A Toe-Dip of Tradition
Hate is too strong a word. At least it was for me. I never particularly cared for the Dirty Golden Bears, and my obligatory disdain for "the other school" exponentially increased during my five seasons as a Cardinal offensive lineman. Still, the ubiquitous yarns of mutual loathing associated with the Big Game are often spun with considerable poetic license, and with few accurate depictions of the athletic dynamic at the rivalry's core.
Upon arriving at their respective campuses, Stanford and Cal students are imbued with abhorrence for one another's cultures, disrespect for one another's curriculums, and contempt for one another's colors. That reciprocal repugnance only intensifies after graduation, when alums are forced to join hands - or at least occasionally put their heads together - in the professional world, despite time-honored truisms such as "Cal sucks." But the Stanford-Cal relationship is different for football players. At least it was for me. Blue and gold never left me seeing red, and beating the Bears wasn't the sole requirement for a successful season. The Big Game was, in fact, the annual climax of my seasons on The Farm, but not for the reasons so many people assume. Bashing in the Bears' brains was nice, and silencing Cal's obnoxious fans was a welcomed bonus. But what made the Big Game truly special for me and my teammates was the rare chance it allowed us to feel like everyone else.
I was recruited by Nebraska and Ohio State, and I never regretted choosing Stanford - even as I watched the Cornhuskers and Buckeyes play for national championships after my junior and senior seasons. I was glad that I hadn't attended a football factory, where donning a jersey made me the focal point of a myopic community with questionable values. I was proud to have traveled a different and challenging path, and I never wanted my gridiron exploits to be my life's defining highlights. Most of my teammates felt the same way. Still, I couldn't help but wonder what it might feel like to be a football player in Lincoln or Columbus, not to mention College Station, State College, South Bend or nearly anywhere in SEC country. I didn't want to swim in a sea of sycophants, nor ride a wave of obsessive adoration to the shores of egotistical entitlement. I just wanted to dip a toe in the water, and the Big Game gave me that chance.
My teammates and I occasionally lamented our typically sparse, hushed home crowds, but we knew we would be hypocritical ingrates to complain. The reasons behind Stanford Stadium often being more than half empty were the same ones that drew us to Stanford in the first place. Our relatively small and intensely focused student body precluded an imposing student section, but it contributed to the world-class, inspirational academic environment we yearned for. Palo Alto's postcard-perfect weather and myriad adjacent attractions gave thousands of potential spectators too many tempting activities to opt for a seat in the bleachers. And a region as captivating as Northern California proved too expensive for many younger Stanford alums to remain within shouting distance. We knew the problem wasn't the fans we had; it was the ones we didn't have - until Big Game week. Beginning by the Mondays before our late-season showdowns with Cal, droves of Cardinal backers emerged from the woodwork - or the Enchanted Broccoli Forest. In classes, fellow students greeted us with enthusiasm and encouragement, rather than the typical welcomes of mild interest, indifference or contempt. In the community, people still didn't know us by name or jersey number, but they wished us luck nonetheless, figuring college-aged Paul Bunyans were likely in pursuit of The Axe. Perhaps most amazingly, the Bay Area media suddenly realized there were two nearby universities that just happened to field Pac-10 football teams. The attention that might have become a distracting nuisance in the long run was refreshing in small doses.
The Big Game is a treasured tradition for those who grew up with a partisan interest, as well as neutral Bay Area sports enthusiasts who simply appreciate the rivalry's rich history. But despite their academic endeavors, it is unrealistic to expect Stanford and Cal players to be scholars when it comes to Big Game folklore. Stanford's stringent admissions standards for athletes force Cardinal coaches to search well beyond California for the rare prospects who possess the athleticism to compete on the Pac-10 gridiron, as well as the balance and intelligence to excel beyond it. Raised in Morgan Hill, I was one of the few players on my Cardinal teams with Bay Area roots. But before arriving at Stanford, all I knew about the Big Game was that the Stanford band had once prematurely entered the field in celebration, causing Cal's nasally announcer to go berserk. A few days before the 1998 Big Game, head coach Tyrone Willingham sat with our freshmen class as we watched a film about the rivalry's history. Willingham wanted us to learn what the anomalous campus fuss was about, and we knew the game must be a big deal to merit a mid-week crash course. We realized just how significant the rivalry was that Saturday, when we saw a frenzied crowd pack Berkeley's Memorial Stadium to watch our 2-8 Stanford team battle a so-so Cal squad. I didn't play a down in our 10-3 victory, but as I left the field among throngs of frenzied Stanford fans, I suddenly knew what it felt like to be a college football star.
Cal and Stanford fans relish reducing one another to comical caricatures. Cal fans maintain that Stanford supporters subsist on wine and cheese alone. Cardinal devotees aren't bothered by such accusations, as they know the "Weenies" are simply recovering from life at a fallback school. But the irony, which both parties are wary to admit, is that Cal is the closest relative to Stanford in the Pac-10, just as Stanford is the most similar persona to Cal. The players realize this, which is why despite the visceral emotion a rivalry game generates, the Big Game is far more venomous in the stands than between the sidelines. Oregon State's renegades and USC's prima donnas were the adversaries to which we couldn't relate. The Big Game had more on-field passion and intensity than most contests, but surprisingly little malice. Upon signing with Stanford, former Cal head coach Tom Holmoe called me with congratulations. It was the first time we ever spoke. Golden Bears defensive end Andre Carter was the most dominant and intimidating opponent I ever battled. He was also the classiest and most humble. When Cal thumped us 30-7 in 2002 to snap our seven-game Big Game win streak, I expected the Golden Bears to gloat. They didn't, and Cal linebacker Paul Ugenti - a fellow fifth-year senior - shook my hand late in the contest, congratulating me on a great career, and wishing me luck for the future. The Big Game isn't distinctive among rivalry games due to the emotion it incites, but for the unspoken respect beneath its surface.
Stanford's players have spent this week saying that Saturday's contest at 6-4 Cal is their most important game of the season. The Cardinal likely would make similar claims with a winless record, but at 5-6, Stanford looks to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2001, meaning Saturday's final chance for a sixth victory would be equally crucial if it came against Cal Tech rather than Cal. Stanford is focused on elongating its season, not just spoiling Cal's, and that's the way it should be. Cardinal fans may wish for Cal to somehow lose 13 games in a 12-game season, but rivalries are at their juiciest when more than pride is on the line. Each of the four Big Games I played in were historically significant, or at least noteworthy. Our 31-13 victory in 1999 clinched our berth in the Rose Bowl. In 2000, we won a 36-30 thriller, marking the first overtime game in series history. In 2001, our heavily favored squad needed a late defensive stand to hold off winless Cal, 35-28, in Holmoe's final Pac-10 game. Our 2002 defeat gave Cal its first glimpse of The Axe since 1994, and was the first of five straight Big Game victories for the Golden Bears, who finally fell to the underdog Cardinal last year.
The Big Game is special because Stanford and Cal players know it isn't the end - not of their interaction with one another, nor of the important moments in their lives. When Cardinal running back Anthony Kimble slips into the end zone Saturday, he may do so by breaking the tackle of a future colleague. When Stanford safety Bo McNally clobbers Cal wide receiver Nyan Boateng, it may be the only time he levels a future business associate without legal repercussions. For three precious hours, the Cardinal gets to thrive at the center of the Bay Area sporting universe, rather than quietly exist on the periphery as respected but anonymous student-athletes. Similarly, Stanford's fans get to shelve their healthy priorities for a day, jeering kal with an intensity and immaturity that surprises even themselves. As a player, I always respected the opposition. But along with my final collegiate snap in Memorial Stadium six years ago came a liberating freedom of speech, and I can finally articulate my complex conclusion: Cal is poo.
About the Author: Greg Schindler, LSJU '03, was a four-year starter and four-year letter-winner for the Cardinal from 1999-2002, starting 42 of 46 games. After redshirting as a true freshman in 1998, he was the team's starting right tackle in 1999-2000 and the team's starting right guard in 2001-02. Prior to Stanford, Schindler starred at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, CA and was named a First-team All-American by Prepstar in 1997. Following his Stanford career, Schindler was signed by the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent after graduating in 2003 with an English Major and a Political Science minor. His sister, Veronica Schindler, is a Development writer at the Stanford Athletic Department.
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