When the Cowboys drafted Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner earlier this month, Dallas wasn't shy about crediting player development on The Farm for its find.
"You're coming from a place that's got it figured out," iconic owner Jerry Jones told Gardner.
That, of course, is a reference to the place that discovered Gardner as a two-star recruit, gave him his only major college scholarship offer, and fostered his development into an all-conference performer, Rose Bowl hero, and NFL draftee.
Gardner's journey from unheralded recruit to selection at Radio City Music Hall is remarkable. Back in 2009, home-state Wisconsin did not bother offering him. But Stanford rolled the dice after Jim Harbaugh's father, Jack -- a Wisconsin native -- advised his son to recruit the explosive defender after seeing him play in a local high school game.
Once he arrived in the Bay Area, Gardner took his burst, savvy, and strength to new levels. He earned a Division 1 starting spot. He played an integral role in Stanford's defensive transformation. His mullet became the symbolic heartbeat of the Cardinal's "Party in the Backfield" defense. By 2012, the unit was the Pac-12's (and perhaps the country's) best. It set a new Stanford single season sack record, with Gardner -- jersey number 49 -- notching the record-breaking 49th fiesta of the year.
Then there was Gardner on New Year's Day, blasting through the Badgers' offensive line, delivering a jarring fourth down goal line stop that electrified the Rose Bowl and brought his journey full circle.
A roar echoed through Arroyo Seco canyon. Much of the noise came from the massive Stanford contingent, which heartily approved of the game's pivotal play. A big part of it also came from Gardner, who, in that overpowering moment, had returned the favor to the Wisconsin program that had denied him four years earlier.
It was indeed a beautiful story, one that mirrored Stanford's blue collar ascent in many ways. It was about proving doubters wrong. It was about maximizing opportunity in a no-nonsense kind of way. And at that point, it was far from finished.
In 2013, Gardner returned for a fifth year that further cemented his legacy as one of Stanford's all-time great trench warriors. A painful arm injury threatened his final season, but Gardner staggered and produced through agony until he absolutely could not continue anymore. He fought tooth and nail to return to the line of scrimmage after hurting the aforementioned arm versus Washington, and shot back at Steve Sarkisian's laughably false fake injury accusation after the game. Three weeks later, Gardner finally succumbed in his gutsy fight against that beleaguered arm: The extra strain caused by his injured shoulder may well have contributed to a searing tear of his pectoral muscle on a cold, wet night in Corvallis. College career over.
Predictably, Gardner's doubters came back out of the woodwork at that point. The NFL Combine snubbed him, just like Wisconsin did half a decade earlier. But history repeated itself, and Gardner's response mirrored his first one: He recorded a 39.5-inch vertical leap and 10-foot, 2-inch broad jump at Stanford's Pro Day, numbers that would've ranked second and fifth, respectively, among defensive linemen tested in Indianapolis.
That measurable explosiveness, combined with Gardner's demonstrated football IQ -- he blocked three quick kicks in his Stanford career thanks to meticulous film analysis -- earned no. 49 a seventh round selection in the NFL Draft. The Cowboys, who had lost defensive line starters DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Jason Hatcher since the beginning of the previous season, were looking to fortify their wall up front. Gardner fits into Dallas' future plans, though he'll have to adapt to their 4-3 scheme and likely be required to make his initial mark on special teams.
If there are any remaining doubts regarding this Stanford lineman, though, they should probably stay in the woodwork at this point. Gardner has found a way to make it work at every twist and turn so far, and his attitude heading to Texas indicates that he's prepared to perform again.
In a phone conversation with Cowboys coaches on draft day, Gardner's focus was apparent.
"I'm ready to kick some ass," he said.
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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