The Curse of Strawberry Canyon

In Strawberry Canyon
in days of yore,
our sturdy eleven
could run up the score.
But now a wanion
hangs over our fellows–
and not even Heaven
can make gold out of yellow.

Football is back–particularly for me, college football. Perhaps nowhere else in American sport is there so ballyhooed and comprehensive a tradition. This season will see the 100th Rose Bowl, after all, and to my mind no other sport brings such a clash of histories and mindsets. When you follow college football, it is much more than your team against another. It is your school against theirs; it is your colors against theirs; it is your band, fight songs, and mascot against theirs–in short, it is your ancient culture against theirs. And there is no generation gap. Students and alumni are always on the same side.

I am a Berkeley grad, as is my wife and almost everyone in our families. For me, the saga began in 1968, when, at the wise old age of five, I began attending home games–but do I remember that as a year of assassinations and civil unrest? Of course not! I’m still incensed at the lousy officiating that cost us every game we lost. I’m 50 now, and while I have seen my share of execrable calls, I know enough to appreciate, proverbially, the way the ball bounces. But we have not been to a Rose Bowl in my lifetime. And this involves much more than bad calls or the contrary bounce of a football. It is, of course, the Curse of Strawberry Canyon.

For those unacquainted with it, the University of California’s Memorial Stadium is situated in the mouth of Strawberry Canyon in the hills above Berkeley. It is the most beautiful setting in sports, period. Over the northeast side of the stadium looms Tightwad Hill, a natural bleachers of sorts for the un-ticketed and the emplacement site for our cannon, which is fired when the Bears first take the field and then in celebration after every time they score. Over the west rim of the stadium you can see straight through the Golden Gate.

But the on-field sights are what I remember most: The 1970 Big Game victory over Heisman-winning QB Jim Plunkett’s Rose Bowl-bound Indians; receiver Steve Sweeney, lining up as a tight end on the last play of the 1972 Big Game, snagging a Vince Ferragamo pass in the very back of the south end zone before falling face down, in the worst mud the field had ever seen, to win the game 24-21 when the Bears could more easily have tied it with a field goal; Mike Langford’s unbelievably long field goal (in 1974, a 50-yarder might be akin to 65-yards today) to steal a Cardinal victory as time expired; Chuck Muncie running amok in 1975, when he should have won the Heisman and the Bears should have gone to the Rose Bowl; in 1976, in the last season of his young life, Joe Roth, operating calmly in the pocket, looking an awful lot like another Joe–Montana–we would soon come to love. And of course I was there in 1982 for the fabled Play, the five-lateral squib kick touchdown return through Stanford’s band which gave the Bears a 25-20 win and, in John Elway’s own words, ruined his college career. We all knew we had just witnessed History, and when, after lengthy deliberation, the referee signaled a score, the sound of the cannon was an affirmation of our otherwise mediocre season.

Even though it is my own pet theory, perhaps it is time to explain the Curse.

In 1972, Stanford–which had been known as the Indians since its founding–changed its mascot in a fit of political correctness. To this day, nobody quite knows what the Cardinal means–but that’s their problem. 1972 was also the first year the Bears came out in blue and yellow. The school colors are blue and gold, of course, for the Pacific Ocean and the Golden State, so it was something of a shock when the gold pants and numbers and the block C on the helmet were all replaced by something milder. Even the blue was toned down to a lighter hue. But yellow? What the hell does yellow mean? It was as if we didn’t know our own team. Picture it like this: Notre Dame is famous for their solid golden helmets, and if they took the field wearing yellow ones it would be mighty confusing. And disappointing. I’ve been waiting 42 years to see the original Bears again.

The Curse is simple, really. How can any team win when it doesn’t even wear its own colors? I’m not talking about the occasional specialty uniform for, say, spirit’s sake. I’m talking about identity. And pride. The Bears will never be really successful until they wear the school’s true colors: blue and gold.

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