PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Tyler Gaffney donned visiting Stanford's colors for last November's 17-14 upset of Oregon in Eugene. Unlike his current and former teammates, however, the Cardinal's fifth-year senior running back kicked off his day in the tailgate lots. "I didn't stay around a lot of the Oregon crowd," said Gaffney. "I wasn't trying to make any mess of things with some drunken Oregon frat boys."
Gaffney left Stanford after his junior season in 2011 to pursue a professional baseball career with the Class-A State College Spikes. He watched that Oregon game from the stands, just as he did several other late-season Cardinal games, including last January's Rose Bowl, once his baseball obligations ended. He'd also make occasional visits to practice, where coach David Shaw teased him that he had another year of eligibility remaining. "Just good-natured joking," said Shaw. What Shaw didn't realize was Gaffney had already begun discussing that very topic with his parents.
But then came "the cryptic text message out of the blue after the season," said Shaw. "'Hey, coach, can we talk?' In the back of my mind, I thought, 'Maybe.'"
Sure enough, Gaffney was calling his coach to say he wanted to come back. And faced with replacing three-year standout Stepfan Taylor, Shaw suddenly had a career 791-yard, 12-touchdown rusher with 35 games' worth of experience was falling into his lap. As if Stanford, the defending Rose Bowl champ and likely preseason top-five team, needed another talented veteran on its roster.
"The depth of our running back position," said Shaw, "is an embarrassment of riches."
Last Monday -- Opening Day for baseball, coincidentally -- Gaffney officially returned to Stanford football for the first time in 15 months, participating in the first day of the Cardinal's second spring practice session. "We were in Thud [drill], I got tackled, and that immediately became the usual," he said after practice. "Like riding a bike."
Gaffney is hardly the first college football player to moonlight in baseball. NCAA rules allow an athlete to play professionally in one sport while maintaining eligibility in another, so long as he or she doesn't collect endorsement money. At Stanford alone, past luminaries include All-Pro safety John Lynch, who spent a summer in the Florida Marlins' farm system prior to his breakout senior season for Bill Walsh's Cardinal, and quarterback Chad Hutchinson, who eventually played for the St. Louis Cardinals (2001), Dallas Cowboys (2002-03) and Chicago Bears ('04). Minnesota Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, the 2009 Heisman runner-up, played baseball at Stanford but was not drafted.
More recently, Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson, a 2010 fourth-round pick of the Colorado Rockies, bolted NC State for the Class-A Tri-City (Wash.) Dust-Devils before enrolling at Wisconsin for one spectacular senior season of football.
Still, it's rare for a football-turned-baseball player to return to the gridiron after skipping a full season. And in Gaffney's case, his baseball career could not have started much better. The Pirates' 24th-round selection last summer batted .297 for State College with a .483 on-base percentage; the Pirates Prospects website rated him the No. 43 prospect in the franchise's farm system. While the organization said he's welcome back next year (the Pirates retain his rights for five years), he's now set to miss a full season of baseball.
"I weighed out my options down to the smallest details," said Gaffney. "Getting your degree, being part of this team, being able to play football, is outweighing staying on the baseball team. It pretty much opens up three options rather than just one."
Gaffney, who enjoyed trips to the 2011 Orange Bowl and 2012 Fiesta Bowl but has not yet tasted a conference championship, joins a Stanford squad that is, in a word, loaded. Nine starters return from the nation's No. 5 rushing defense (97.0 yards per game) and No. 11 scoring defense (17.2 points). At a recent open scrimmage, sophomore quarterback Kevin Hogan, who was 5-0 after taking over as starter late last season, looked noticeably more poised. Luke Kaumatule, a 6-foot-7 tight end, did his best Zach Ertz impression by hauling in a long pass, and the offensive line, highlighted by the emergence of sophomore tackle Andrus Peat (a five-star recruit in 2012), performed admirably against the Cardinal's first-team defense.
But Stanford's M.O. dating to former coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure is a strong running game. Despite winning 12 games last season, Stanford averaged just 4.4 yards per rushing attempt, down nearly a full yard from the year before (5.3) and the Cardinal's lowest mark in five years. Taylor, who rushed for 1,530 yards, accounted for 63 percent of the Cardinal's rushing total.
A more experienced quarterback and offensive line will likely help boost those numbers, but so, too, could the return of Gaffney. As a junior he averaged 6.1 yards per carry. He notched a nine-carry, 117-yard game against Washington, ran for 40 yards on six carries against Cal and reeled in a 10-yard touchdown catch against USC.
"For a guy that's made plays in big games, it's tremendous to have back in our offense," said running backs coach Tavita Pritchard. "We have talented guys that have been here, and he'll be a great addition."
Though he was the No. 2 tailback during his last season with the team, it's no sure thing that Gaffney will become the primary ballcarrier. He'll contend for playing time with fellow senior Anthony Wilkerson (883 career yards), speedy underclassmen Remound Wright and Kelsey Young and touted redshirt freshman Barry Sanders.
"We've got five guys we believe would start most places," said Shaw. "The job of us as coaches is to make sure we use all these guys."
Gaffney was hurt somewhat by missing the first two weeks of spring practice (he could not re-enroll until the start of Stanford's spring quarter on April 1), but 2013 will actually mark the most he's participated during a given spring. While playing baseball for the Cardinal, he could only sneak in a few practices between games, with Shaw and baseball coach Mark Marquess working together to keep him at the NCAA's 20-hour weekly limit.
"I'm excited to be a full-time football player," Gaffney said.
Since he couldn't train with the team until he re-enrolled, Gaffney went back and forth between his hometown San Diego, where he mostly trained on his own, and Palo Alto, where he worked with some of Stanford's NFL draft prospects for a couple days at a time. During that stretch, he didn't have a campus residence. "A lot of crashing on inflatable beds," he said.
He added: "I was antsy. Sitting around not having anything to do is only good for a couple days."
Gaffney also didn't particularly enjoy watching Stanford games on television last fall, finding it "stressful." But when he suits up this fall, he'll do so from a unique perspective.
"[Last season] was my first time being a fan," said Gaffney. "I got to see how it is on the other side. While we're sitting downstairs getting ready for the game, they're upstairs having a good time."
Now the situation is flipped. Gaffney had such a good time upstairs that he's putting a promising baseball career on hold for the chance to rejoin his teammates on the field.