Big fans of 'Big Game'

To fans, the annual game between UC Berkeley and Stanford exists at a higher level than all other football contests around the US.

As a kid from the Midwest, I was brought up to believe that big-time college football wars were always fought by the gridiron giants of Michigan, Ohio State, and Notre Dame. Even my alma mater, Michigan State, could field a pretty fair bunch of bruisers on occasion (although the folks down the road in Ann Arbor could never quite bring themselves to admit it).

Some 40 years later, I finally began to admit that the "Big Ten" schools are not the only places where football is played. Even places such as Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, I discovered, could lay claim to impressive football traditions and the teams to back them up.

My final revelation came on a warm California afternoon in November 2002, while attending "Big Game" for the first time. It was then that I realized that the California Golden Bears and the Stanford Cardinal have taken competition and college rivalry to the ultimate ridiculous – but enjoyable – extreme.

My first clue that a unique experience was at hand came when my hostess, a dyed-in-the-wool Cal supporter (UC Berkeley class of '62), informed me that those in the know never use the word "the" before "Big Game" to refer to the upcoming contest. This game, she explained, exists at a higher level than all other important football contests being played around the country, and therefore it was not just the big game, it was "Big Game" – a game without equal!

Tailgate parties were not "in" back in my college days. As a matter of fact, we generally regarded alumni and their ilk as creatures from another world, to be avoided at all costs. At Big Game parties on the Berkeley campus, however, students, alums, and fans of all ages mingled together in Faculty Glade and along the tree-lined esplanade before Campanile, the campus bell tower.

Pregame festivities are the place where everyone gets in the proper frame of mind for the coming event – even fans need to get "up" for a game of this magnitude. Hordes of those faithful to Cal (the public university) reclined on blankets and feasted on hot dogs and sandwiches. We felt sure that those in the opposition camp (the private university for the scions of shameless wealth) were dining on caviar, crab, and other exotic seafood in an adjoining area – a fact that was never fully confirmed, though some crab legs were spotted during a brief reconnaissance.

The opponents and their supporters were often referred to as "Brie heads" (another scurrilous reference to their perceived economic status), while the home team and university were referred to only with greatest pride and respect.

Small groups of strolling student singers entertained the appreciative crowds by performing uncomplimentary poems, ditties, and songs about their rival school and its student body. High above the stadium an airplane trailed a printed panel questioning the courage of the bad guys' rugby team, which had recently forfeited a game to Cal – a clear indication of lack of virility and inferior breeding.

No hint of pessimism dampened the enthusiasm of this day, even after seven straight losses to Stanford. Never give up – there was a new coach, new opportunity to rise from the ashes, and a new chance to demonstrate that virtue and right will prevail.

Inside the stadium, all was primed for victory. The crimson décor of Stanford supporters could be seen in a couple of sections at one end. The rest of the 70,000 in attendance sported the Bears' blue and gold.

A jumbo TV screen was set up to stimulate the ardor of the Cal faithful. Constant reruns of "the play" from 1982's Big Game appeared on screen. In this "greatest play in college football history," Cal prevailed over Stanford on a kickoff runback for a touchdown during the last four seconds of the game. This was a clear indication of the level of commitment expected of this team on this day.

No one in yellow and blue was disappointed. At the end of the day, the scoreboard displayed a 30-7 Bear victory – total vindication for all the trust reposed in the team.

Joy returned to Berkeley! Previously hidden "The Axe is Back" buttons emerged from under coats (recognition that the mounted ax-head trophy symbolizing the winner of Big Game had once more been returned to its rightful owners).

As disappointed fans in Stanford red skulked silently from the stands, jubilant Bears fans filled the field in such a violent rush that even the helmeted and padded players and their coaches sought safety in the stands.

Down came the giant steel goal posts after a valiant but unsuccessful protective effort by scores of yellow-vested stadium security personnel. Agile students flopped back and forth on the crossbars as they teetered, groaned, and finally melted into the crowd below. For fans and team alike, this game made their season complete.

Such is the spectacle of present-day college football – perhaps not too far in hype and excitement from the gladiators and lions of more ancient coliseums. It is an experience to be enjoyed in person. TV is such a pallid substitute for being there.

This year, the big day for Big Game is Saturday, Dec. 1, across the San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto. We'll try for two tickets and an opportunity to see how the other half lives and how Big Game plays out on the Stanford campus. For many of us, the game itself is just a sideshow. The main event has to be the fans and the hoopla surrounding the event. Have times changed? I wonder.

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