The Big Game - Like No Other

By Matt Kawahara, Daily Cal Staff Writer
This story was originally published in the Daily Californian on Friday, November 30, 2007. Click here for original version.

Reprinted by permission.

There is an inextricable link between the players on this year's Cal football team and Jim 'Truck' Cullom, a sense of pride that has remained the same for 60 years.

Like every player that will don the blue and gold for the 110th installment of the Cal-Stanford rivalry this Saturday, Cullom does not know what it's like to lose a Big Game.

Cullom was one of Pappy's Boys between 1947 and 1949. In 1948, he helped the Bears win the first Big Game ever decided by one point when he blocked a Cardinal extra point to preserve a 7-6 lead.

In 1991, he was filmed for a documentary, 'Great Moments of the Big Game.'

Cullom appears as an Old Blue in the truest sense of the term, sitting in the stands of Memorial Stadium in a light blue shirt with a gold and blue striped tie. He walks us through the final moments of the 1947 game, in which the Bears came back late in the fourth quarter to record a 21-18 win.

And he gives a view of the rivalry that can only be shared by those who have played in it, but deserves to be understood by everyone in its vicinity.

'It's not your arm or your leg, or your life or your wife, or anything like that,' says Cullom. 'It's much more important.'

Somewhere in the bowels of Memorial Stadium, 110 years of that importance is harnessed within a single room.

Memorabilia, photos, newspaper clippings of the 10th-longest rivalry in college football history hang behind panes of glass, moments suspended in air and time.

'It's a room that we go in and look around and everything's Big Game,' says left tackle Mike Gibson. 'So it gives you a sense of feeling that every game you're constantly thinking about Stanford.'

The Bears are in this shrine before each game, bombarded with the tradition that they have the responsibility of carrying on.

A withering old pigskin sits on a shelf and displays a score of 22-0, the margin of Cal's first-ever Big Game victory in 1898.

The front page of a newspaper from 1939 shows a score of California 32, Stanford 14 right below a bold headline about German planes.

Memories of Andy Smith's Wonder Teams of the early 1920's, whispers of the Thunder Team and Pappy's Boys, echoes of Joe Starkey's most famous string of adjectives swirl around in this room and create an atmosphere that is dense with tradition and impossible to ignore.

'When you look at 110 years, it kind of makes it easier to stay in tradition,' says Gibson. 'It doesn't matter how big the game is, it's always going to be a Big Game.'

In 1892, the first Big Game was played on a neutral field in San Francisco, a challenge from the University of California extended to Leland Stanford Junior University.

Over 20,000 people turned out to watch the Indians edge the Golden Bears 14-10. Since then, the rivalry has held its own place in Bay Area culture.

It's a big part of Cal safety Thomas DeCoud's life, more so now that he has experienced it first-hand for the last four years. But it has been since he began following it while growing up in Pinole, Calif.

'I've been watching the rivalry since I was a little kid,' says DeCoud. 'And I know that there's a lot that goes with it, a lot of history and tradition behind it.

'Just being able to say that I grew up in the Bay Area and was able to play four years in one of the biggest sports rivalries of the area is something I hang my hat on.'

There is a university in the southern part of this state, with a football team coached by a man named Carroll that has become the class of the Pac-10.

In recent years, the matchups between Cal and USC have had much more riding on them than have the Big Games. In 2006, the Bears and Trojans met to decide who would represent the conference in the Rose Bowl.

The 109th chapter of Cal-Stanford ultimately decided that, yes, the Cardinal would in fact finish the year with only one win.

'It's definitely also a rivalry with `SC,' says Cal tailback Justin Forsett.

Defeating the Trojans has become an exclusive validation, unattainable for four years running, while the five-year streak of Big Game victories means that just about nobody on campus remembers what it's like to see the Cardinal hoisting the Axe.

Maybe that streak has affected the suspense of the game.

Maybe the fan finds it easier to get up for the national power than the team that is once again digging its spikes into the conference cellar.

But for the players, nothing is as big as the Big Game.

'(USC is) just another game during the season,' says Forsett. 'This, we got this (media conference in San Francisco), go around doing events. It's definitely a special time.'

True, there's no love lost between Cal and the Trojans.

'But Stanford's right down the street,' says Gibson. 'And that's the biggest game that we can play in.'

One image from Stanford's season will go down as a defining moment of the year in college football.

It's a fade to the left side of the end zone at the Coliseum, a floating pass from backup quarterback Tavita Pritchard that is snatched out of the Los Angeles night by a leaping Mark Bradford, making a sudden reality out of the previously unthinkable.

Some people called it the biggest upset in the history of college football.

Cardinal senior defensive end Udeme Udofia was privileged enough to live it and, should Stanford pull another upset this weekend against Cal, he doesn't hesitate to say which win would mean more.

'Oh, definitely beating Cal,' says Udofia. 'They're our rival.'

So defeating a Bears squad that has lost five of its last six would top walking into the Coliseum and shocking the sporting world.

'Almost anytime someone finds out you're a Stanford football player, they ask you, `Did you beat Cal?' or, `Are you going to beat Cal?'' says Sanchez. 'It's pretty much the first thing on anyone's mind.'

Like Justin Forsett said, USC is just another game on the roster. For 11 Saturdays out of the year, Cal and Stanford play for conference and national standing, to impress voters and move up in polls.

On the 12th Saturday, it's bragging rights and local supremacy, history and tradition. The old adage is true: when it comes to the Big Game, you can throw out the records.

'You ask any guy on the team if they could just have one win all season, they would say Cal,' says Udofia. 'That's how important the game is.'

There is a distinct possibility that, had Thomas DeCoud and Jim Cullom ever met, they would easily have come to an understanding.

It seems that Cullom recognized that he was a part of something greater than himself--a tradition that has spanned generations and long outlasted the men who began it.

A rivalry that, in its 110th installment, is in no danger of dying out.

That much is clear in listening to DeCoud speak at a media conference in San Francisco, the very same city where, 115 years ago, Cal and Stanford went head to head for the very first time.

'We understand that we're playing for something that's been going on a whole lot longer than we've been on this planet,' he says. 'We're taking part in something that covers a lot more ground than we have and a lot more time than we could ever imagine. We're a part of history.'

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