I know the exact moment when I finally understood the true meaning of Big Game. In 1990, the fall of my senior year, Stanford and Cal played what anyone on the Cardinal side of the rivalry will tell you is still the greatest contest in the history of Big Game. What happened on the field that afternoon and evening has transcended football and become legend -- Glyn Milburn's school record 379 all-purpose yards, Ed McCaffrey's last minute touchdown, the failed two-point conversion which led to Cal's premature rushing of the field, the recovered on-side kick, and finally the John Hopkins field goal which won the game and triggered a more appropriate rushing of the field. (If you haven't watched that ending recently, go here now.) As great as all that was -- and it was really, really great -- none of that did it for me.
After running around the field like a crazy person for a while and eventually finding my way to the Axe, I was actually able to touch it. I still remember how the cold steel of the Axe felt against my outstretched fingertips, a thrill which stays with me twenty-five years later. But even that wasn't it.
As the chaos wound down, I returned to the stands to reconnect with my friends. The first person I found was Jack, and for some reason we decided it would be fun to celebrate the victory by climbing the poles used to hoist the net up behind the goalposts during field goal attempts. I ran to one, and Jack to the other; we'd race to the top. Ten feet up the poll I decided I could go a lot faster if I used the rope to help pull myself up, but the rope wasn't meant to hold my 180 pounds. It snapped immediately, and I plummeted downwards and landed flat on my back, fracturing the tip of my elbow and knocking the wind out of me. I couldn't breathe for thirty seconds or so, but it didn't really matter. We had the Axe. That was the moment.