- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
STANFORD, Calif. -- It's not as if David Shaw needed something to go his way. The Stanford head coach went 23-4 in his first two seasons. He took the Cardinal to the Fiesta Bowl and followed that with a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl win. He came into this season with one of the best defenses in the nation.
But no. Coach Rabbit's Foot acquired a fifth-year, bell-cow running back this season just by answering a text.
A year ago, Tyler Gaffney left the Cardinal to pursue a professional baseball career. After one successful season in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, and one offseason of watching his former teammates win the Rose Bowl, Gaffney asked to come back.
Shaw talked for most of the offseason about replacing All-Pac-12 tailback Stepfan Taylor with a running back by committee. Two games into the season, the Cardinal ground game has matured into e pluribus unum -- out of many, one. If that means that handing the ball to Gaffney is money, well, let the statistics speak for themselves.
The 6-foot-1, 226-pound Gaffney rushed for more than 100 yards against both San Jose State (104) and Army (132). More to the point, he has carried the ball 20 times in each game. That's a step up from his first three seasons, when he had one 100-yard game and rushed for a total of 791 yards. That's a step up from watching in street clothes a year ago.
"If possible, I think it would be great for every football player to experience being a fan for a snippet, just to see it from the outside," Gaffney said. "I was standing on the field right next to all the players. But I'm wearing street clothes. They're in the game. My heart's beating. The intensity's there. But he's not calling my name to go in."
Not that Shaw or his assistant coaches had forgotten Gaffney. He always returned to the football office on his trips back to campus, even though he knew what would happen. The coaches teased him from the minute he walked through the door.
"The worst of the group was Pep Hamilton," Shaw said, referring to the former offensive coordinator. "He was unmerciful."
Hamilton called Gaffney "Football Player." Every time Gaffney showed up, he would remind him he still had a year of eligibility. Hamilton would call the visit "a recruiting trip."
"Hand me a business card, tell me to call," Gaffney said, smiling. "Funny things. It was all joking, but in the back of my mind, and hopefully in their mind, it was serious."
The coaches hoped. But they didn't really know. When Pittsburgh drafted Gaffney in the 24th round of the 2012 draft, he seized on the opportunity to play pro baseball, even though he believed the Cardinal stood on the verge of something big.
"It was an opportunity that a small percentage of players actually get to experience," Gaffney said. "I thought, 'Take it. I have to take this.' Who's to say? I play football next year and get hurt. Or I play baseball next year and get hurt. So it's something, you couldn't pass it up. If you did pass it up, you run a lot of risk of missing out on something. That was something I wasn't ready to regret."
Gaffney played well for the State College (Pa.) Spikes in the Class A New York-Penn League, hitting .297 and scoring 31 runs with an OBP of .483 in 38 games. He had three assists and made one error in 83 chances in the outfield.
"I honestly thought Gaff might take another year of baseball and then try to come back after that," Shaw said.
But late last season, as Hamilton and offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren continued their teasing, Shaw thought he detected a change in Gaffney's demeanor. On the morning of the Pac-12 Championship Game at Stanford Stadium against UCLA, Shaw had the team performing a walk-through at its hotel a few minutes down El Camino Real from campus. Gaffney jogged from where he was staying on campus and walked in.
"It used to be," Shaw said, "whenever we wanted him in for a play, we would call personnel and just say, 'Gaff' -- 'Tiger/Gaff,' 'Zebra/Gaff,' 'Regular/Gaff.' And he was in there. So he walked in at the beginning of the walk-through. I said, 'OK, first play, Tiger/Gaff.' And the guys all kind of looked around. He didn't really hear it at first. Then he looked up at me and kind of smiled."
In truth, the wheels in Gaffney's head had begun to turn when he got back from the Florida Instructional League in the middle of football season. After joking about it with his parents, he admitted he was serious. They gathered in front of a whiteboard and listed the pros and cons of playing baseball and of playing football.
Gaffney finally decided he didn't trust himself to come back, a quarter at a time, to get his degree. He had the chance to play football again and graduate. "Live your truth," his parents told him.
But first, he had to ask Shaw to take him back.
"I had an idea when he sent me the text and said. 'Hey Coach, can we talk?'" Shaw said. "And then when he came in, he fidgeted a little bit, which is not like him. He's typically the most comfortable person, regardless of the situation. He fidgeted a little bit, and then once he started talking, he got more comfortable, and I, of course, was ecstatic."
Shaw had a scholarship available because linebacker Chase Thomas left early for the NFL. Stanford's compliance office signed off on Gaffney's eligibility. So did the NCAA. The Pirates gracefully stepped aside. After Shaw ran all the traps, he suddenly had another veteran to join Anthony Wilkerson in the running back meetings.
"He's one of those guys who walks in with an edge and a confidence that rubs off," Shaw said of Gaffney. "You can't have enough 220-pound running backs in our style of offense."
Because Stanford practiced for two weeks of winter quarter, before Gaffney enrolled, he participated only in the second half of spring ball. He thought about the transition. A football locker room is different than a baseball clubhouse.
"The smell of the locker room is a good reminder that there's 120 big, grown men in one room," Gaffney said with a smile. "I tried to keep to myself when I first got here. I didn't want to come out guns blazing. I didn't say much. I was fairly quiet. I just went about my work. I have a lot of personality on the team, but I didn't show any of that. I kind of eased into it. I just didn't want to come out entitled. I wanted to see how the dynamic of the team was working."
By the summer, Gaffney assumed his role as an elder statesman. In August, the football began to slow down to the pace he recalled. In September, Gaffney emerged as the focal point of the Cardinal's brutish offense. It turns out the guy who sent the text is pretty fortunate too.
Shaw never stopped recruiting his star running back, even after losing him to baseball