LOS ANGELES – The storybook season for Stanford senior running back Tyler Gaffney will come to an end on Wednesday after Stanford faces Michigan State in the 100th Rose Bowl Game, but Gaffney will be soaking in the entire moment just as he has done all season long.
At this time last year, Gaffney was also getting ready to be in Rose Bowl Stadium on Jan. 1, only he wasn’t going to be on the field or the sideline but in the stands amongst the Stanford faithful. He was coming off his first season playing baseball in the minor leagues for the State College Spikes, a Pittsburgh Pirates’ Class-A affiliate. He left Stanford following his junior year to pursue a career in baseball after he was drafted in the 24th round by the Pirates.
“They told me everything to expect,” said Gaffney. “I was with the guys after the Rose Bowl last year. I felt like I was part of the team even though I wasn’t on it, because I knew all the guys and they had been my teammates. These guys helped shape me and become who I am today.”
That bond Gaffney shared with his former teammates was a factor in his decision to return to The Farm this season to complete his college football career and finish his double major in sociology and psychology. It was his football family that he missed being a part of.
In his first three seasons, Gaffney played a role in Stanford’s success running alongside Stepfan Taylor. He had increased his touches each season, rushing for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns in three years. However, despite his abilities nobody expected him to have the kind of season he has had in 2013, except Gaffney himself.
“I prepared for this season to go well,” said Gaffney. “I prepared to have success as an individual and as a team.”
With each carry and each game, the game slowed down for Gaffney. He improved in every facet of the offense as the season progressed and he became a guy the coaching staff could rely on to give the bulk of the carries, pass protect and give junior quarterback Kevin Hogan a target out of the backfield.
Gaffney’s position coach and former teammate Tavita Pritchard has enjoyed seeing the progression each game as he rushed for 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns through the first 13 games this season.
“When he was a dual-sport athlete he always had a lot on his plate, going back and forth between football and baseball,” said Pritchard. “He worked extremely hard on his way back last summer. What he has done in protection and what he has done in our running schemes, he has learned it all so well. It has been really fun to watch and for me.”
As much as Pritchard has enjoyed watching the growth of Gaffney this season, it was being away for a year that has made Gaffney appreciate all facets of being a student-athlete more so this year than he ever did before.
“The biggest thing is the appreciation of the family we have at Stanford,” said Gaffney. “It is the entire Stanford community. The trainers, the strength coaches, coaches and fans and how involved everybody is in the process. When I was watching from the outside, but still around the program, I got to see that from a different perspective. Now that I am back playing I appreciate everybody’s role that much more.”
It isn’t just the people around Gaffney on an everyday basis that he acknowledges in the success behind the team and his development, but he also appreciates the fan base more than ever after sitting amongst them for several Cardinal games last year.
“The fans put a lot more emotion and heart and soul in than I ever thought,” Gaffney mentioned. “I didn’t realize how much they invested until I was amongst them. Their emotions say that they feel like they are a part of the team. You don’t realize it until you sit in the crowd and see that.”
Knowing that investment from the team’s supporters has also helped Gaffney during games. Scanning the stadium crowd during the game helps relax him and he notices things he never did before.
“One of the techniques I use to relax is to enjoy everything going on around me,” said Gaffney. “At different times during pregame, halftime and throughout the game I am listening to the crowd and watching how they are reacting to what is going on. It calms me down and makes me realize why we are playing.”
It is easy to say “Enjoy it because it goes by fast” or “You never know a good thing until it is gone” after you are done playing. Reflection helps bring a lot of things to light as you think about the times you had. Many people don’t get to go back and appreciate things more or soak in every moment. Due to his unusual circumstances, Gaffney got that chance and has made the most of it. He has been a great leader and role model for the rest of the guys on the team by living out his senior year the way he has.
“I tell guys that it goes fast and you need to appreciate the entire experience through the process,” said Pritchard. “It comes from a place of experience but it sounds cliché and you hear it all the time. Tyler got to live that other side and got to experience that so with him coming back he attacked it with a new rigor and new perspective. It is really cool because it is so unique and not very many guys get to do it that way. I am proud of him for the way he has handled it.”
As the end draws near Gaffney is doing everything he can to enjoy the moment. He recently got rid of his bicycle so that he could stop and look at the buildings and watch the student life take place before his eyes. Instead of getting where he is going in five minutes, it now takes 20 but the extra 15 minutes are paying dividends for his own experience.
Part of the reason Gaffney approaches his day comes from the support of his parents and them wanting to soak up as much of his life as possible as well. Earlier this month, Gene and Tiffani Gaffney drove from San Diego to Phoenix for the Pac-12 Championship Game on Dec. 7. After the game ended late that night they drove back to San Diego, took a quick nap at Gaffney’s house and then drove up to Palo Alto, arriving in time for the Stanford football banquet where they saw their son be named team MVP.
“My parents have had my back my entire life,” said Gaffney. “What they did that weekend was a perfect example of what they have done my entire life. Having them at the banquet was very special. It was my last banquet and my last time that I would be with the entire community surrounding our team at one time. I was at a loss for words which doesn’t happen much.”
When Stanford takes on Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, Gaffney will be putting on the Stanford uniform for the last time, will be lining up with his teammates for the final game and will have his last chance to soak in every moment he can as a Stanford football player. You better believe he will take every advantage of it just as he has done all season long.