As a lifelong California coastal resident, it’s not always easy to get a proper feel for the fall. Sure, some leaves change and drop off here in LA (honestly, I don’t know how SoCal plants figure out what to do and when), but the tall and skinny palm trees in front of my apartment pretty much stay tall and skinny throughout the year. It was the same growing up in Northern California where the trees and the weather didn’t herald autumn’s arrival – it was the football.
Changes of season can be subtle in my neck of the woods. I only remember one formal “snow day” during my entire childhood in the Bay Area town of El Cerrito – and I think it was called for the novelty more than for safety. These days, I mark the fall by events like the return to the ice of my beloved LA Kings and the re-opening of my little-used sock drawer. So, other than on brief vacations in different climes, I can’t say I’ve ever experienced a progression through the seasons, weather-wise. And I kind of regret that.
Mum tells me the transition to fall was much more clear-cut in her days as a Midwestern gal – and for her, it always went hand in mitten with football. As a University of Wisconsin grad student (where she met Dad), Mum would officially pack up the summer clothes each year to make way for the layers needed to stay warm while cheering on Alan Ameche and his fellow Badgers. After graduating and getting married, Mum and Dad got their football fix by following the high school team in Verona, Wisconsin where Mum taught – and it turned out to be a championship season! They also once bundled up for a homecoming game at Mum’s old college of Grinnell in Iowa where the weather was so blustery that punts into the wind resulted in negative yardage.
That degree of meteorological mayhem might not have moved west with the folks, but their fondness for football arrived intact – and my brothers and I shared in it too. An October night in the Bay Area could be plenty warm, but we still recognized fall on stepping out on the porch, seeing the glow of lights from the El Cerrito High football field down the hill and hearing the play-by-play calls of dear Sandy Berman as they wafted up to us on the night air. Whether we attended a Gaucho game or just listened from home, nothing said “fall” quite so pleasantly.
With Dad’s being a UC Berkeley professor, we also took in our share of Cal Bears football. When the weather finally did cool down, it felt just right for spending a crisp and sunny afternoon in Strawberry Canyon soaking up the game day atmosphere complete with marching band shows, cannon fire from Tightwad Hill (you hoped, since that meant the Bears had scored) and the bonus of a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Night games were fun too but rare since, until recent renovations, they had to prop temporary lights against the exterior of the stadium and aim them inside. Even though this seemed to work fine, I’d catch myself glancing up now and then to make sure they were staying in place. (Okay, yeah, that’s a bit paranoid – but it’s just how I roll.)
And what a thrilling day it was when I became an official Cal Bear! Now I could sit in the student section of Memorial Stadium and holler “Go!” to coax the response of “Bears!” from the alumni side! I could participate in card stunts! I could attend rallies at the Greek Theatre where I performed Cal songs as a member of the Glee Club! And once – only once – I could take a strangely available seat so near the front at a rally that I was nearly roasted alive when the magnificent bonfire was lit…
That last miscalculation wouldn’t be my only freshman mistake. I also opted to forego what turned out to be a legendary Cal football game.
It would have been my first “Big Game” – the annual gridiron clash between Cal and Stanford. In these classic rivalry games, the teams’ records going in and what’s at stake for either school tend not to matter much – anything can happen. And in that game my freshman year, anything did.
Instead of going though, I made the brilliant decision to spend that Friday night visiting a friend at UC Davis. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Despite a decent record, Cal’s prospects for the post-season looked bleak, and Stanford had this quarterback named Elway who was supposed to be pretty good. So I figured I’d just skip it.
Oh me of little faith…
Nearly home from my overnight trip, I was following on the radio while the climax of the 1982 Big Game unfolded.
As the clock wound down with Cal’s clinging to a slender lead, John Elway led a sterling Stanford drive that put the Cardinal in field goal range. The go-ahead kick went up and was good, leaving Cal with just four seconds to pull off some kind of miracle.
Then came “The Play.” In those fateful four seconds, one squib kick, five laterals, dozens of Stanford Band members and thousands of ecstatic Cal fans added up to maybe the wildest comeback win in college football history!
And I missed it. (Heavy sigh.)
My next year at Cal, there were some things I came to count on while living in my quad of dorms (I was in Davidson Hall). There was the “Primal Scream” – a collective and spontaneous release of emotion during finals week that didn’t endear us to the neighborhood. There was the fact that water in the showers would turn scalding hot whenever someone flushed a toilet (you quickly learned to step aside in that moment). And there was the resident who at random times would turn his stereo speakers out the window and treat fellow dormies to two alternating pieces of audio.
One showcased the vocal stylings of Vincent Price at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” As I’d sit studying in my room and hear Price’s delicious maniacal laughter for the umpteenth time, I wouldn’t overthink it – I just accepted it as part of life in the dorms.
The other audio clip was Cal announcer Joe Starkey’s already immortal call of The Play. Just when I least expected it, and at a time of year when the cold and the dark and probably my Scandinavian DNA would make me just a little prone to brooding, it lifted my spirits every single time I heard Starkey’s hoarse and joyous pronouncement: “The Bears! The Bears have won!”
That’s football for me. Seasonal proof that, whether with a Hail Mary pass, or ten grinding yards at a time – or with seemingly no time left at all – amazing things can happen. And hey, if not this year, I can just invoke that universal benediction for the sports fan: there’s always next season.
Whatever the forecast, that’s a very good thing to remember.