STANFORD, Calif. -- When Stanford fifth-year senior defensive end Ben Gardner went down with a season-ending arm injury against Oregon State in late October, some predicted the unit’s effectiveness would greatly diminish. Born in Oregon but raised in Wisconsin, the fearless Gardner is a tireless worker, has a relentless motor, and is one of four highly-respected team captains. Simply put, there was no replacing his intensity and production.
Through the first eight games, Gardner recorded 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, both the second-highest totals on one of the nation’s best defenses. This, after posting 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last year en route to second-team All-Pac-12 honors.
“Ben was probably taking more snaps than any of our defensive linemen,” said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. “He’s a guy that didn’t want to come out and we didn’t want to take him out. So now you have to play guys with less experience. Ben’s leadership and playmaking ability were both huge things. Thankfully, we still have his leadership.”
Following surgery, Gardner never felt sorry for himself and became immersed as a player-coach. He has made a point of helping younger players and has become a sounding board.
On Nov. 7, the 6-foot-4, 277-pounder missed the first football game of his life, when the Cardinal hosted second-ranked Oregon. Gardner was so nervous, he tucked a stress ball under his belt to relieve anxiety. By the end of Stanford’s 26-20 victory, the ball was flat.
“It’s gotten a little better each game,” he said. “The one down at the coliseum against USC was tough. Other than that, I’ve been able to keep my cool better than I thought I would.”
Teammates think so much of Gardner, many write his No. 49 on their arms with Sharpies before games.
“The Oregon game was real emotional for me,” said Gardner. “That was one of things that kind of triggered my emotions was just seeing the guys with my number on their sleeves. But that just speaks to the kind of unity we have on our team and the fact that I’m not out there with them but they don’t forget about me. They play in my honor and I love those guys.”
Fifth-year senior inside linebacker Shayne Skov knows what Gardner is going through. He missed most of the 2011 season with a knee injury.
“It’s really hard to keep yourself mentally involved, but he’s done a phenomenal job and my hat goes off to him,” said Skov, also a team captain. “It really kind of shows the reason he was nominated and selected as a captain. Despite what he’s going through personally, he’s kept the team in mind and definitely been a leader for the young guys and the guys who have been stepping up.”
Skov said there is no one he would rather fight with in the trenches than Gardner.
“It was awesome,” he said. “He’s just one of those guys you love playing with. Just positive energy. He’s one of my best friends, an incredible teammate, and obviously a heckuva football player. He’s a real joy to be around at all times. It was tough losing him.”
Initially, Gardner took a cautious approach tutoring teammates, being careful not to say too much.
“I’ve got a lot of playing experience and a lot of wisdom in the college game that I think guys can use,” said Gardner. “I’m trying not to overwhelm them with stuff they’re maybe not ready for that I would look at. Just be here for them to answer questions and try to give them subtle little pointers. So it’s kind of fine line between information overload and not enough. I’m trying to figure it all out.”
Gardner has his own routine on game days.
“I just try to be the eyes on the field,” he said. “You’ll see me standing up on the bench, back behind the sidelines, so I can get a view of what’s going on out there and try to pick up any tendencies or tips that might help the guys. It’s not as fun a playing, but I’ve come to enjoy game day and I still get the nerves and a lot of those game day feelings.”
Gardner never doubted his teammates would pick up the slack after he was injured.
“I have a lot of faith in the guys who are on the field,” Gardner said. “I know what they’re made of and their mental makeup and the way they approach the game. It soothes my nerves a little bit.”
Gardner said being a spectator has given him new perspective about the state of the Stanford football program. He has figured prominently, leaving The Farm with 32 tackles for loss and 16.5 quarterback sacks.
“I was sort of overwhelmed by the sense of pride of what we’ve built around here and how we’ve established ourselves in the upper echelon of the college football world really since our class came in 2009,” said Gardner. “We take a great sense of pride in the way we play football; no gimmicks. We’re going to come out and try and run it down your throat and play great defense. As a lineman, that’s something you want to be a part of and something I’m very proud of.”
As Stanford gears up to play in its fourth-consecutive BCS game and second-straight Rose Bowl, Gardner is two months into his rehab and sling free.
“I’m looking at having full range of motion by the 1st of January,” he said. “At that point, start doing some light strengthening. But I’m looking to hopefully do everything but bench press when Pro Day comes around in March.”
There will be no Rocky-like entrance through the Rose Bowl tunnel on New Year’s Day for Gardner. Not that he hasn’t thought about it.
“Believe me, I’ve tried every trick in the book to get these guys to clear me to play,” said Gardner. “It’s not going to happen.”