TWISH: Nelson Leads 1980 Card Past Cougs

In this, my fifth season authoring "This Week in Stanford History," I have yet to extensively feature the player many regard as the most exciting in Cardinal history. That needs to change, and does in a big way, with an exclusive interview of Darrin Nelson.

Too young to have seen Darrin Nelson in person, I will nonetheless testify to his greatness. The only Stanford runner – for the time being, anyway – to compile over 4,000 career rushing yards became the program's all-time leading rusher as a sophomore.

College football had rarely seen such talent. Before his arrival on The Farm, nobody had ever rushed for 1,000 yards and caught 50 passes in the same season. Darrin did it three times (1977, 1978 and 1981). I'll personally buy a pitcher of Anchor Steam to whomever starts a BootBoard thread devoted solely to the swing pass he turned into a touchdown during the 1978 Big Game.

I've made passing mention of him in years past, but his performance this week in 1980 deserves some special attention by us here at TWISH.

In a 48-34 triumph on Oct. 25 at Washington State, Nelson personally torched the Cougars for 202 rushing yards on only 21 carries. John Elway also connected with him 11 times, with "Junior" netting 167 receiving yards and a pair of touchdown grabs. The efforts earned him offensive player of the week honors from Sports Illustrated.

The up-and-coming Cougars were no slouches (only a loss at Washington kept their 1981 edition from reaching the Rose Bowl), and they gamely fought back. A pass from Elway to Andre Tyler had Stanford up 20-3 early in the second period, but the scoreboard showed a 27-27 tie three minutes into the third quarter. The repetitively named Samoa Samoa kept the Card on their heels by mixing it up, rushing for 175 yards and throwing for 206 more and two scores.

"I just wish I could have rooted for Stanford so I could have enjoyed it more," was how Washington State head coach Jim Walden described it afterwards.

The Card moved their record to 5-3, keeping alive flickering Rose Bowl hopes that a porous defense would ultimately dash. This was the strange year when separate academic scandals kept five Pac-10 teams – USC, UCLA, the Oregon schools and Arizona State – on probation and ineligible for the postseason. Stanford would finish just 6-5 and remains one of the more enigmatic groups in school history.

Elway and Nelson joined Brian Holloway, John Macaulay, Andrew Tyler, and Ken Margerum as first team all-conference performers. But the same group that forced seven turnovers in a 31-14 demolition of No. 4 Oklahoma lost to 2-8 Cal with a Peach Bowl berth at stake. Why this team failed to live up to its potential was among the topics we discussed this week with Nelson. He's now an associate athletic director for UC Irvine after serving in a similar post for years at Stanford.

The Bootleg: Do you have any memories about that 1980 game up in Pullman?
Darrin Nelson: Yes. John threw a TD pass to me that I thought he could never make. After scrambling all over the field, he spots me in left corner of end zone all alone and makes this incredible throw. And as an FYI, any time John would leave the pocket or scramble, I would go deep. Hard for a linebacker to chase me 40 to 50 yards down the field.

TB: Did you have to adjust or become a different player after you hurt your hamstring and missed the 1979 season? How hard was it to rehab and get back to full strength?
DN: Actually no. I sat out an entire year, and as a result had a chance to return to full strength. Rehab was difficult because I was in a cast for four months, so all my muscle in my leg was gone. Lucky for me Stanford had some great people that helped me make it back.

TB: How did that 1980 team perform in relation to its overall talent and potential? Was it a coaching issue or a talent issue?
DN: If I remember correctly we struggled on defense because we lost some key players to injury and academic eligibility issues. Our offense was fantastic. I don't remember a whole lot about those individual games, but the crowd noise at Boston College (a 30-13 loss) was crazy and it disrupted our offense. In the Big Game I had an injured ankle and only played three or four plays late in the game. I always played pretty well against Cal so it was a big loss for our team.

TB: How do you like your new job? What do you miss about The Farm?
DN: My new job is great. UC Irvine is making some pretty drastic changes to help our sports teams, including a new sports performance center and student center. All my family is nearby so it's great to see everyone on a regular basis, especially since I have not lived near anyone in my family since I was 18 years old. My mother, father, sister and brother (former UCLA tailback Kevin Nelson) all live fairly close now. Kevin lives in Corona currently. Having been at Stanford for almost 15 years it was difficult to leave. I don't miss The Farm so much, but really miss the people I associated with on a regular basis.

TB: What are your thoughts on Stepfan Taylor breaking your long-standing record as the school's all-time leading rusher? What do you think about him as a football player and a young man?
DN: Well I hope he stays healthy and gets a chance to break it. He is the lynchpin of Stanford's offense and a lot of fun to watch play. He is a lot quicker than I thought and a lot more exciting to watch play. Stanford fans are very excited about him and I completely understand. I really don't know him that well as a person, but I can assure you that if he is doing well as Stanford in all aspects, not just football, then he is a very good person. Stanford does not make a lot of mistakes in admissions.

TB: I remember that while talking to a group of people in Chuck Taylor Grove circa 1998, you lamented that "we need athletes." All these years later, what do you think about the turnaround authored by Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw? How will the program stay on top?
DN: I thought Jim did a fantastic job of rebuilding Stanford football and I also admire David for not trying to change something that's not broken. The recipe for staying on top is easy: continue winning. Quick story before I sign off. All my professional football buddies with children would gladly send their children to Stanford because they know at some point in your career you have to look for other opportunities outside of football. And what better way to do that than to get the best education possible? You see right now Stanford is in the catbird seat when it's comes to recruiting because we have something to offer that most schools don't. It's a chance to play for a winning football program and also receive a fabulous education.

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