Who better mirrors Stanford football's transformation over these last four years than Ben Gardner? Coming out of high school, he was a two-star defensive end who Stanford wrestled away from a bunch of nobodies -- Eastern Illinois, Montana, North Dakota State, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Northern Iowa, to be exact. All told, the Cardinal were the only Division I school to offer Gardner, with even home state Wisconsin (ironically) declining to extend a scholarship bid.
Fans were fearful that Gardner was another reach, another project, another kid who, try as he might, simply would not be able to produce at the next level. Then he reached Stanford, redshirted, and got on the field the subsequent year. He saw action on special teams and as a backup, but still, turns out he was serviceable. His next year, his redshirt sophomore season, Gardner earned a starting position and was Second Team All-Conference. Turns out the kid was pretty darn good.
Then, this latest season, Gardner started all 14 games with 49 tackles, including 14.5 for loss and 7.5 sacks. He was again Second Team All-Conference, and singlehandedly made a fourth-and-short tackle in Pasadena that stopped the Wisconsin attack in its tracks. Turns out that Stanford might well have lost the Rose Bowl were it not for Ben Gardner.
Per Twitter and The Bootleg (and as Gardner hinted in this video interview with The Bootleg in the Rose Bowl locker room), No. 49 is coming back for a fifth year. Thematically, that makes this piece even better. Ben Gardner is going to play an even bigger role in the rebirth of Stanford football, all while laughing in the face of multi-million dollar contracts and societal conventions.
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So here's a kid whose rise over the past four years, from the
recruit no one else wanted to an NFL star in the making, mirrors
the Stanford program's rise over the same timeframe. And so it was
fitting that, in the postgame Rose Bowl locker room, amidst all
the circling media, rolling cameras and celebrating players, who
else was stark naked but one Benjamin D. Gardner?
Sure, all the players who'd run around on that hallowed field
would shower and change, but most of them managed to cover up
behind a towel, or change out of sight, or dress before us fourth
estaters were allowed in the locker room.
Mind you, this was no ordinary locker room, either. This was the
McMansion of locker rooms that comfortably contained the 85-man
roster and the equivalent number of coaches, reporters, Rose Bowl
officials and assorted hangers-on who congregated there. If
pressed, the room probably could have held all of us once over
And amidst it all, there went Gardner, butt naked, for the
I don't think he was trying to be rude. He just gave yours truly
and countless others every last piece of his mind on the game, and
plenty of his time.
I don't think he was trying to make some statement, or not so
subtly suggest we should go, or anything of the kind. I don't
think he's an exhibitionist. And if they read this, I hope he and
the Stanford PR folks take this in the spirit it's intended.
I just think Benjamin Gardner had bigger things on his mind. He
had just stopped Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon,
of a rushing attack, along with pesky quarterback Curt Phillips and his maddening scrambles.
As he described to me in an interview to be posted shortly, Gardner had anticipated Wisconsin's first-half fourth-and-one playcall by reading his opponent's positioning and stance, and then, having made his read, deviated from his assignment to knife into the backfield and blow up the play before it began. Soon, he would have to make and go public with his decision of whether to take the NFL's money or make one last run at a national championship in 2013. In short, Ben Gardner had just won the Rose Bowl, and if he had wanted to march his naked 6-foot-5 frame down Colorado Boulevard that morning and enter it alongside all the floats in the Rose Parade, I, for one, wouldn't have stopped him.
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For so long, Stanford football has had to apologize for itself. As
recently as five years ago, higher-ups were debating moving down a
division while the team set records for its futility. Even when
Stanford started to find some success, it was as if we were naked
at the parade, playing Oklahoma – Oklahoma, of all teams, it
doesn't get more blue-blooded than that – in our first bowl game,
finishing in the polls alongside (and, more often than not, ahead
of) the Sooners and Texas and Alabama and Florida and Ohio State
and USC, and wowing audiences with a renaissance of a forgotten
style of football.
But, to the outside world, Cardinal football was just biding its
time until Toby Gerhart left, or Jim Harbaugh left, or Andrew Luck
left, or whatever fluke worked its course and the clock struck
midnight, because there was no way Stanford of all teams could be
a football power.
No more. There's nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to cover up, and after three straight BCS games, Stanford football has announced that, for the foreseeable future, it's going to be a force to be reckoned with. Given his career path from obscurity to star, his Rose Bowl-defining play that perfectly blended brain and brawn, and his position which demands the utmost in physical grit, Ben Gardner is as emblematic a face for this team as any. What better metaphor then for the program's arrival on the college football scene than him jaunting naked through the Rose Bowl locker room?
That's our take. Here are takes from around the country.
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