I was recently reminded of a great story. The unlikely hero was named Roy Riegels. You probably never heard of him. He died about 25 years ago, but his legacy lives on. He played football for the University of California, Berkeley, from 1927 to 1929. On January 1, 1929 his Golden Bears team faced the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the granddaddy of all football bowl games: The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
It was midway through the second quarter in a scoreless game and the Yellow Jackets had the ball on their own 30-yard line. Georgia Tech’s Jack “Stumpy” Thomason fumbled and Roy Riegels picked up the ball. In the process Riegels got turned around. With the ball tucked under his arm, he sprinted as fast as he could toward the goal line.
The only problem is; it was the wrong goal line …he was running the wrong way! As he sprinted, his teammate and quarterback Benny Lom chased after him screaming for him to stop. Lom, known for his speed, finally caught up with Riegels at the 3-yard line tried to turn him around. Unfortunately, a wave of Tech players arrived at that moment and Riegels was tackled at the 1-yard line.
The Bears decided to punt on first down rather than risk being tackled in their own end zone. But the punt was blocked and resulted in a safety, giving Tech a 2 – 0 lead. Riegels knew those two points were his fault and placed squarely on his shoulders.
Twenty-year old Riegels was so distraught at halftime that he didn’t want to return to play the second half. He told his coach “Coach, I can’t do it. I’ve ruined you, I’ve ruined myself, I’ve ruined the University of California, I’ve let my team mates down. I couldn’t face that crowd to save my life.” Coach Nibs Price after giving the halftime pep talk, announced to the Golden Bears team that the same team that started the first half would start the second half. Despite the vote of confidence by his coach, it took the other players coming along beside Riegels to get him back on the field after the break. They still believed in him.
Thoroughly embarrassed “Wrong Way” Riegels as he was to become known, played the game of his life the second half, giving every ounce of what he had in a stellar performance that included his blocking a Tech punt. Unfortunately, his team lost 8 – 7 and the national title went to Georgia Tech. His wrong way run not only cost his team the game, but the championship.
Life is that way sometimes. An opportunity presents itself to us. We grab it and we run, run, run. Despite a naysayer yelling from behind, we think we are advancing the ball to accomplish a greater purpose only to find we have been running the wrong direction. We have good hearts and good intentions, but we are moving the wrong direction. At some point we realize we have made a horrible mistake. We see our self’s as a failure. We have let everybody down. How can we go on?
The decision we make at this cross roads is critical for our wellbeing. We can be a failure for the rest of our life or we can learn from our mistake, double our efforts and become a true leader.
The aftermath of the Wrong Way Riegels story is that he returned the following year, was chosen to be captain of his team, and earned All-American honors. He lived a normal life that included military service, coaching high school and college football and ran his own chemical company. Two years before his death at age 84, he was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame and later into the Golden Bear Hall of Fame.
In 2003, a panel from College Football Hall of Fame and CBS sports chose Riegels “Wrong way run in the Rose Bowl “as one of the six “Most Memorable Moments of the Century.”
One of the lessons that can be learned from this story is to stop and take a look at your life. Is it moving in the right direction? Access where you are headed. Ask yourself if maybe you got turned around and began moving the wrong direction. Is there a team out there [religious leaders, family or friends], as was the case with Riegels coach and team mates, that desires to help you do a 180 and encourage you to get back on the path you need to be moving?
Regardless of whether it is in your spiritual walk, your family, your job, your community or other areas of your life, if your actions are taking you further away from your goal line, turn around and get back on track. Don’t earn the nickname “Wrong Way” by advancing your life the wrong direction.
I just love a good football story!
Author: Jim Bethel | Retired Scout Executive, who serves as his troop committee chairman.