one last Hail Mary pass 70 yards down the field into the end zone. But it was batted down, and the Bears escaped with a 28-23 upset victory. And Stanford stayed home for the holidays.
The rest of the day, I have to admit, is a bit of a blur. I know that beer was involved.