UCLA may have a shot at stopping Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor in the Pac-12 Conference title game Friday. But Kulabafi, that hip guy with the dark glasses and leopard print sweater, could be a handful.
Taylor, you see, can come at you out of multiple offensive sets — and with multiple personalities.
There is the running back with tree-trunk legs who is 36 yards from setting Stanford’s career rushing record. He is a soft-spoken Texan, a senior who is majoring in science, technology and society.
Then there’s Kulabafi, the pseudonym that allows Taylor’s wild side to roam free in videos.
The different personalities merge to create a player and person deserving of national recognition. UCLA can attest to that after Taylor ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns Saturday even though he sat out the last quarter of a 35-17 Stanford victory at the Rose Bowl.
A repeat performance against the Bruins in the Pac-12 title game Friday would put the Cardinal in the Rose Bowl and push Taylor past Darrin Nelson’s school-record 4,169 career yards rushing.
“If I get it, it will be a team stat,” Taylor says. “I have been fortunate to be put in this situation, with a great line, a great fullback, great wide receivers and a great quarterback. All of them doing their job makes my job easier.”
Away from the football field, Taylor dabbles in writing, producing and starring in videos that he posts on YouTube. His alter ego was born when he and running back Anthony Wilkerson were freestyle rapping on the sideline during practice and “Kulabafi” rolled off Taylor’s tongue.
“It’s whatever comes into my head,” Taylor says. “I’ll say something and start thinking, ‘That might make a video right there.’ ”
He does not lack for wannabe cast members. “My teammates are all trying to get in them,” Taylor says. “It’s fun.”
Taylor’s last video was part of Stanford football’s “How We Do It” series, 15 episodes designed to familiarize viewers with the personal stories and experiences of the players. In it, Taylor interviews his outlandish alternative personality, who is wearing sunglasses with “Kula” on one lens and “Bafi” on the other — written, he intimates, in “fossilized goat cheese.”
The interview doesn’t go well.
Kulabafi starts off by deadpanning to Taylor: “Before we start, I would like to say I saw you in the kitchen this morning eating my cereal. I would like that to never happen again. I have my cereal. You have your cereal. That’s that.”
A tug-of-war for the top bunk in Taylor’s mind is still in progress. And the guy in the leopard-print sweater — “made out of 100% grass clippings,” Kulabafi says — is giving Taylor a run for it.
“I think Stepfan is trying to control this Kulabafi character,” Stanford Coach David Shaw says, playing along. “I don’t know that he’s winning that battle right now.”
Taylor alone, without the other guy, is the type of person and athlete who fits the university’s image: a button-down student and open field runner.
He was the career rushing leader at Mansfield (Texas) High with 4,792 yards. When he qualified for Stanford and was offered a scholarship, he started researching the university.
“Not the football team, the school,” Taylor says.
His conclusion? “I would have been crazy not to come here,” Taylor says.
As for the team’s history running the football, he says, “I didn’t know anything about that.”
That’s probably because until recently that history started and ended with Nelson. While there have been a number of good running backs — remember Brad Muster? Maybe not — Stanford, with Jim Plunkett, John Elway and Andrew Luck, has always been known as Quarterback U.
That changed some under former coach Jim Harbaugh. Toby Gerhart had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and finished second in the 2009 Heisman Trophy voting. But while Taylor followed with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons of his own, quarterback Luck was center stage.
Luck, runner-up in the Heisman voting last season, was the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Taylor came back and topped 1,000 yards rushing for a third consecutive season with 1,364. Oregon and Stanford are the only Pac-12 teams with a 1,000-yard rusher each of the last five seasons.
Taylor did his part by gobbling up every bit of information from Gerhart, who now plays for the Minnesota Vikings.
“Coming out of high school I just thought you got the ball and ran real fast,” Taylor says. “I had to learn to be patient, set up blocks, recognize defenses. My first year, Toby would help me with all that. We would have these running back tests before every game and he tutored me until it started clicking.”
Still, Taylor hasn’t received much national recognition. He was second-team All-Pac-12, behind senior Kenjon Barner of Oregon and Ka’Deem Carey, a sophomore from Arizona.
“It’s a shame,” Shaw says. “He’s as good as anybody in the country. He may not be as flashy, but you get him the ball and he’s special with the ball.”
Ah, but if you want flashy, go to Kulabafi, who notes his own fame in Taylor’s last video when he says:
“We go to the grocery stores and buy soap, cereal. People want to buy that soap and cereal right after us. You can see people behind us, following with shopping carts. It’s pretty cool.”