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Cal football is everything. Go Bears forever.

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You’re in it. Until the end.

Cal football is love. Cal football is life.
Matt Ha

Being a Cal fan means you have to be a bit crazy.

It’s not just because it’s painful. Being a Rutgers fan is painful. Those fans end up quitting and forgetting they went to college. No one would willingly trade being a Cal fan for being a Rutgers fan, unless you’d rather have your Saturdays back to hike in Tahoe or sample 20 Napa wines.

No, being a Cal fan is something more complex than that. It’s a deeply involved concoction of hope and despair, tradition and conflict, dysfunction and disorder, talent and wasted talent, self-inflicted wounds and sudden treasures, accidental wins and unexpected losses. Being a Cal fan is about push and pull, disengagement and reengagement. It’s a constant balance.

Cal’s greatest moment in modern college football is Cal football in a nutshell: A happy accident of a game where Stanford decided to bizarrely squib it 20 yards, and Cal suddenly decided to throw the most perfect set of laterals in football history. Awesome and incredible, but aside from a Marshawn Lynch here and an Aaron Rodgers there, that’s probably all anyone not from the Bay can tell you about their Cal football knowledge.

Cal is a fandom of what-ifs and what-could’ve-beens. It’s hoping that the dealer throws the perfect sixes, only to see a snake eyes wipe out everything in an instance. Cal will give you hope only to steal it away.

Being a Cal fan isn’t glamorous. It will not be the dream hobby. It will increase your alcohol budget. It can cause you to develop anti-social behavior that isn’t exactly life-affirming. It will lead you to lash out at loved ones, shout at random strangers, and ponder the very nature of existence on one too many Saturday nights.

You have to really, really want to be a Cal fan.

But when it culminates in something like Cal 24, Stanford 20, you finally know what it means to be a Cal fan.

Everything.


Being a Cal fan is preparing for the worst.

For two and a half hours on Saturday, we were Cal fans to our very deepest, darkest selves.

Imaging culminating a full decade of defeat to THIS Stanford team, this awful, muddled, sputtering Stanford team, simply due to the fact that Cal had forgotten how to kick a football properly, and did its usual 30 minute offensive practice of not scoring. For the third straight year, the Cal defense was going to gut its way to a winnable result and have nothing to show for it.

  • Ashtyn Davis was out, and Cal’s secondary struggled with communication on the first lightning touchdown drive by Stanford. From that point on, they stiffened. Daniel Scott (with only seven tackles all season) came in to shore up the backline, and filled in admirably. The next Bear up mentality prevailed.
  • Camryn Bynum basically turned into Troy Polamalu for half the game, roving and sticking Stanford skill players into the ground, helping make some crucial stops. Jaylinn Hawkins put himself on SportsCenter.
  • The Cal defensive line, considered for much of the season the vulnerable of the unit, stiffened at the most important time. Zeandae Johnson and Luc Bequette held their blocks against a Stanford offensive line that has dominated this rivalry as of late, and no Cardinal had a run longer than eight yards on the afternoon.
  • Stanford only managed 2.5 yards per rush. Brett Johnson was immense in his first Big Game and was an instant double-team, opening up a ton of lanes for other defenders to pounce.
  • Evan Weaver was his usual everywhere self, but his biggest play came in the 4th quarter, breaking up a deep touchdown pass that stalled a game-clinching Stanford drive. Teams have forced Weaver to cover a lot more since October, and he has had to play catch up a lot, but his effort still shows up.
  • Cameron Goode had three tackles. Two of them were sacks. Two of them ended drives.
  • After Stanford went up 10-7, the Cal defense did not allow a 40+ yard drive by the Cardinal the rest of the game. Stanford’s remaining scores were due to bad Cal special teams—a 30 yard TD drive via a shanked punt, and a 39 yard FG drive via a poor kickoff.
  • The Cal defense held Stanford to one red zone trip. One. And that red zone trip was on a drive that started at the Cal 30 via a shanked punt. After giving up the first touchdown, the Cal defense didn’t give up a long drive to Stanford again.

And after all that, Cal still trailed.

Cal did not lead for the first 58 minutes and 41 seconds of the Big Game. Of all the losses we’ve had to deal with this decade, this was shaping up to be perhaps the worst.


Being a Cal fan means going through the three-act structure.

Act I.

Hope.

You start in August. You read the previews, you look at the conference. There’s a few whispers of a Golden Bear team that could rise to do the things that matter. There’s one or two spectacular talents. A few signs of promise. A solid movement to better things.

Every year, you think you’ve hit your limit, then you start thinking the following...

  • That Cal defense can be the greatest in 20 years. All the offense needs to do is...enough.
  • What if Jared Goff has a season for the ages? This offense could be next-level!
  • How about those recruiting classes we just brought in? Can’t wait for Shaq Thompson!

You get to September. Cal surprises with one or two overachieving performances. They knock off their non-conference foe. Sometimes, they knock off a top 25 team.

  • Texas is back! Oops!
  • Holding on against Northwestern, North Carolina and Ole Miss! Huge, right?
  • Pac-12 favorites Washington in the lightning and thunder. We back!

Oh wow. Is this it? Is this the moment the corner is turned and the Bears return to competing for big things?

Enter Act II.

Misery.

After a hot start, the Bears are back at .500 by midseason. Hopes dashed, pain entered. They might compete a lot, but the losses still come out. Cynicism engaged.

It’s then usually followed up by a second act crisis of mishaps, bad performances, and then a win over Washington State to reel us all back in.

That leads to Act III.

Despair.

Unlike many good college sports stories, where the heroes figure out their issues, make a final stand, or everything just falls apart in spectacular fashion, the Bears get swallowed up by an inevitable darkness of irrelevance.

For Cal, this decade, the third act unfolds more like the final season of The Sopranos. It’s not spectacular. It’s not fantastic. It’s just a void. After a usual beatdown to USC, the Bears fall into football limbo.

Because all roads lead to the climax of the season: Stanford.

And nothing has been more anti-climactic this season than Big Game.


Being a Cal fan requires expecting the unexpected.

Like the Cal offense suddenly became an elite unit for the 4th quarter of the biggest game of the season.

  • With the Bears run game stuck in neutral, Cal finally went to empty set and forced Stanford’s beleaguered secondary to guard in space. The patchwork offensive line was giving enough time for Chase Garbers to wheel and deal.
  • And then, the miracle: Cal’s receivers didn’t drop a single pass.

A unit that had been unable to hold onto the football almost every week, a unit that doomed the team’s chances against Oregon State, against USC, against Arizona State, and nearly cost them against Washington State, suddenly was clutching every football like they were holding their newborn child for dear life.

  • Nikko Remigio did not have more than four catches or 72+ receiving yards in a football game in his Cal career, with 1 touchdown total.

Nikko Remigio in the 4th quarter ALONE at Stanford: 4 catches, 82 yards, 1 TD. And this block!

  • Trevon Clark was coached by the last Big Game wide receiver hero, Geoff McArthur, in junior college. He was having a pretty quiet game against Stanford, then suddenly authored one of the most spectacular, clutch catches in Big Game history.
  • Gavin Reinwald and Jake Tonges, who’ve struggled all year with drops at the tight end position, got big catches early to help set up Cal’s first ten points.
  • Christopher Brown definitely was not at 100%, but did provide the early engine on for Cal’s first touchdown drive.

A Big Game is usually littered with unlikely heroes. At the moments they needed them, the Cal offense did just enough. For this season, that’s enough.


Being a Cal fan means beating Stanford.

Playing almost exclusively in the penultimate moment of the season, Cal’s season has basically been defined by Big Game success when the rest of the year went sideways. For a decade with Jeff Tedford, Cal could generally be counted on to claim the Axe. Even most of Tom Holmoe’s losses to Stanford were closely fought.

Not this decade. Cal had flat-out come up against Stanford and gotten their asses kicked. The Bears were basically run off the field by the Trees six of the first seven years this decade.

A rivalry game is usually the most unpredictable result in sport, where anything goes. The average margin of defeat in Big Game from 2010 to 2016 was three touchdowns.

Yes, it was probably the best version of Stanford vs. the worst version of Cal, but it was still surprising how little mettle the Bears showed for the game modified with the adjective ‘Big’ in it. This was the game Cal was supposed to get up for every year and bring their best. And this was a game Cal came into every year and got smashed in for most of this decade.

Nothing is more demoralizing for a Cal fan than being middling at football AND losing to Stanford. This was the state of Bears fandom for this entire decade. This was the state of Cal football for this entire decade. Meaningless.

Justin Wilcox turned around that Big Game mindset quickly. Against a Stanford team that ended up winning the Pac-12 North, a middling Cal team fought the Cardinal to a closely-fought three point loss in his first season. Tough, but promising. The next year, Cal seemed close to knocking on the door, but a turgid offense sunk a second straight solid defensive performance.

Even though Cal didn’t win, the Bears seemed to be making up ground, quickly. Suddenly, Big Game was a game that was worth booking. It was coming.

Stanford was fading back to the pack. Cal was going to get The Axe back. But when?


Being a Cal fan requires belief.

I don’t mean your regular “I believe in our team” belief. It requires some deep biblical “I need the seas to start parting” belief.

I don’t know exactly the point when I started fully believing in Chase Garbers.

Maybe it’s when he gutted out half a season with a bum shoulder and closed out wins over Washington and USC by using his legs. It was probably when he went up to Seattle, struggled for nearly the entire game, then engineered a game-winning drive like he was running a practice drill in spring ball. It was definitely when he went into Oxford and proceeded to light up an SEC defense like Disneyland at Christmas.

And after all of those performances converged together in Palo Alto, I fully stan.

I’ll admit, I thought Chase was done for the season when he went down in September. No way do they risk bringing him back for this one. I thought he’d be done after he got hurt again vs. USC.

I should’ve known better. Chase wasn’t sitting Big Game out. Not with the stakes. And after a few quarters of rust, Garbers finally let loose.

Do I wish he didn’t have to make the most of broken plays and scramble for yardage? Yes.

Am I very very glad that he decided to just keep on doing that all Big Game long? Yes.

What more can you say that hasn’t been said already? Is there any player in modern Big Game history that led BOTH teams in passing and rushing?

Chase has trailed twice in the 4th quarter--against Stanford and Washington--this season. His numbers in these situations: 9-11, 175 pass yards, 1 pass TD, 1 rush TD, passer rating of 245. 2-0.

In his last four road starts, Chase has ended the streak against USC, ended Washington’s two year long home-winning streak, notched Cal’s first SEC road win in four decades, and brought the Axe home for the first time in a decade.

Chase is 10-2 against FBS competition when he plays, starts, and finishes the game as Cal’s quarterback. He is 5-0 this season when he throws a complete game.

With a defense that should remain fundamentally solid for years to come, Garbers has proven he can do just enough to get Cal to that winning equilibrium.

And with one of the best Big Game performances in Cal history, capped off with one of the defining plays in Big Game history, Garbers rejuvenated Bear Territory overnight. That’s some deep faith.


Being a Cal fan is everything.

It’s an exhausting experience, living season after season with only the faintest hopes of making a Rose Bowl. There have been few moments of pure happiness this decade.

But when it pays off? It’s magic.

The cynicism melts away. The anger, the frustration, the pain, all gone. The tears, unavoidable. The joy, indescribable.

Like when a thunderstorm delays a game-winning comeback until 1:20 AM in Seattle.

Or when Evan Weaver stuffs the quarterback at the goal-line in the Mississippi morning.

Or when Patrick Laird breaks through to clinch a win in the Coliseum.

Or when Chase Garbers sees a crease, cuts to the outside, gets the block he needs, and scampers into the Stanford end zone on Saturday to give Cal its first lead in the Big Game with 79 seconds left.

College football programs need these big moments to find their footing. Stanford’s road to success started over a decade ago with a narrow upset over USC and a Big Game victory. Ditto the first incarnation of great Cal football in 2002-03. Everything requires movement.

It’s early to assume that Justin Wilcox has totally figured it out, and is definitely the man going forward for Cal. I’d like to HOPE, but I don’t know. A lot more has to happen to know.

But at the very least, he does get it. He knows programs have to be built on wins like this. He knows fans will only come back if Cal puts out more performances like this.

True fandom is built on pregame tailgates dreaming of the game to come, hours in the stadium deliberating among friends and family about what’s possible, and reunions at the 50-yard line fulfilling those dreams, and then hours, days, weeks of remembering every single moment of where they were when Garbers crossed the goal-line. It’s about seeing old friends and familiar places, knowing that next year the journey might be Groundhog Day, but at any point the path can change, and maybe this year, it will be different.

For one wonderful afternoon in Palo Alto, for every Cal fan on the planet, Cal football finally felt perfect.

It doesn’t happen often. And the wait is not for everyone. But when it does happen, it’s worth it. Every minute of it.

Go Bears. Forever.