Tyler Gaffney attended last year’s Pac-12 Conference football championship game as a fan, milling around the sidelines at Stanford Stadium before kickoff and spending the rest of the night in the stands.
This time he’ll be the featured attraction.
After playing baseball in the minor leagues last year, Gaffney’s remarkable return to football is one of the biggest reasons seventh-ranked Stanford (10-2, 7-2 Pac-12) has a chance for consecutive Rose Bowl berths. He has run for 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns entering Saturday night’s showdown at No. 11 Arizona State (10-2, 8-1), turning in one consistent performance after another, which will likely land him in a different draft next.
“He’s put on film that he’s a potential high-round pick in the NFL, because that’s how NFL backs run,” Stanford coach David Shaw said Monday.
Shaw began fall practices talking about how he planned to replace Stanford’s career rushing leader, Stepfan Taylor, with a rotation of up to six running backs.
“An embarrassment of riches,” Shaw called them.
Instead, Gaffney emerged as the featured running back because he seemed to always find the right holes — or plow them. He has quietly moved just 386 yards away from Toby Gerhart’s celebrated school record of 1,871 yards rushing in 2009, when he was the Heisman Trophy runner-up to Alabama’s Mark Ingram.
Gerhart needed only 13 games to set that mark. Gaffney will get 14 because of the Pac-12 title game. And with everything he has accomplished this season, Gaffney will get to make a major life decision for the second time in a year: Go back to baseball, or head to the NFL? In all likelihood, it will be the latter.
“I would love to play in the NFL,” Gaffney said. “That’s an opportunity that doesn’t knock on many people’s doors.”
In his first three seasons at Stanford, Gaffney ran for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns on 156 carries. He also caught 17 passes for 187 yards and three TDs as Taylor’s primary backup.
The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Gaffney in the 24th round as an outfielder, and he said he couldn’t turn down a chance to play professional baseball. He had a solid season with the Class A State College Spikes, batting .297 with a .483 on-base percentage.
Gaffney got the urge to resume his football career after watching his Cardinal teammates win the Pac-12 title and the Rose Bowl last season.
“Speaking for myself, this is awesome,” Gaffney said. “I’ve never been to the Rose Bowl. I was a fan, I watched and it looked like an incredible place to play. I know what’s going on around [me] now, so I think from both perspectives. I can appreciate the game and what goes into it.”
Stanford vs. Arizona State
WHAT: Pac-12 Conference championship
WHEN: Saturday, 4:45 p.m.
WHERE: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.