Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney came running back to football

Tyler Gaffney mingled with Stanford alums and football fans during pregame festivities at last year’s Rose Bowl.

Gaffney sipped drinks and roamed between food stations at the Cardinal tailgate, enjoying prime rib, Mexican-style offerings and other, more eclectic fare. During the game, he sat in the stands with parents and family members of Cardinal players, the intensity soaring as Stanford held on to defeat Wisconsin.

“That’s about as emotional as it gets,” Gaffney said this week. “The parents are into it. The families are into it.”

Now, after sitting out the 2012 season to pursue a professional baseball career, no one is more into the Rose Bowl experience than Gaffney.


After rushing for 1,618 yards and 20 touchdowns, the senior running back will try to help the Cardinal defeat Michigan State on Wednesday in the 100th Rose Bowl game.

“This is what you dream of,” Gaffney said.

Gaffney, 22, played three football seasons and three years of baseball for Stanford before deciding the time was right to pursue a major league dream.

The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Gaffney in the 24th round of the 2013 draft. The outfielder batted .297 for State College (Pa.) in the Class-A New York-Penn League, but he missed football and the camaraderie and friendships he developed at Stanford.

After a Rose Bowl victory that marked senior running back Stepfan Taylor’s final game for the Cardinal, Gaffney was hanging out with former teammates when defensive end Ben Gardner broached the subject of a possible return.

“I said, ‘Hey, man, we’re going to have a great offensive line, a great defense and great quarterback — all we’re missing is a running back,’” Gardner said. “You could tell right away he was actually thinking about it.

“I let other guys on the team know, ‘Hey, we’ve got to recruit this guy.’”

Stanford Coach David Shaw had kept in touch with Gaffney during baseball season, sending him occasional texts to congratulate him on a game-winning hit or other milestones. Shaw would teasingly say, ‘You’ve got one more year left,’ privately believing Gaffney would give baseball at least two years before perhaps returning.


But one day Shaw checked his phone and saw a text from Gaffney.

“It said, ‘Hey, Coach, can we talk?’” Shaw recalled. “I knew what it was. He has a love and passion for the game of football and he couldn’t wait to come back and play.”

Gaffney missed the first few weeks of spring practice but participated after beginning spring-quarter classes in April.

Linebacker Trent Murphy noticed that Gaffney had matured, preparing and carrying himself as a professional athlete.


There also was another change: The 6-foot-1, 226-pound Gaffney ran harder than before.

“I hit him,” Murphy said, “and I was like, ‘Man, I thought you were a baseball player.’”

Gaffney, who attended San Diego Cathedral Catholic High, had never carried the ball more than 13 times in a game during his first three seasons at Stanford.

He carried 20 times and rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the Cardinal’s first two games this season. He carried 36 times for 171 yards against UCLA. But his star turn came on Nov. 7, when he rushed 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown in a 26-20 victory over then-second-ranked Oregon.


“I was looking at him in the huddle and I could see bruises starting to form on his neck,” guard David Yankey said. “I was like, ‘Oh, he’s had a good day, but he’s had a tough day.’ He never complains.”

Said Gaffney: “In baseball, when you get hit by a pitch, that leaves a bruise. When you get tackled 35 times a game, that’s going to leave a little more than a bruise.”

Michigan State boasts the top defense in major-college football and has given up only 80.8 yards rushing per game. Spartans players and coaches still expect the Cardinal to stay with their season-long game plan and give the ball to Gaffney.

“The thing that he does very, very well is he sort of picks his way and then slides off blockers and then gets running,” Spartans Coach Mark Dantonio said.


Gaffney is an NFL prospect and will run faster than most expect when tested by scouts before the draft, Shaw said.

Gaffney, who is pursuing a double major in sociology and psychology, said that the Pirates were supportive of his return to Stanford and that he had not yet decided what he will do after the Rose Bowl.

“I’ll sit down with my family and figure it out,” he said.

But first he wants to cap his Stanford experience with a victory.


“Coming back and being back into it,” he said, “you realize this is a great place to be.”

Twitter: @latimesklein