Who Won 2013?

Deconstructing Gaffney

The making, and remaking, of a Stanford star

Because Tyler Gaffney is a master at taking things apart and putting them back together, a skill cultivated during a San Diego childhood spent peeling away the layers and getting to the core only to wonder Hmm, how does it work?, it makes sense that the Stanford dual major and two-sport star has perfected the art of deconstructing Tyler Gaffney the Baseball Player and reconstructing Tyler Gaffney the Football Player.

Or is it the other way around?

Gaffney was a kid born with a curious mind, a kid who got along with his younger brother, Drew, “when he wasn’t busy treating [Drew] like a science experiment,”1 says mom Tiffani Gaffney. Tyler would poke and prod Drew, asking, Does this hurt? What about that? OK, why does it hurt? How bad is it? At what point is the pain unbearable? So of course Gaffney would think he could twist and tweak until he got the formula just right, leaving college football to pursue a career in professional baseball, then putting baseball on hold to return to college football again.

“It’s what he’s been doing constantly,” says head football coach David Shaw as the Cardinal prepare for their second consecutive trip to Pasadena, where Stanford will play Michigan State in the Rose Bowl on January 1. “Every year it was ‘OK, I’ve got to flush the baseball and get the body ready for football.’ Then, ‘I’ve got to take myself apart and remake myself again as a baseball player.’ He’s been doing it a long time. And he’s good at it.”

Playing baseball in the spring and football in the fall was part of a simple routine, Gaffney says. This time, it just took a little longer than usual to put the pieces back together.

It’s important to understand that Tyler Gaffney the Baseball Player and Tyler Gaffney the Football Player are decidedly different athletes. The baseball version is maybe 10-15 pounds lighter, a little freer with his emotions — “As a fan, you love to watch him more in baseball, I think, because it’s so much more noticeable that he loves the game,” says Stanford baseball coach Mark Marquess — and more of a troublemaker. “I’m a little bit of an instigator, I’ll admit that,” Gaffney says. Then, with that camera-ready smile stretched across his face, he adds, “I play within the rules, but I won’t go out of the way to avoid a collision.” There’s no reason to, since he usually wins them.2 The football version is quieter, in the way that 6-foot-1, 220 pounds can be quiet when it’s barreling over you for more than 100 yards. Gaffney is a bruising, grinding back who will plow through defenders on his way to a first down, then tell them about it — as Pac-12 linebackers can attest. “I’m a realist,” Gaffney says. “When you hit me hard and it hurts, I’ll let you know. But when I get the best of you, I’ll let you know, and I don’t feel sorry about it.”

Gaffney’s favorite sport has always been whatever’s in season, dating back to his days at Cathedral Catholic High in San Diego, where he played football, baseball, basketball, and ran track. He admits he probably has the most fun playing baseball, because he loves mind games, and says the description that he “plays baseball like a football player” is accurate. His mom, however, takes issue with this. “That is a garbage statement,” she says, and maybe she’s right; perhaps that logic is too simplistic. “My son plays tough. If people knew he ran track in high school, would they say, ‘He runs the bases like a track star?'”

When the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Gaffney in the 24th round of the 2012 MLB draft, the Stanford outfielder with the career .301 batting average and 76 RBIs decided it was time for something new. He had grown accustomed to the back-and-forth routine of switching sports, but baseball had always been in his blood — his father, Gene, was a pitcher at the University of San Diego in the early ’80s — and he wanted to take a shot at the next level. Not everyone gets drafted, Gaffney reasoned, and maybe baseball was a better choice than football at the moment. Plus, no one said it had to be permanent. So he took a leave of absence from Stanford and packed his bags to join the Class A Spikes in State College, Pennsylvania … where, because of his build, he was often mistaken for a Penn State football player.3

“That first night, on the car ride home, [our son] Trey turns to [Gaffney] and says, in this starstruck voice, ‘You played with Andrew Luck?!'” laughs Jennifer Oyler, who served as Gaffney’s host mom during his stay in State College. Trey, then 9, and Linlee, then 7, made a game of counting Gaffney’s bruises at the breakfast table and peppering him with questions about football. Trey begged Gaffney to play catch with him, trading turns as quarterback.4

Some 2,600 miles away in San Diego, Tiffani Gaffney never doubted her oldest child’s decision. Every choice in the Gaffney household is well thought out, and pro/con lists are encouraged. The Gaffneys are a cerebral group.

“We would have never let him leave if we thought he would regret his decision,” Tiffani says. “Definitely, Stanford is a unique experience. You dream of having your child enjoy that type of environment, and he did. But he wanted to try something different.”

Gaffney played well for the Spikes, batting .297 with a .483 on-base percentage, and he was pleasantly surprised to find the minor league baseball experience more comfortable than he’d thought it would be. There were bus rides that felt endless and few days off, but playing one sport without school hanging over him proved to be a lot easier than playing two at an elite university. Gifted with free time, the sociology and psychology major decided to enroll in an online class. But in a town where the locals revere their football players, few understood why Gaffney would voluntarily give up what they consider the greatest sport on earth.

“That place was different than the college environment I knew,” Gaffney says. “There, everyone bleeds navy and white, and 90,000 people show up to watch a football game. There were times here, at Stanford, that it might be 30,000. I was a little envious of that.”

He’d get a taste of that kind of environment soon enough. He just didn’t know it yet.

Stanford's Tyler GaffneyNow, Gaffney can identify with a fan’s anxiety. After returning home to San Diego in October 2012, the former Cardinal running back promptly became Stanford’s most knowledgeable viewer, sitting in the stands and “dishing out emotional high fives” at a few games.5 He was on hand for the Cardinal’s stunning 17-14 overtime win at then–no. 1 Oregon in Eugene, a victory that knocked the Ducks out of the national title picture and propelled the Cardinal to their first Rose Bowl since January 1, 2000.

It turned out that the opportunity to be a fan instead of a participant helped with the reconstruction process, giving Gaffney a broader perspective. “It was nerve-racking but … I wish, as an athlete, you could watch your own team one game of the season, that it was required,” Gaffney says. “It helps so much. I saw things differently, and I saw them the same. I’ve never been fazed by the crowd, but now I’m more aware of it, and I feed off it.”

In January, Gaffney celebrated at the team hotel after Stanford’s 20-14 win over Wisconsin, surrounded by players and classmates and proudly exclaiming, as though he were still suited up, “We won the Rose Bowl!” He didn’t feel an ounce of regret, not one bit of longing. “I can’t say I was secretly wishing I was there,” Gaffney says. “Right then, it didn’t even cross my mind.”

But in Pasadena, he’d been reminded of the camaraderie he’d shared with his Cardinal teammates. When he returned to his parents’ home, he joked about it occasionally, until “I started to joke around a little too often.” That’s when he had to confront the question he’d been kicking around for a few months: Could he put the football player back together, even after all that time away?

Gaffney sent a text to Shaw, asking to talk, then posed a hypothetical when they got together: How would Shaw feel about a fifth-year running back returning to the mix, someone who was familiar with the playbook and confident he could contribute in some way? “I wasn’t worried he would say no, but I wasn’t sure how inviting he was going to be,” Gaffney laughs. “Coach Shaw is pretty stone-cold with his emotions. Tough to read.”

Shaw said yes, and Gaffney walked out of the coach’s office with his hands shaking, experiencing “every emotion you can imagine,” Gaffney says. “I was really happy, and I think maybe he was, too, but we were both trying to keep our cool.”

Gaffney approached Pittsburgh about pausing his baseball career in order to play out his final season of eligibility at Stanford. After the Pirates, who retain his rights for five more years, expressed their support, Gaffney re-enrolled in school and joined the Cardinal at practice in April. He says he had to “crack heads a couple times” before acclimating anew.

Shaw had been up front with Gaffney, and with the media, when Stanford had begun spring practice in late February: Though the Cardinal had a void in their running game after graduating Stepfan Taylor, Shaw wasn’t sure what role Gaffney would fill. Taylor had accounted for 1,530 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2012, almost 30 percent of the Cardinal’s offense. Gaffney had averaged a formidable 6.1 yards per carry in 2011, but mostly in third-down situations. Stanford is forever a power-running team, though, and with so much power packed into his frame, Gaffney was able to make the transition to feature back, however daunting it may have been initially.

“It was a lot of energy and anxiety,” Shaw says. “It’s what you want, and all of a sudden it’s here, and Oh my gosh, can I still do it, am I ready to do it? But once he started playing, it all came back to him. So many things are so natural to him, and he’s so strong and powerful. Even if he’s not perfect, he’s still hard to bring down.”

Few could have anticipated that Gaffney would return to football,6 let alone establish himself as one of the nation’s top running backs while playing for one of the nation’s best teams, a program dominated in recent years by star quarterback play and defensive excellence.

While linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov (one of Gaffney’s best friends)7 and the rest of the front seven deserve the hype, Gaffney often drew the camera’s eye in 2013 after a big play, smiling on the sideline and having the time of his life, the former baseball player who decided he wanted to give football one more shot. With Gaffney eating up yards on the ground, the Cardinal found a reliable complement to quarterback Kevin Hogan, helping push the team to its fourth consecutive BCS bowl. Gaffney’s numbers are astounding given the lengthy gap between snaps: 20 touchdowns and 1,618 yards on 306 carries, a 5.3 yards-per-carry clip. Against Oregon, he carried the ball a school-record 45 times for 157 yards in another upset win for the Cardinal, this time a 26-20 victory over the no. 3 Ducks.

Gaffney says that if his team had needed that 46th carry, he could have done it.

Tyler and Drew GaffneyAt this point, Gene Gaffney has learned not to be surprised by anything his oldest child does.

When Tyler was 5, his parents enrolled him in soccer, a sport about which they had limited knowledge. It’s usually cluster ball at that level, with groups of tiny kids forming a scrum as they inch up and down the field. When an opposing player connected and sent the ball flying one day, it looked as though there would finally be a score. But Tyler started “running like Forrest Gump and slide-kicks the ball away from the goalie.” Gene was bewildered. When he asked Tyler why on earth he’d done that, the puzzled boy gave the logical, 5-year-old reply: “Because I didn’t want them to score.”8

That was Tyler’s answer a few years later, too, when his best friend had broken loose for a would-be score in a friendly game of touch football, as parents milled and chatted. Suddenly, 9-year-old Tyler wrapped up the friend and took him to the ground, oblivious to dirty looks from some of the parents. “Tyler,” says Gene, “knows only one speed.”

Tagging along for most of those games was Drew,9 younger by four years and now a freshman rugby player at Cal. The Gaffney brothers are especially close, as evidenced by their decision to tattoo each other’s names on their arms. Tyler got his first, a surprise to Drew and their parents. All told, Tyler has six tattoos, including a partial sleeve on his left arm, but his tattoo for Drew — which reads “Always a friend, forever a brother” alongside Drew’s name — is tucked inside his right bicep. “It’s not for the public,” Tyler says. “It’s just for me.” When he turned 18 this August, Drew got the same tattoo in the same place, but with Tyler’s name. Tyler adores his younger brother, gushing about him to the point that when Drew meets Tyler’s friends, “he makes me feel like the superstar,” Drew says.

“My brother is the only person who, when he tells me he loves me, it makes me feel so special,” says Drew, choking up. “He always included me in things, never left me out, and always made me feel like I was a part of everything he was doing, all his success. He never made me feel like lesser than him.” Tyler has taken to heart the advice from Lester Riley, his maternal grandfather, who died three years ago and used to tell his grandsons, “Be the good guy.”

Shaw wishes more people understood how deeply Gaffney cares for his teammates, though in saying that, Shaw touches on the core of who Gaffney is. He needs no special approval or recognition, expects no extra attention because he played two sports at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country.

“Out in the real world, you find special people few and far between,” Gaffney says. “But here, they’re everywhere. Everyone is driven to do something special,10 something that sets them apart. I’m no different than everyone else.”

Stanford has a history of two-sport athletes, and Shaw believes “this place, we’re built for people who have a lot going on.” In fact, Gaffney isn’t even the only two-sport athlete on this year’s football team. Jordan Pratt, a 28-year-old junior, played eight years of minor league baseball, and the two share a secret language that “only someone who has been on a lot of minor league buses would understand,” Gaffney says. Gaffney points out that at Stanford, All-American athletes, entrepreneurs, and world-class chemists can be found in the same room. And while athletes are celebrated at Stanford, their on-field success doesn’t change the university’s expectations. “When you step up to bat in the bottom of the ninth, tie game, it doesn’t matter if you hit that walk-off home run or not,” Gaffney says. “You’ve still gotta write the 12-page paper when you get back to your house.”

Still, Gaffney’s ability to juggle and compartmentalize has earned his teammates’ respect and admiration. Stanford left guard David Yankey says Gaffney can do pretty much anything, and the O-lineman has learned not to doubt his running back. When explaining this, Yankey blurts out: “He’s just the coolest person I know!”11 Gaffney is also humble, not because he proclaims to be, like so many athletes in the modern era, but because he never says it, while everyone else insists the word be attached to his name. And he’s charismatic in the way that makes other people envious, though that jealousy is fleeting, because Gaffney is gracious enough to make everyone in the room feel important.12

“He’s so quiet about how cool he is,” says Jennifer Oyler. “Most people want to talk about themselves, but not him. His parents came out to visit and, mother to mother, I said to Tiffani: ‘How do I get my son to be like yours?'”

Stanford's Tyler GaffneyIn September, when Gaffney took the field at Stanford Stadium for the first time since his return, everything slowed down. When he’d begun practice in the spring, time felt sped up. “The game was happening so much faster for me at first,” Gaffney says. “We’d snap the ball and I’d have no idea what was happening. People were flying around me and I didn’t know where to look, what to do.”

But when the Cardinal trotted out against San Jose State and Gaffney heard the cadence, felt the hum of a crowd 50,000 strong, and looked around, he got goose bumps. “That moment was surreal for me,” Gaffney says. “I kept thinking, I’m here. I’m back. This is real. It was probably 30 seconds, but it felt like I thought about it for hours.”

He kept his cool, though, as he tends to do. No moment is too big for Gaffney, says Shaw, and Gaffney is not too big for any moment.

Gaffney’s not sure what comes next. He says he’ll keep going until someone else “shuts me down.” Like many little boys, he dreamed both of scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl and of hitting the walk-off home run in the World Series; like few, doing both is a reality for which he can reach. His football future will be decided first, because the NFL will come or go pretty quickly for the late-round prospect in the next few months. Meanwhile, it could take two or three years to learn if he can make it in the majors. “I know exactly what it takes in each sport,” Gaffney says. When he decides where his athletic future lies, Gaffney says the only people he’ll need are his mom, dad, and Drew.

Now, like before, going back and forth doesn’t paralyze Gaffney with fear, or make him think he’s picking one thing forever. He’s a drifter, he says, a free spirit who might appear a little rough around the edges, the kind of guy who feels no need to anchor himself to anything just yet. It’s a philosophy his grandfather encouraged. “I haven’t settled on anything,” Gaffney says. “So far, so good. I like the way my life’s turned out.”

Gaffney notes wistfully that he’s always up for something new. “I would enjoy mechanical engineering. I think I’d be good at that.” You know, in his free time.

It’s appropriate that Gaffney’s collegiate career will come to a close at the Rose Bowl, where his teammates first teased him and said, “You could come back if you want.”

Turns out he fit back in, and back together, seamlessly. Like he’d never taken anything apart at all.

Lindsay Schnell (@LindsayRae19) is a staff writer at The Oregonian.

Filed Under: Stanford, Teams