STANFORD, Calif. (AP) - Long before John Elway earned his greatest fame, fortune and Super Bowl rings, he was simply a face in the sideline crowd who couldn't believe the final play in the 85th Big Game.
Just over 25 years ago, Stanford's quarterback watched in dismay as California made The Play. Five increasingly improbable laterals led to a touchdown on the game-winning, last-second kickoff return into a band-strewn end zone, with Cal's Kevin Moen flattening a Stanford trombone player as punctuation.
Some casual football fans don't even remember Elway had a big role in that Big Game - but one group always recalls.
``I really don't hear that much about it, unless it's from a Cal guy,'' said Elway, who finished second to Herschel Walker in Heisman Trophy voting as a senior in 1982. ``The Cal people love to bring it up.''
The 110th Big Game at Stanford Stadium on Saturday is a chance for the next generation of Bay Area players to make their own memories. California (6-5, 3-5 Pac-10) probably needs the win to assure a bowl berth, while Stanford (3-8, 2-6) could salvage coach Jim Harbaugh's debut season by blemishing Cal coach Jeff Tedford's perfect record against the Cardinal.
``Players seem to play outside their capability and do big things in a rivalry,'' Stanford cornerback Nick Sanchez said. ``They'll be fighting for a bowl, but we'll be fighting just as hard to get The Axe back and win the Big Game.''
But even a matchup between two outstanding teams - in truth, something that rarely happens in the Big Game - probably wouldn't hold up against those shenanigans in Berkeley 25 years ago.
``It was a real good football game, and people don't realize it because they just remember that one play,'' said Elway, the former Denver Broncos' star who first watched the entire game broadcast two months ago. ``I was glad I was in the game. It's one of those that will go down in history forever and ever, so I was glad to be part of history, even if I was on the wrong side of history.''
And just like any Stanford sympathizer, Elway still wonders whether The Play should have been blown dead at least twice, either on what looks like an early tackle or a late forward lateral.
The Play has become the single largest part of the Big Game's already hefty lore. It's also a national touchstone for the age of sports highlight programs, with innumerable repetitions over the years. The Versus network, which will televise the game, even did a special on it for the 25th anniversary.
Nobody will be making any best-selling highlight videos of the current season at Cal or Stanford. The Golden Bears are among the sport's biggest disappointments, falling from a No. 2 ranking with five losses in their last six games, while Stanford is finishing its sixth straight losing season.
Though the skid has made the Bears' season horribly disappointing no matter their final record, they still have motivation beyond a rivalry win. Cal wouldn't be guaranteed a bowl berth at 6-6, but a win over Stanford probably would propel the Bears into San Francisco's Emerald Bowl for the first time - a fifth straight bowl appearance under Tedford, who has beaten Stanford five straight times.
``I don't get caught up in all that rival stuff,'' said receiver Lavelle Hawkins, who leads Cal with 62 catches for 792 yards and five touchdowns. ``It's just really a big game to me. We've got to take care of business, beating Stanford and winning my bowl game.''
The Bears didn't play over the Thanksgiving holiday, and their coaches put them through a series of remedial workouts designed to erase any self-pitying attitudes. Quarterback Nate Longshore stuck around the Bay Area during the holiday to make sure he kept his concentration.
``A lot of guys were able to refocus and watch other teams play and get excited for just playing, regardless of what was going on, understanding that we're lucky to even play this game,'' said Longshore, whose struggles have made him a target of unhappy fans. ``I feel like there's a different focus this week, and we're excited for it.''
Though Harbaugh's debut season already was highlighted by the Cardinal's upset of USC, he could endear himself to Stanford fans in his first chance to face Tedford, another former quarterback who took over a struggling Pac-10 program.
``For a lot of guys, this will be the last time they play football,'' said Harbaugh, whose father was the defensive coordinator at Stanford. ``I had the chance to see (the Big Game) up close as a high school kid. It very much to me felt like Michigan-Ohio State, the big rivalries that you associated with college football.''
The coaches don't know each other well, but Tedford's team seems more vulnerable than it has been at any point in his six seasons. The Bears were awful in a 14-point loss to lowly Washington two weeks ago, and the coach is sleeping even less than usual while he attempts to figure it out.
``Right now, a bowl game really isn't on our mind,'' Tedford said. ``It's all about the Big Game. It's all about retaining The Axe and getting back on the winning track.''
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.

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