Wrong-Way Run Finally Turns Out Right : College football: Despite his mistake that cost Cal in 1929, Roy Riegels is inducted into Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.
Nearly 63 years have gone by since Roy Riegels scooped up a Georgia Tech fumble, spun around and ran 65 yards toward his own goal line, but that run by the California center who became known as Wrong Way Riegels remains the single most famous--or infamous--play in Rose Bowl history.
Riegels, now 83 and afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, was on hand Thursday when he and nine other college football personalities were inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.
“This is a great day for Dad,” said his son, David, a Sacramento attorney who accepted the Hall of Fame trophy as his father sat nearby in a wheelchair. “I haven’t seen him this excited in years. He has a great deal of difficulty talking and he doesn’t remember a lot of things, but he really looked forward to coming back to Pasadena again for this day.”
Although the majority of those at the ceremony weren’t born when Riegels’ wrong-way run led to California’s 8-7 loss to Georgia Tech on Jan. 1, 1929, they gave the old Golden Bear captain as loud a cheer of appreciation as any of the others received.
The game was scoreless early in the second quarter when Georgia Tech took over the ball on its 20. On the first play from scrimmage, Stumpy Thomason circled left end and when he was hit in the secondary by the Bears’ Benny Lom, the ball bounced loose. Riegels, Cal’s All-Coast center, grabbed the bouncing ball, took a step toward the Tech goal line and then suddenly whirled around and headed for his own goal line.
Lom, the Bears’ triple-threat halfback and also their No. 1 defensive back, jumped up from having stopped Thomason and sprinted after Riegels, shouting at him to turn around. Riegels, thinking he was being chased by a Georgia Tech player, raced undaunted toward the wrong end zone. Lom finally stopped Riegels and got him turned around at the one-yard-line, just in time to be tackled by pursuing Georgia Tech players.
The freak incident might have been only a footnote the following day had not Lom’s punt from the end zone been blocked for a Georgia Tech safety. When the game ended 8-7 and the safety was the difference between winning and losing, Riegels was marked for life.
“I just bounced out with the ball, saw a pair of goal posts and headed for them,” Riegels said after the game.
Riegels rebounded to play an outstanding second half and outplayed Tech’s All-American center, Peter Pund, and the next season was voted captain of the California team, which finished with a 7-1-1 record.
Even though he was named All-American at center in his senior year, the memory of his wrong-way run haunted Riegels for years.
“Dad used to get quite upset when people would come up to him and say, ‘Hello, Wrong Way,’ ” David said. “Not many 20-year-olds make a mistake of that magnitude right out in front of all the world and keep getting reminded of it. Don’t forget, the Rose Bowl was the only bowl game and there wasn’t any pro football, so every football fan in the country was focused on Pasadena that day.”
There wasn’t any television, either, so no one could analyze what happened through the medium of replays.
“I wasn’t born until 1944, so I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when I was young,” David said. “It wasn’t until the mid-'60s when Dad saw the Georgia Tech game film that he finally saw what really happened. Up until then, he had played it over in his mind the way he remembered it, but he never really knew until he saw that film.”
Riegels saw the film at a reunion of the Georgia Tech Rose Bowl team, where he was named an honorary Yellow Jacket.
“There were a few years when Dad didn’t get bugged much about it, but since the advent of video and having it in Sports Illustrated’s historical highlights has brought the run back into focus. But Dad is older now and a lot more patient. Mostly he just smiles when the subject is raised.”
After graduating from Cal, Riegels coached the freshman team in 1930 and coached several high school teams before joining the Army Air Corps in World War II. During the war, he coached at McClellan Field and in 1943 brought a team to Berkeley to play the Cal freshmen. Brutus Hamilton, then director of athletics, called a meeting of Bay Area sportswriters and asked them to please refrain from questioning Riegels about the wrong-way run.
“It’s a sensitive point with him and as a favor to the university, we would ask you to please confine your questions to this year’s game,” Hamilton said. When Riegels was reminded of that incident Thursday, he smiled and said haltingly, “That was a long time ago.”
Riegels said he attended a couple of Rose Bowl games after his own, but couldn’t recall which year. Then he brightened up and said: “I remember the day Sam Chapman played.”
That was 1938, the year California defeated Alabama, 13-0, and the last time the Bears won in the Rose Bowl.
After World War II, instead of returning to coaching, Riegels became sales manager for a cannery in Sacramento and in 1955 founded his own fertilizer business in Woodland, a Sacramento suburb. He retired in 1973.
“Dad used to play a lot of golf and went to a lot of football functions with Benny Lom and some of his old teammates, but he doesn’t get out much since Benny died and Dad was stricken by Parkinson’s,” David said. “He’s become an ESPN junkie, though. He watches all the sports he can find. He even gets a kick out of it when his run gets replayed once in a while.”
Riegels, helped from his wheelchair by his son and grandson, Niels, stood under the Rose Bowl sign Thursday and looked at the plaques honoring the players of the games and the scores. After reading the 1929 plaque, on which Lom was listed as the player of the game, Roy smiled, turned to his son and said something.
“He said his old friend Benny must have gotten the award because he was the one who caught Dad,” David said.
David played freshman football at Stanford, and Niels, a sophomore at Cal, played at Sacramento McClatchy High, but neither was big enough to follow in Roy Riegels’ footsteps to collegiate varsity football.
Others present for their induction Thursday were coach John McKay, who had a 5-3 record in eight games while at USC; Bob Schloredt of Washington, the game’s first two-time MVP, in 1960-61; Rex Kern of Ohio State, who was named MVP in 1969 over USC’s O.J. Simpson; John Sciarra of UCLA, who led the Bruins to a 23-10 upset of Ohio State in 1976; Charley Trippi of Georgia, hero of the Bulldogs’ 9-0 victory over UCLA and Bob Waterfield in 1943, and Ron VanderKelen of Wisconsin, who completed 33 passes for 401 yards in a 1963 comeback against USC that fell short, 42-37.
Inducted posthumously were Russell Stein of Washington and Jefferson, player of the game in a 0-0 tie with California in 1922; Ernie Nevers of Stanford, a hero in a 27-10 losing cause against Notre Dame and the Four Horseman in 1925, and George Wilson of Washington, who starred in the 1924 and ’26 games.