This story appears in the Aug. 27, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine — and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
I've loved football since I was five, when I first tied flags around my waist and sprinted up and down the fields in North Carolina. As far back as I can remember, I was flying around the house with a football, jumping onto the couch the way Walter Payton leaped into the end zone, extending my arm and flicking my wrist like LaDainian Tomlinson's stiff arm, studying Barry Sanders to understand how he did what he did. My pops played the old NFL Films so often that it felt like Steve Sabol's baritone voice was narrating my own childhood. My dream, ever since I can remember, has been to play on Sundays.
So it must have confused people last winter when I decided to forgo the NFL draft and return to Stanford for my senior year. It was a difficult choice. Football is my happiness, my drive, but I discovered something else as I drilled down on what I should do: More than the game, I love the bonds that I've formed with my teammates, my brothers—it's what makes football so pure.
On the field, it thrills me to know that our opponent has spent an entire week trying to figure out how to stop us. There's no better feeling than looking from side to side before the snap and knowing that we are all working together as a unit toward a common goal. I'm willing to sacrifice anything to contribute to this team's success, and I couldn't leave without trying one more time to achieve everything that my teammates and I have dreamed of: getting to another Rose Bowl, winning the Pac-12 North and the conference championship.
We have unfinished business here, but if I'm being honest, there's more to it. I'm only 21, but I'm taking a longer view. Sports eventually come to an end for everyone, and this reality informed my decision to stay and finish my degree in human biology. As much as I desperately wish to play in the NFL, I am also passionate about becoming a pediatrician—something else I've dreamed of ever since my doctor cured me of pneumonia when I was little. I believe that pushing myself to never settle in any aspect of my life can show others, particularly in the black community, that they can uncompromisingly reach for all their goals.
It can be hard to balance priorities. I received flak this summer for missing Pac-12 media day because I had class. (I Skyped in instead.) But the work I put in now will help me navigate my future. That's why I took lecture notes and ice baths this summer, writing essays and dragging 90-pound sleds.
I understand the risks I'm taking this fall. Will I be as attractive to pro teams if I'm injured? What if I don't have the same kind of season that I had last year, when I set an FBS record with 8.1 yards per carry and was projected to be a top 30 pick? I took some precautionary measures, like getting insurance for worst-case injury scenarios, but there's no way any of us can predict the future.
I'm confident in my decision because it's not something I came to alone. I trusted the people around me and the process that I always use. I spoke with my coaches, with my parents, with my brother, Chris, and with former teammates Christian McCaffrey and Solomon Thomas, who both went pro before finishing college. I also spoke with Andrew Luck, who finished college before going pro. No one pushed me in any direction, but they all said the same thing: that I can't make a wrong decision as long as I follow my heart.
Did I make the right choice? I believe so, but you can all see when our season kicks off against San Diego State on Aug. 31.