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The 50 best sports moments in California – No. 4: Wrong Way, 1929

As the Pac-12 Conference era comes to an end after more than a century, we're counting down the 50 most significant moments in Cal sports.

THE MOMENT: Midway through the second quarter of the Rose Bowl game on Jan. 1, 1929, Cal lineman Roy Riegels picked up a Georgia Tech fumble, somehow turned around, and ran 69 yards the wrong way. Teammate Benny Lom eventually chased him down 1 yard from the end zone, where he was mobbed by a horde of Georgia Tech tacklers.

THE HISTORY: Roy Riegels was, by all accounts, a successful player. He was selected as an All-America center for Cal in 1929, graduated with a degree in agriculture in 1931, married, had four children, became a teacher and coach, served as an officer in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, and later opened his own agricultural chemicals business.

But one crazy moment that he could never explain forever gave him the label “Wrong Way Riegels.”

It happened in the second quarter of the 1929 Rose Bowl game after Georgia Tech halfback JC Thomason dropped the ball. “I was running toward the sideline when I picked up the ball,” Riegels told the Associated Press. “I started turning to the left toward Tech's goal. Someone shoved me and I ran right into a tackler. As I turned to avoid him, I completely lost my bearings.”

The fans were stunned and radio announcer Graham McNamee asked his audience in panic: “What's wrong with me? Am I crazy?”

Meanwhile, his teammate Benny Lom chased his teammate and shouted: “Stop, stop! You’re running in the wrong direction!”

Lom finally reached Riegels and stopped him at the 1-yard line, where he went down under an onslaught of Georgia Tech tacklers. Cal decided to punt from there rather than risk more mischief, but the punt was blocked and there was a safety.
Riegels was so upset that he had to be persuaded to return to the game, which Georgia Tech won 8-7 – Riegels' slip was responsible for the final score.

Years later, Riegels still couldn't understand why he'd taken the wrong path, but he found peace and compassion in the experience. In 1957, he wrote a letter encouraging a high school player in California who had made a similar mistake.

“My Rose Bowl mistake gave me a true understanding of life,” Riegels said in an interview with the Pasadena Star. “I learned that you can recover from a misfortune and look at it as something bad that happened to you.”

* Top 50 Moment No. 5: The Pass

* Top 50 Moment No. 6: Sub-4

For the top 50 list, only specific accomplishments that occurred during the time the team or athlete was at Cal were considered. Accomplishments that spanned a season or a career were not included.

Leslie Mitchell of the Twitter site Cal Bears History helped select the 50 best moments.

Follow Cal Sports Report's Jeff Faraudo on Twitter: @jefffaraudo