Frustration was of the highest order for three of those players, without whom the Cardinal nearly pulled out an improbable victory. The Tigers staked to a 27-0 halftime lead before Stanford had to settle for a 27-21 defeat.
Offensive lineman John Zentner and pass-rushing specialist Tony Leiker were among the 12 Division I players whose positive steroid tests in December of 1986 resulted in bowl-game bans. That year, the NCAA administered random drug tests in late November for all players eligible for postseason games. The results were made public weeks later. Once word got out that neither player made the trip to Jacksonville, Fla., both Zentner and Leiker admitted to taking a banned substance the previous summer. "I thought there was no way it would show up positive," a despondent Zentner said a day after learning of his suspension.
Meanwhile, senior quarterback John Paye took a ferocious hit against USC a year earlier, and just like that, Marcus Cotton had separated Paye's throwing shoulder. Electing to put off surgery meant Paye played much of the 1986 season in pain. He took himself out of the regular season finale against Arizona in Tokyo, giving way to Greg Ennis. Paye's surgery ultimately took place the Monday before Saturday's Gator Bowl, meaning the Pac-10's 1985 total offense leader – and still Stanford's fourth all-time leading passer – couldn't throw until April.
"This was the worst year of my life," he said.
History remembers the 1986 season differently. Stanford emerged as a legitimate contender, earning the program's lone bowl berth between the end of Bill Walsh's first tenure in 1978 and Denny Green's last season as head coach in 1991. Seniors like Thomas Henley, Brian Morris and Thomas Henley survived a murderous schedule. Against six teams who reached bowl games, the Cardinal went a respectable 3-3.
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