Trombone guy learns to accept role in ‘the Play’

Times Staff Writer

Gary Tyrrell was in the wrong place at the right time, accidentally but comically planting himself in college football’s most famous play.

As seen in countless television replays over the last 24 years, Tyrrell is the tumbling trombonist who was bowled over in the end zone at the end of the magical, mythical, multi-lateral, last-second kickoff return that gave California an unforgettable 25-20 victory over Stanford on Nov. 20, 1982.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 16, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 16, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Stanford trombonist: In Tuesday’s Sports section, a caption on a photo of the game-ending play from the 1982 California-Stanford football game implied that Stanford trombonist Gary Tyrrell was the band member pictured. Tyrrell was not in the photo.

Or, as the return has come to be known, “the Play.”

These days, the 45-year-old Stanford grad lives in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and works in nearby Redwood Shores, where he is the chief financial officer at the Woodside Fund, an early-stage venture capital company.


He rarely plays the trombone and never plays the instrument he toted that day. That one is in the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind.

No longer a pariah on campus, where the bitterness of the ’82 loss lingered for years and intensified criticism of the anything-goes Stanford band, Tyrrell is a longtime Stanford football season-ticket holder who at pregame tailgate parties serves his signature microbrew, Trombone Guy Pale Ale.

Even now, though, nearly a quarter-century since his brush with fame, rarely do more than a few weeks pass without somebody asking him to once again recount his sidesplitting role in “the Play,” and he happily obliges each time.

As for the man who so cavalierly plowed into him, Cal footballer Kevin Moen, Tyrrell calls him “a great guy and a gentleman, a total class act.”

The unmarried Tyrrell and Moen, a husband and father of two who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes and manages a real estate office, have developed a kinship through years of sharing banquet podiums and reliving their awkward first meeting.

“He’s one of the few guys I know from the Stanford side who’s kind of kept a proper perspective on everything,” Moen says. “He kind of looks back on it as a unique moment, a little bit of an oddity. It wasn’t do-or-die.... Where a lot of the Stanford folks are still a little bitter, he’s kind of like, ‘Hey, it was a historical moment. Let’s look at it for what it was.’ ”

Says Tyrrell: “It’s certainly a unique bond that we share, and I think as time has passed we sort of appreciate that we were really just almost actors in this thing.”

Tyrrell and his Stanford bandmates, of course, were not supposed to be on the field when the determined Moen came barreling through them.

But like just about everybody else in Cal’s Memorial Stadium that day, they believed that Stanford had won the 85th Big Game and locked down an invitation to the Hall of Fame Bowl when Mark Harmon -- not the Mark Harmon who played quarterback at UCLA in the ‘70s before becoming an actor -- kicked a 35-yard field goal with four seconds to play, capping an exhilarating late drive led by senior quarterback John Elway.

Elway, though, had made a tactical error, calling time out with eight seconds to play, ensuring that the game would not end with Harmon’s field-goal kick.

Of course, nobody realized that at the time. And amid the frenzy that greeted Harmon’s field goal the Stanford band, already making its way out of the stands for a postgame concert, stopped paying attention to the game.

During the ensuing kickoff, musicians flowed onto the field.

“We were pretty excited, finally getting to go to a bowl game senior year,” Tyrrell says, referring to a bowl bid that evaporated after Stanford lost. “And it was an exciting game. Lots of huge plays. I turned around to watch the mayhem, then I turned back toward the stands looking for our drum major. It was right about that time I caught Kevin out of the corner of my eye and wondered, ‘What’s this player doing with the football? I’d better get out of here.’ ”

Too late.

Moen knocked him flat, sending his hard hat flying. But Tyrrell never lost control of his trombone -- “I was very protective of it,” he says -- and was uninjured.

Adds Tyrrell, laughing, “I was a little more spry then.”

But the 5-foot-6, 150-pound musician had no idea what had transpired until a cannon fired, signifying that Cal had scored.

“I’m not a very tall person,” he says, “so I couldn’t see the officials having their little conference and deciding it was a touchdown. But I certainly did hear the cannon go off and then, my goodness, the part of the stadium that had been so quiet was very, very loud.”

For Tyrrell, the noise only grew louder in the ensuing weeks.

“It was such a rip-off that we lost that game and, of course, that kickoff just got replayed again and again and again,” he says. “And it sort of drove home, ‘Obviously, this was the band’s fault,’ and of course the arrow was pointed at me a little bit because you can’t miss me when they replay it.”

Though Tyrrell had not impeded any Stanford defenders -- he was in the end zone when Moen hit him -- “There definitely is some guilt,” he says. “I certainly should have been better aware of my situation and location at the time.”

It wasn’t until probably 10 years later, Tyrrell says, that he was fully able to accept that his role in “the Play” was merely happenstance.

Twenty-four years on, he says, he’s all right.

“It’s kind of cool to have just a little piece of involvement in the great Stanford-Cal Big Game rivalry,” he says. “It’s kind of neat to have my little spot.”