The events described below actually happened as described. OK, so a few names have been modified to protect innocent next-of-kin. Return with us now to a familiar place in a far, far different time.
FORTY YEARS? Can it really be? Well, of course it can, and it is. We were students once, and young. Forty-freakin' years ago.
One of the watchwords on campus during Vietnam sixties was the term "relevant" as in relevant education, relevant discussions, relevant issues. If you took "irrelevant" classes such as economics or business law you were derided as a capitalist tool. I mean, what are those subjects going to do for you? Better to get a "relevant" education in Kiln Safety and Earthenware Craft.
Or Macrobiotic Cookery 1A and 1B (Lab).
Or Social Justice and the Lyrics of Woody Guthrie. You know, relevant stuff.
In the fall of 1968, my pals and I were up-to-here with "relevance". We'd endured too much of it - Assassinations, Vietnam, the Democrats in Chicago. What we craved was a massive infusion of the gloriously irrelevant.
Mostly, we craved beer. No surprise that on a clear and promising Saturday morning in mid-September, 1968, down on Elizabeth Street in San Jose, in the heart of the student ghetto that was the urban campus of a pre-university era San Jose State College, we prepared for the Stanford Game. We were primed.
Beer? Check. Dates? Check. Tickets? Check. Beer? Check. Enough gas in the VW bus? Check. Hey, at 29 cents a gallon, we bought it by the quart. Beer? Yeah, we got that. Bought it by the half-quart, too.
First stop: Theta Chi fraternity, 123 South 11th Street, two blocks from our "Liz Street" bungalow. Pre-game breakfast with our resident brothers, several of which were not present. They were at the San Jose Hyatt House sharing breakfast with their Spartan football teammates in preparation for their own bus ride to Stanford Stadium. We, on the other hand, were preparing to take our own bus ride.
It was the rites of autumn in the heart of Santa Clara Valley -- the beginning of fall semester at "State" and the return of 20,000 students, many of them blonde, tanned, attractive and female. Fraternity-sorority rush was in full flower, classes were under way, a haze of burning cannabis and unburned hydrocarbons filled the campus air, propelled by the gentle late-summer breezes. It was not yet "Silicon" Valley but the orchards were fast disappearing.
The Mexico City Olympics would start in a few weeks and we were excited by the prospects for fellow Spartans Tommy Smith, John Carlos and Lee Evans. We were known as Speed City long before the emergence of methamphetamine. We had no idea how prominent Smith and Carlos would become in the wake of these Games. Neither did they.
But our social business at hand at this moment was not the relevance south of the border. It was the momentous irrelevance about to unfold just up U.S. 101 in Palo Alto. We were in full throat for the football season inaugural for both schools. It was Stanford, it was warm and sunny, it was on ABC-TV and we were psyched.
We knew "they" would be pretty good, led by a promising sophomore QB who prepped at James Lick High. Just up East Santa Clara Boulevard from the dank and venerable taverns we knew so well. Yes, we'd heard of Jim Plunkett. We knew all about his wide receiver, Gene Washington. Couple of our frat bro's grew up with Stanford running back Howie Williams. We knew fullback Greg Broughton, whose girlfriend was a DG at State. And we knew about their recruits who seemed to all come from Catholic schools in L.A. and Orange County and who were bigger and faster than most of our guys who were their classmates.
The body-mass differential was conspicuous right from the TV introductions on the sideline. Joel Stonebraker (Servite, Anaheim) was a shade over 200 pounds and was one of our starting guards. The other, Wayne Murakami (Delta J.C., Stockton), maybe outweighed him by a thigh pad and a mouthpiece. John Abernathy, our center, was barely 200 with his uniform on. All Theta Chi brothers, they drew our boisterous exhortations as their names were called out. They didn't hear us.
For Spartan fans, this would be the first of back-to-back humiliations at the hands of despised Stanford. The following year's mismatch would be, shall we say, equally uncompetitive. I'll come back to that.
Another TC brother of ours, Al Saunders, would on this day have the worst game of his otherwise respectable career as a Spartan defensive back giving up, what, about eight hundred yards in receptions to Gene Washington? Yep, torched. Plunkett threw long. He threw short. He threw underneath. Down the sidelines, across the middle, post patterns and flag patterns. Made no difference. He could have been back at James Lick scrimmaging against the San Jose High JVs. Probably would have seen a fiercer pass rush.
Okay, we pull out of the frat house parking lot around 11:30 that morning, gravid with beer and doughnuts, and head north on 101. I can't remember what was playing at the Moffett Drive-in, which was the halfway-point landmark on the drive to Palo Alto, but the new flick everybody talked about was 2001: A Space Odyssey. My girlfriend and I had seen it that week. I thought it was amazing. She thought it sucked. Summed up our relationship. Housemate and frat bro Jack Snelling wheeled the VW bus in an era long before designated drivers. Fortunately, brother Snelling was not a big imbiber. He smoked a lot of weed. Into Mexican mushrooms, too. The "relevant" kind you didn't get in restaurants. Ron Sobel, housemate #2, and his date, rounded out the passenger list. Damn, but I can't remember her name.
We pulled into the stadium area and parked beneath fragrant eucalyptus and shady oaks. We trudged up the ancient concrete steps, my last such ascent as an undergrad, lugging several large containers of Olympia, Coors and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Half-quarts. Beverage Nazis at the gates were still decades in the future. Greeting us on either side of the aisle was a festive horde of bronzed, brawling, beer-barfers, otherwise known as fellow San Jose State male students, and their equally strident co-ed companions, in various stages of inebriation. It was South 11th Street transplanted to Sections QQ readying itself for an afternoon of Circus Maximus.
Beer being what it is, and my consumption of it being what it was, inspired me to make more than my share of affectionate greetings to co-ed acquaintances in the rows we passed while looking for empty seats. Just friendly gestures, of course, but by now the girlfriend was acquiring that "how can I make this day unpleasant for him" look on her face. I deftly extricated myself from what could have been an awkward scene, exchanging greetings with male compatriots who surrounded us. Right about that moment the crowd noise and our jeering of the LSJUMB, Dollies and Prince Lightfoot saved me. For good measure, TC brother Marty Prentice and his girlfriend, the lovely Edie Symes, stumbled in with an entourage of her sorority sisters and phalanx of squires. Edie was the ultimate attention-magnet or, this case, deflector: she owned a couple of assets that, uh, overshadowed, so to speak, any liabilities she may have had. I made it point to avoid ogling Edie thereby inspiring a semblance of goodwill from the girlfriend.
Both teams took the field. The TV introductions commenced. Arthur P. Barnes conducted the National Anthem. Cannon fire. Kick-off. I was really looking forward to see if this kid Plunkett was as good as advertised. He was even better.
I began looking forward to the USC game the next month in Palo Alto, envisioning a vanquished John McKay and O.J. Simpson.
Back to Section QQ: The beer stayed cold, Plunkett but Washington stayed red-hot. How ugly did it get from our vantage? We split at the start of the fourth quarter and watched the final minutes on TV back on Elizabeth Street. Beer was still cold.
Final score: Stanford 68, San Jose State 20. The tally did not reflect the lopsidedness of the lopsidedness. For the sons and daughters of Sparta, this one was butt ugly.
That night I joined roommate Sobel for a medicinal pub-crawl through campus watering holes. We wound up at Pizza Haven on South 10th for digestive brewskies. Which was akin to going to Der Weinerschnitzel after an all-day hotdog-eating contest. Next, a drop-in visit to console our gallant brother, battered left-guard Joel Stonebraker, who was nursing his welts, abrasions, and shredded ego. An English major, he looked in vain for literary allusions to try to make sense of the unspeakable carnage.
"We knew they were gonna score points," he hoarsely recounted as he stared off into space. "But, sixty-eight? Sixty-eight points? "
I could hardly wait for USC. Talk about relevant.
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