Many football fans still believe that Roy Riegels of the University of California ran the wrong way and scored a touchdown for the opponent, Georgia Tech, thereby giving the Ramblin’ Wreck an 8-7 victory in the 1929 Rose Bowl game. The fact and legend connected with the play have become so intertwined through the decades that only an “instant replay” of rare black-and-white film, slowed down to frame-by-frame stop motion, can determine exactly what happened.
Leading to their Rose Bowl meeting, Georgia Tech was undefeated and California had lost only one game. In 1929 the Rose Bowl was the glamour game, and the nation was prepared to accept the winner as the No. 1 collegiate team in the country.
The teams were scoreless in the first quarter. Midway through the second, Georgia Tech had the ball on its 26-yard line after thwarting a California touchdown bid.
On first down, Stumpy Thomason, one of Georgia Tech’s great ballcarriers, broke through the California line into the secondary. At his 36-yard line, he was hit and fumbled. The ball was bouncing around at the Tech 40-yard line when Riegels, California’s superb defensive lineman, picked it out of the air.
The films clearly show that Riegels began running the right way. He had been trailing the ballcarrier and when Thomason fumbled, Riegels picked up the bouncing ball and started downfield in the correct direction.
He ran about 10 yards and then for some inexplicable reason made a half-circle turn and started upfield toward his own goal. The Georgia Tech players gave a halfhearted chase, content to let Riegels run unimpeded. Quickly sensing something was wrong, Benny Lom, California’s great running back, started to chase his teammate. Lom was yelling at Riegels, but his voice could not penetrate through the roaring of almost 70,000 fans.
Lom finally caught Riegels at the 10-yard line and slowed him down with a bearhug. Their momentum took the two California players to the two-yard line, where Lom broke his hold on Riegels, perhaps as the New York Times reported, trying to lead him back up the field the right way but a host of Georgia Tech players tackled Riegels before he could more than turn around, hurtling him back to the one-yard line.
Riegels sat stunned on the turf as his sympathetic teammates came over and surrounded him. Riegels had made a terrible mistake, but in actuality the score was still 0-0 and California was in possession of the ball with a first down on its one-yard line. California still had four downs to get out of its precarious position. What followed would be a mystery to today’s football fans.
The way football was played in 1929 became the important factor in California’s ultimate loss. This was the era before platooning, and the 11 men who had just defended against Georgia Tech were now on offense. The California players were still in shock over Riegels’ incredible blunder, and it was decided to get rid of the football as quickly as possible. Lom went deep into the end zone to punt on first down. Riegels took his position at center.
The New York Times reported:
“California immediately took up the punt formation but Riegels at center was nervous, and Lom, receiving the ball to kick, was little steadier. As the ball was snapped, Vance Maree, the Georgia Tech tackle, stormed through and blocked the punt. The ball rolled out of the end zone, but the officials ruled that [Harold] Breakenridge, the California quarterback, had touched it and that a safety would be scored against California.”
At this point the thoroughly shaken Riegels was replaced, but he returned and played a brilliant second half.
Georgia Tech added a touchdown in the third quarter, but missed the extra-point try and led, 8-0. With two minutes to play in the game, California finally scored. Cal made the extra point, but the game ended with Georgia Tech on top, 8-7.
Through the years since the play, Riegels has been unmercifully and incorrectly ridiculed. He did run the wrong .jway, but California still had ample opportunity to rectify the mistake. It is also historical fact that Georgia Tech was by far the superior team that day. It had one touchdown called back and on another occasion was stopped on the one-yard line. It is also fact that when California finally scored to make the score 8-7, the game was over for all intents. Nevertheless, Roy Riegels has had to live with the stigma of “losing the Rose Bowl by running the wrong way.”
His teammates showed their support and affection for him the next year when, as a senior, he was named captain. He was selected on several All-American teams.
Though Riegels went on to many successes as a football coach and in the business world, he could never escape the stigma of “losing” the 1929 Rose Bowl game for Cal.
In 1993, Riegels died at age 83. Five years after his death, he was elected to the University of California Hall of Fame.
When I met him a few years before he died, he was able to talk about the play without embarrassment, except for one poignant sentence.
“Every time I hear people talking about the ‘wrong way,’ ” he said, “I automatically look around to see if they’re talking about me.”
Adapted from Greenspan’s 1973 book, “Play It Again, Bud.”