When Tommy Vardell came home from his first day of kindergarten at Madison Elementary in El Cajon, Calif., his mother, Travis, had the cookies (homemade peanut butter) and milk (whole) waiting, and she was beside herself in anticipation of hearing all the details. Tommy said nothing. Instead he jumped on a stool and placed on the kitchen counter two pieces of paper he had been working on at school. He started writing.
"What are you doing, Tommy?" asked his mother.
"I want to make them better," he replied.
Sitting at that same kitchen counter 18 years later, Travis recalled what she thought raising Tommy would be like from that point on: "This is, going to be easy."
April 19, 1992
She would not be disappointed. In a remarkable—if somewhat sticky-sweet—tale that makes Father Knows Best seem like the saga of a dysfunctional family, Stanford running back Touchdown Tommy Vardell has emerged as one of the hottest topics of the NFL draft, which will be held on April 26 and 27. The buzz is that Vardell could be among the first 10 players chosen. Scouts already arc comparing him with John Riggins. Larry Csonka, Earl Campbell and Tom Rathman—all big, bruising, churn-it-out workhorses. Bruce Snyder, the coach at Stanford's archrival, Cal, for the past six seasons (and who recently left Berkeley for Arizona State), says, "A lot of people say he is like an old-time fullback, but I think he is a back of the past, present and future."
Vardell's numbers support that contention. When he held two workouts at Stanford last month, 26 of the 28 NFL teams came to look. What the scouts saw made them blink in unison. Mainly, they saw speed. There had been suspicions that Vardell might be too slow, but then he clocked a blazing 4.48 for the 40. Afterward one scout told him, "Son, you have moved up with the group that can run." Everything he did during those two workouts—lifting, broad jump, shuttle run, vertical jump—was at the top of the charts.
Meanwhile, Vardell is still at work trying to improve himself. At the East-West Shrine game at Stanford in mid-January, Dallas Cowboy scout Jeff Smith raved about him. "He is a very, very, very good football player," said Smith. "But more important, he's a fine person. If my daughter were going to marry a football player, I'd want her to bring him home." Smith stops, sighs and says, "Sounds too good to be true, doesn't he?"
Absolutely. It seems unfair that a 23-year-old football player could be this big (he's 6'1", 238 pounds with only 7.7% body fat), this strong (he bench-presses 225 pounds 27 times) and this smart (an industrial engineering major with a 3.2 GPA. he'll graduate in May). What's more, sometime not long after draft day, he'll be rich (last year the average salary and bonus for a first-rounder was $910,000). All this good fortune has been bestowed on an apparently deserving young man. Vardell, who set six Stanford records, including the single-season mark of 1,084 yards on the ground last season, has also retired the trophy for Nicest Guy in Football.
"I'm not an angel," he says. "I have done things I would rather not have—but nothing major. There is nothing more irritating than a self-righteous good person. I just like someone who does right for the sake of doing right and does it quietly and doesn't try to show it to the world. That's what I'm trying to do."
When Vardell was signing autographs at the East-West game (he had broken his collarbone in December in an 18-17 loss to Georgia Tech in the Aloha Bowl, an injury that prevented him from playing in all-star games or performing at the February scouting combine), fans waited 30 minutes for their turn. When someone requested an autograph for Jenny, Vardell said, "Is that n-y or i-e?" Of course. Spelling counts. He wrote each autograph legibly. Neatness counts. He smiled at each person. Friendliness counts. He looked each person in the eye. Sincerity counts. Most of the players at the East-West game were gone from the autograph session within a half hour, all within an hour. Vardell stayed for two hours and 15 minutes and signed every piece of paper thrust in front of him. Steadfastness counts.
What's remarkable is Vardell's rise from near obscurity to star billing. As recently as the spring before his junior year, he was the Cardinal's third-string fullback. And even though he had scored 14 touchdowns as a junior, before the start of last season the focus of attention in the Stanford backfield was halfback Glyn Milburn, a transfer from Oklahoma. But Milburn was less than brilliant, and Vardell was even better than he had been in '90. "I don't know what triggered him to fulfill his potential," says Vardell's position coach, Tyrone Willingham. "But I do know an athlete has to have a vision of success. Suddenly Tommy looked in the mirror, saw this vision, and it was filled with number 44. His play intensified, and he became driven and possessed."
A highlight film being circulated by Vardell's agent, Jack Mills, is remarkable testimony to his athletic ability. Vardell's four-touchdown performance in Stanford's 36-31 upset of then No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in 1990 is in the film. So is his three-TD return engagement against the Irish in a 42-26 Cardinal loss last fall. Vardell was the primary reason that Stanford finished 8-4 last season and was invited to the Aloha Bowl, Stanford's first postseason appearance since 1986.
Vardell is at a loss to explain his sudden leap in performance, other than to note that coach Dennis Green (who departed in January to coach the Minnesota Vikings) started giving him the ball more often. Then, by way of explanation, Vardell grabs a visitor and forces him up against a car. "How would you like to be hit by me?" he says with a laugh. Not much. And that may be the answer. He's a terrorizing big back, the quintessential one-back.
Vardell carries the ball (418 times all told at Stanford, no fumbles lost) inside and outside, he blocks with abandon, he catches passes (75 career receptions for 477 yards), and he's mentally tough (not a single penalty called on him in college). Musing on Vardell, Green, who dubbed him Touchdown Tommy after the '90 upset of Notre Dame, breaks into a huge smile. "Tommy realizes that everything you do in life counts," says Green. "What he is, is a legend."
And in his own time. Last fall against Cal, which was ranked sixth in the country at the time, Vardell rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns in the Cardinal's 38-21 upset. After the game, when the Vardell family walked into Pudley's in Palo Alto for dinner, their fellow diners gave Tommy a standing ovation and the meal was on the house. That's what happens when a hero shows up. In an era when our heroes keep disappointing us—Pete Rose, Magic Johnson, Mike Tyson—Vardell is a throwback to the grand old days of football, when players blocked and tackled and didn't wear earrings. All that's missing is a leather helmet.
Vardell smiles a Hollywood-handsome smile that could earn him bushel baskets full of endorsements and says, "Tommy is a sissy name and Touchdown Tommy sounds like a nursery rhyme, but I like my names. Touchdown Tommy was a character I got to play because Coach Green cast me in the role." Thomas Arthur Vardell is Tommy because, when Stanford was vying for his talents, his mother said that the Cardinal would improve its chances of landing him if the coaches would promise to call him Tommy rather than Tom, which she loathes.
What we have-here is a player who is the product of a prototypical 1950s-style family. Where is Norman Rockwell when we really need him? Travis is a fashion model who passed on to her son not only her height (she's 5'10¼") but also her great good humor. Back at Boulder (Colo.) High, she was voted the Student with the Best Personality. Tommy's dad, Ken, who was a guard at Colorado from 1959 to '61, is a special agent for the FBI. He once helped grab a hijacker at the San Diego airport. Brother Ted, 26, is a dispatcher for the FBI in San Diego and calls himself "Tailgatin' Teddy." The family's favorite activity is hanging out together.
The Vardells spend endless hours in the family room watching football. They go to church, and they cat at Harry's, a local '50s-style diner. They know they are out of sync with the times, and that's fine with them. Indeed, what Travis and Ken have passed along to Tommy are rock-solid, commonsense values. Says Travis, "Between family and modeling, I always chose family, and I've never regretted it."
Nor do they ignore compassion. Ken recalls the time he found the bodies of two teenagers. "It was like all the birds stopped singing and the crickets stopped chirping," he says. "I saw wisps of blond hair and a tennis shoe sticking out from under a bush. All I could think about were my own kids."
When he is at school, Tommy calls home at least once a day to check in. "I'm real traditional about everything," he says. "A lot of instability is caused by the crumbling of morality and integrity, the things that were foundations in the past."
With NFL money soon to flow his way, Vardell figures he'll buy T-bills and top-grade municipal bonds. Wouldn't you know it? He has a 1987 Volkswagen Jetta, which runs fine, so he doesn't plan to trade up. Oh, and he would like to endow a scholarship at Stanford for a football player who is studying engineering.
Back in El Cajon for a couple of days recently to receive one of a bunch of awards that have been bestowed upon him (among them, a GTE Academic All-America of the Year), Vardell soon is immersed in the family scrapbook and eating coconut ice-cream bars. He plays Wiffle Ball in the backyard—alongside the orange and the lemon trees—with his brother. He devours everything in the kitchen. He never once leaves home during the visit. Doesn't want to. He spends a lot of the time talking and laughing with his mom. "Her role in life is to make people feel good about themselves," says Tommy. "That's quite a role model for me."
Says Travis, "Home is the center of his affections. He has always had a tremendous balance, a combination of physical balance and equanimity of disposition."
Thousands of hours of conversations like this have placed Vardell's feet firmly on the ground. The conversations have also helped make him thoughtful and astute beyond his years. "What I have come to love about football is the camaraderie with the opponents," he says. "It's friendly, but hard-nosed competition. A lot of the fondest memories are when you have really been lit up by someone. I remember when a Notre Dame linebacker, Ned Bolcar, planted his helmet in my car hole and he almost took my head off. I didn't know where I was, but I remember thinking. Man, what a great hit he made. I also remember the Washington game last season, when [defensive lineman] Steve Emtman squeezed my head so hard my helmet came off. He stuffed me. But he gave me more than a headache. He gave me a memory. Underneath all the talking, spitting and scratching, a good competitor who plays hard and plays respectfully is appreciated. I know the spirit of the game is to try to kill each other, but it's much more than that.
"In the Georgia Tech game they had three All-Americas on defense, and I thought. What a challenge. Here we are, one-on-one. I will give you all I have, and I hope you're coming with your best, because this is going to be fun."
Believe it or not, Vardell has a few faults. For example, his language sometimes adds more color to a room than his mother can stand. "Oh, Tommy," she screams from the kitchen in agony at an especially earthy discussion.
"Sorry, Travis," he says, and then goes on in the same vein. His bedroom is on the health department's condemned list. He spends many of his waking hours looking for his car keys and his wallet.
Among those who recruited Vardell out of El Cajon's Granite Hills High were Ivy League schools and the military academies. No wonder: His combined SAT score was 1,200. Ultimately, says his father, "He had to choose between the chrome and glass of UCLA and the mahogany and granite of Stanford." Talk about a no-brainer for someone lost in the '50s.
On a recent evening the Vardells were watching a tape of last season's Cal game for the zillionth time, a game in which the Bears repeatedly got in dirty licks, which resulted in five personal fouls as well as a spearing violation, all against Cal. Yet, says Tommy, "I don't characterize them as dirty. I just think it was an overflow of emotion." Everyone laughs at Tommy's finding good in the bad.
So is this life you're leading, Tommy, right out of Camelot? That big smile erupts across his face. "Pretty damn close," he says. The highlight tape is on the VCR, the good times are rolling, and Ken says, "I wonder if there's any chance you're as good as people say."
The laughter begins anew.