A quiet murmur overtook the Stanford locker room Wednesday night, casting that aura of predominant postgame silence reserved only for the aftermath of a mind-numbing loss.
Long after most players had showered and left to board the team bus, Shayne Skov remained slowly pacing in full pads next to his locker. The first day of 2014 had seen the sun set on his storybook Stanford football journey, one that dated back to September 1, 2007, the day he committed to play for Jim Harbaugh.
Eye black remained smeared over Skov's cheeks. His stormtrooper white No. 11 jersey had been dirtied by the Rose Bowl turf, but it wasn't yet ready to come off for the last time. This was a moment in which time froze, in which a legendary era that had stretched over seven calendar years did not want to end.
Echoes of Stanford's four consecutive BCS appearances, its Orange and Rose Bowl championships, and its 46-8 record this decade all seemed to silently scream in protest -- to no avail. Despite gritty final efforts from Skov (9 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL, 1 forced fumble) and Trent Murphy (2 TFL and season sack number 16), Michigan State's 24-20 victory over the Cardinal made it finish in sudden, jarring fashion.
"We were expecting a physical game from them," Josh Mauro said. "They didn't disappoint."
For Stanford's seniors, it was a confusing ending to an otherwise wonderful journey. Earlier, before Skov alone remained in the locker room, Kevin Danser had sat with his head buried in his hands. Senior Conor McFadden strolled around the entire perimeter of the locker room, individually embracing and thanking his teammates at the conclusion of his career.
"From the fifth year seniors to the walk-on freshmen, everyone played a part in making this team special," McFadden turned to me and said, fighting back tears. "I think that's what so cool about this place. Before we even stepped on the field today, we won. From where we have grown as a team to how we have grown as individuals, I am so blessed. So blessed, to everyday have gone to work with these guys. These are people I want to associate myself with. These are people that make me better. These are people that I love. And when you love, you want to be better and you become better."
Josh Mauro's college career had also come to an end, and he had just finished a long embrace with McFadden when he turned to the future. The sting of the loss was palpable in the hushed room, but the perpetually energetic Mauro -- who defensive coordinator Derek Mason calls "a bull in a china ship" -- cracked a slight smile as he thanked those around him with watery eyes.
"You can't play this game and you can't live life by the 'woulda, coulda, shouldas,'" he said. "But you remember stuff like this. It drives you. You try to look at the positive in each situation, and that's what I'm trying to do."
A dearth of offensive adjustments and some frustrating defensive missed opportunities cost Stanford the chance to beat a ferocious Michigan State team in the 100th Rose Bowl, but the positives are indeed still plentiful. Mauro's play has earned him a spot in the upcoming East-West Shrine Game, where he'll have an opportunity to again impress NFL executives with his ferocious style of play. Stanford's other fifth year seniors, including Skov, Murphy, Tyler Gaffney, Jarek Lancaster, and Ryan Hewitt, will also vie for a spot in the pros. Meanwhile, McFadden, though he still has one year of eligibility remaining, is putting up his cleats to begin tireless support of his father Mike, who is running for a Minnesota US Senate seat against incumbent Al Franken.
A.J. Tarpley is one of the seniors with eligibility remaining who has yet to decide on his 2014 plans. He'll make his decision within the next 10 days along with a group of players that includes Ed Reynolds, David Yankey, and Cam Fleming.
"I know we're a hungry team," Tarpley said. "The guys who are staying are going to use this throughout the entire offseason to get better."
Improvement, of course, has been a constant theme among the Stanford program over the course of the past several years, so it was inevitable that quiet anticipation of the future quickly seeped into the hushed locker room at the Rose Bowl. That's the only way that fifth-year senior Ben Gardner would have it. No. 49 is a personality that pushes negativity aside. He is, after all, the player who disregarded a painful injury to fight through several games before a torn pectoral muscle ended his college career, and the one who suited up in full uniform Wednesday to support his teammates despite that injury.
"We came into a program on the rise and we took it to the top," Gardner told me. "We didn't take it to the very top. That's something that these guys who are still around will have to strive for in the coming years... But when you mention the best teams of the BCS era, you have to mention Stanford now."
And even on this dark day, in that quiet locker room murmur that is synonymous only with defeat in the world of sports, McFadden echoed that sense of accomplishment.
"For years ago, we believed that we could be better," he said. "Everyone wanted to make excuses for us, saying that we couldn't have great academics and be a great football team. They said that era is dead. They said the student-athlete is dead. I've taken so much pride in proving them wrong."
There was no trophy waiting at the end of the road for one of Stanford's greatest-ever senior classes on New Year's Day. But the departing group did leave behind a sturdy foundation for continued success, and that's an asset that can become even more valuable moving into the future.
My lasting Stanford image from last night: a limping junior, a senior, and a 5th year. Turley in pic too. pic.twitter.com/PZfSr3HNT6— David Lombardi (@DavidMLombardi) January 2, 2014
Stanford LG Kevin Danser was one of the most disappointed players in the locker room. pic.twitter.com/DG0gh3S6ny— David Lombardi (@DavidMLombardi) January 2, 2014
AJ Tarpley and Tyler Gaffney leave the field pic.twitter.com/WoK799woD8— David Lombardi (@DavidMLombardi) January 2, 2014
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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