If we're to believe the mythology, then-head coach Denny Green gave Tommy Vardell (1988-1991) his nickname following the Notre Dame game in 1990. "Touchdown Tommy" had put his stamp on that game by scoring four one-yard touchdowns in the 36-31 Cardinal upset over the top-ranked Fighting Irish at South Bend. (Also, check out this great piece on the game written by Stanford play-by-play voice Bob Murphy. Great stuff.)
When the nickname came isn't so important, but it certainly stuck. When you look at Vardell's numbers, his place at #10 on this list might seem a bit high. After all, his 1,789 career rushing yards are only good enough for tenth on the all-time Stanford list behind people like Mike Mitchell, Brian Allen, Kerry Carter, and Anthony Kimble, and current back Stepfan Taylor will likely cruise past him in the third or fourth game this year.
Some running backs, though, cannot be measured simply with yards from scrimmage. Vardell was in the perfect place at the perfect time. Coach Green had shrewdly realized that size does matter when putting together an offensive line, and he took that to an extreme. Three hundred pound linemen seem to grow on trees nowadays, but in the early 1990s Stanford football was noteworthy for being one of the few offensive lines in all of football -- NFL included -- to average three hundred pounds from tackle to tackle. Who better to run behind a line like that, than a bruising fullback like Vardell?
At 6'2" and 234 pounds, Vardell was the ultimate short-yardage back, and that four-touchdown performance against Notre Dame was just the beginning. He found the end zone fourteen times during that season and upped that total the following year to twenty, a Stanford record that would stand for eighteen years. His 1,084 yards rushing in 1991 also set a school record. Oh, and here's something that's really impressive. Vardell carried the ball 418 times in his career and didn't fumble once.
Following that 1991 season Vardell was named first-team All-Pac-10 and GTE Academic All-American of the Year.
What I remember most about Vardell is none of that. What I remember is Big Game at Stanford in 1991. Cal came into the game ranked #6 in the nation with a sparkling 9-1 record, and Stanford wasn't far behind with a 7-3 record and #21 ranking. Vardell took the game by the throat that afternoon and didn't let go until the Axe had been retained. He carried the ball 39 times (still a school record) for a bruising 182 yards and three touchdowns. Gene Wojciechowski, then writing for the Los Angeles Times, summed up the performance like this:
Vardell's uniform was a mess. Grass and bloodstains decorated his pants. His jersey had been ripped apart in places, allowing his shoulder pads to stick through. He had scratches on his forearms and a nick on his forehead.
Now then, imagine how the Cal defenders felt? By game's end, few of them wanted any part of the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Vardell or of the celebrated Stanford offensive line. Missed tackles were commonplace. And rarely did anyone bring down the senior fullback alone.
"After a while," said Vardell of his blockers, "300 pounds of meat and strength are going to get to you."
Vardell was so exhausted during the game that he received I.V. fluids at halftime, then returned to the field to continue his domination in the second half. For years afterward, friends of mine and I would always suggest the same remedy whenever someone was feeling a bit tired: "Why don't you just get some Tommy Juice?" If only we all had a little Tommy Juice.
#11 Tank Williams
#12 Steve Stenstrom
#13 Riall Johnson
#14 Kailee Wong
#15 Eric Heitmann
#15 Chris Marinelli
#16 John Lynch
#17 Kwame Harris
#18 Chase Beeler
#19 Willie Howard
#20 Shayne Skov
#21 DeRonnie Pitts
#22 Anthony Bookman
#23 Sione Fua
#24 Richard Sherman
#25 John Hopkins
*My first thought was to try to come up with a list of the best Stanford football players of all-time, but I quickly realized that I'm not qualified. I've only been watching Stanford football since the fall of 1987, so I can't really comment intelligently on players who suited up before then. Sure, I know that Jim Plunkett belongs, but I know nothing about Randy Vataha. Sports Illustrated once named Ernie Nevers the greatest college football player of all-time, and that's certainly good enough for me, but how can I possibly rank him against players of a more modern era? So I decided to create a list of the best Stanford players that I've actually seen in my time as a fan, and since that's roughly twenty-five years, I'm calling it the Silver Squad. (Catchy, isn't it?) Anyway, I'd love to hear your own memories of these players, and I won't be offended if you argue about who should or should not have been included on this list. Enjoy.