(Written By Tom Shanahan)
Beano Cook, the late football historian, publicist extraordinaire and TV/radio personality, would have loved Tyler Gaffney.
The former Stanford running back would have captured his football-shaped heart for continuing to pursue his gridiron potential while he put his baseball career on hold. Gaffney was thought to be a one-year hiatus from pro baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization last year when he returned to Stanford as a fifth-year senior, but he’s extended the baseball break into 2014.
Gaffney took part in last week’s NFL combine at Indianapolis while the Pirates began spring training without him in Bradenton, Fla. Spring training is time-honored in American sports. The NFL combine is a contrived product of modern technology (the NFL Network, Internet streams, etc.) and football’s never-ending quest to become year-round sport.
There is no doubt Cook, disdainful of baseball, would have applauded Gaffney for eschewing a sunny spring tradition for a wintry Indianapolis weekend. Cook uttered his most famous quote about baseball in 1981 when the American hostages were released from their Iran captors and Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn offered them lifetime baseball passes. Cook quipped, “Haven’t they suffered enough?”
Gaffney still loves baseball — he hit a promising .297 in his first minor league baseball season in Class A ball in the summer of 2012 — but the 6-foot-1, 226-pounder with inside power and moves never stopped loving football. Gaffney ached over having missed out on Stanford’s 2012 Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin while he played baseball that summer and in the fall league.
The ghost of Cook — and the NFL team that lands Gaffney — can thank Stanford greats John Elway, John Lynch, Chad Hutchinson and Toby Gerhart for the versatile back’s return to football. All four proceeded Gaffney as Stanford two-sport athletes in football and baseball. Gaffney consulted them and heard the same advice.
“I talked to all those guys,” Gaffney said. “The thing about Stanford is it’s a family. Everybody shows up at one time or another and I had a chance to meet them. It’s a blessed opportunity to talk to those guys. They all said, ‘Do it as long as you can.’ ”
Among the five versatile Stanford legends, though, only Gaffney left Stanford with one year of football eligibility remaining. He played football and baseball as a true freshman in the 2009-10 school year and was thus a junior when he left school after the 2011-12 calendar sports year.
Elway is a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer who played quarterback for Stanford and was an outfielder the New York Yankees’ minor league system; Lynch played safety and baseball for the Florida Marlins’ minor league system as a pitcher (he threw the first pitch in a Marlins’ organization game as an expansion franchise); Hutchinson played quarterback and was a pitcher for Stanford and later played in both the NFL and Major League Baseball; and Gerhart was a running back and outfielder at Stanford who just concluded his fourth NFL season with the Minnesota Vikings. Gerhart was drafted in baseball in June 2009 but opted to return to Stanford for the 2009 fall season when Gaffney was his backup as a true freshman.
When Stanford head coach David Shaw heard Gaffney’s thought on returning in 2013, he encouraged him. Shaw himself was a two-sport Stanford athlete. The Cardinal’s third-year head coach played wide receiver from 1991 to 1994 and ran track in the spring. He graduated and went directly into coaching outside linebackers at Western Washington before he returned to this alma mater on Jim Harbaugh’s staff.
“Stanford has been this way a long time before I got here,” Shaw said. “Stanford loves diversity. Stanford doesn’t just look for the 4.0 student. Stanford wants people who can do a lot of different things. It’s no different with football.”
If a Stanford student-athlete has the ability to play more than one college sport at the Division I level, the coaches work together to adapt to the athlete’s time constraints. Shaw explained it’s a philosophy derived from the academic offices.
“Stanford accommodates these gifted athletes who can do different things,” Shaw said. “We make sure they understand what they are doing, but we also give them the time to do it at the highest level. We attract that more than other places. We have a history of two-sport female athletes, too. It’s not about choosing one thing at Stanford.”
An example of how Stanford coaches work together from a couple decades ago involved former Cardinal football coach Tyrone Willingham and veteran baseball coach Mark Marquess. They recruited Hutchinson out of San Diego Torrey Pines as one of the nation’s top high school quarterback and pitcher prospects. They convinced him to enroll at Stanford in the fall of 1995. Hutchinson had long been committed to Stanford, but the Atlanta Braves offered him $1.5 million after the June 1995 draft.
At the time, Willingham said, “We’re not going to sit back and watch while the Atlanta Braves try to influence Chad’s decision. Mark Marquess and I are explaining to him the opportunities he has at Stanford to play football and baseball and beyond playing sports by earning a Stanford degree.”
Hutchinson was a starter for Willingham, including leading the Cardinal to a 38-0 win over a Michigan State team coached by Nick Saban, in the 1996 Sun Bowl. Hutchinson helped create history for Willingham and Stanford with that game. Willingham was the first African-American coach to win a Division I-A bowl game.
Ironically for Michigan State, if Stanford’s multi-sport philosophy had existed at North Carolina State three years ago for Russell Wilson — another football player after Cook’s heart when Beano was still with us — the Spartans might have made their second Rose Bowl trip in three years this past season. In 2011, N.C. State head coach Tom O’Brien ran off three-year starting quarterback Russell Wilson before his senior season because Wilson had chosen to play minor league baseball in the Colorado Rockies’ organization instead of spring football.
Wilson transferred to Wisconsin as a graduate senior. In the 2011 Big Ten championship game, he led the Badgers to a fourth-quarter comeback victory that sent the Badgers to Pasadena instead of the Spartans with a 42-39 victory. Now, Wilson, a Super Bowl champion for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, is more closely associated with Wisconsin than N.C. State. It’s a touchy subject around Raleigh.
Gaffney began to understand the difference between Stanford and other schools regarding multi-sport opportunities as a high school senior at San Diego Cathedral Catholic.
San Diego State, his hometown university, failed to use the Willingham/Marquess two-pronged approach despite Gaffney’s expressed interest in the Aztecs. The assistant football coaches on the staff of then-head coach Chuck Long let him down when they failed to aggressively recruit Gaffney. Also, the football coaches and baseball head coach Tony Gwynn failed to work together in a combined effort.
In fact, University of San Diego baseball coach Rich Hill, whose program has a richer NCAA tournament history than San Diego State, had more contact with Gaffney and his parents than Gwynn, even though Hill knew football was not a realistic option for Gaffney at his university since the Toreros only play at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
Most college coaches who tell an athlete he can play two sports do so to remain in the hunt for his scholarship commitment. The assumption is that once the athlete is on campus and understands the demands put on him by two coaches to be in two places at one time, they’ll recognize they need to make a choice. And unless the athlete possesses the super-human athletic gifts of Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, the coaches get their way.
Elway benefitted from the Stanford philosophy 30 years ago as a recruit, even as American sports culture shifted from the traditional three-sport high school star, which is now an archaic slice of Americana, to the specialized athlete. Stanford remained that way for Lynch 20 years ago, Hutchinson a decade and a half ago and more recently Gerhart, the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up and Doak Walker Award winner. And, of course, Gaffney showed to the tune the 1,709 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns it can play out in a new decade.
“Toby Gerhart was at Stanford at the time, and I knew previously that Elway, Lynch and Hutchinson had the leeway to play football and baseball,” said Gaffney of his recruiting days. “It’s a school where you know you can do both and they will give you the time to give your best effort to both. It’s worked out that way for me.”
Gaffney’s return to college football was all about love of the game and not the result of a struggling with the curve ball — which is largely why Wilson chose the NFL over minor league baseball. Gaffney played for the Pirates’ Class A team, the State College Spikes, who, ironically, play in a college football town located in the shadow of Penn State’s campus.
Gaffney, a 24th-round draft pick in 2012, batted .297 with a .483 on-base percentage. After the season he was rated the No. 43 prospect in the Pirates’ system. It’s a ranking prominent enough to project to a big-league promotion with the Pirates or as part of a deal with another franchise seeking prospects from Pittsburgh.
Gaffney’s Stanford comeback decision also included consulting the Pirates, and he received their blessing. Gaffney joined the Cardinal in time for spring football, a phase he considered crucial to condition his body for fall camp rather than jumping into the 2013 season. He had been away from football contact for 15 months.
“That was a huge difference for me,” said Gaffney. “I was seeing a live read in the spring instead of just four weeks before the first game.”
Actually, the 2013 spring football and summer conditioning was the most football training Gaffney experienced throughout his college career. In previous springs, he was on a Stanford baseball team that played into the NCAA tournament.
Any NFL team with Gaffney on their draft board should realize this is his longest stretch of football focus and what it means to his potential maturation. He had never focused for more than six months at a time until now.
The first time he left Stanford he was a three-year letterman in both football (2009-11) and baseball (2010-12). He was an All-Pac-12 baseball honorable mention in in 2012. Now he’s departing after the Rose Bowl also a four-year letterman in football that was second-team All-Pac-12 pick (behind Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey and Washington’s Bishop Sankey).
“I thought I was done with football when I left for baseball,” Gaffney said. “I wanted to start my baseball opportunity, but I knew I had a year of football left. I decided to take advantage of it. It was now or never. I knew I could come back and finish my degree, and I would be joining a pretty darn good Division I football team.”
Gaffney has been deflecting questions about his football/baseball future. But we know where he can turn to for advice: The firm of Elway, Lynch, Hutchinson and Gerhart. Needless to say, Elway knows plenty about Gaffney as a Stanford alum and the Denver Broncos general manager/vice-president.
Beano, considering their final sports, would have approved of seeking such advice.