If we could look a quarter century into the future, we'd see a young Stanford sophomore as she stumbles across the Axe for the first time. The image of the iconic Axe is familiar to her, but for the first time she notices the list of scores on the plaque beneath the blade. Her eyes scan the agate type, and while she doesn't stop to consider that each line represents a three-hour struggle with some young men rising to greatness and others shrinking back with broken hearts, she pauses when she comes to the twenty-teens. Her green eyes are suddenly round in the reflection of the trophy case as she sees the stretch of games that begins with 2010 and extends years beyond, the longest winning streak in the storied rivalry between Stanford and Cal, and she wonders what happened. She wonders if there's a story, something to explain such an unprecedented stretch of dominance.
While she stands lost in thought, an older man announces his presence by politely clearing his throat before speaking. "Those were beautiful years," he says.
The young woman recognizes him immediately. His image, after all, appears throughout the campus, and his retirement the year before had been national news. Even so, she has to ask. "Excuse me, but aren't you..."
"I'm just someone who was lucky enough to spend some time here at Stanford, just like you."
"And what about these years?" she asks, turning back to the Axe. "These beautiful years?"
"Just amazing. Even at the time, even as we were in the thick of it, we all knew. Sure, we focused on each block and each tackle, we never looked beyond Saturday's opponent, but we knew what we were doing. We knew we were carving out something special, something that would last, something that would shape the future..."
For a moment the old man's eyes lose focus as he drifts back through the decades, but suddenly his eyes brighten and his back straightens as he looks to the Axe and points toward the line that reads 2016 Stanford 45-31.
"That was the game that made everything possible." And then, to emphasize his point, his finger taps the class with each syllable, "Twen-tee-six-teen. That game changed everything."
The woman is confused. "But how could that one game, one game in a string of, what, sixteen straight wins over Cal? How could that one game be so important?"
"Seventeen, but that's not the point. That game convinced Christian that he needed to come back for his senior year, the year that he finally won his Heisman," responds the man. "That game gave Keller Chryst the confidence to develop into a great quarterback, and, of course, all of that led to our first national championship in 2017. It all started right there." Tap tap tap. "Twenty-sixteen."
"What do you remember from that day?"
"The rain. I remember the rain," he says. "I don't remember much about the first half, except that Conrad Ukropina hit a field goal at the gun to give us a 17-14 lead, a lead that should've been much bigger, but the second half was something special. We kicked off, as we usually do..."
"Hey, I've always wondered about that. It seems like every team in football, from high school through the NFL, wants the ball to start the second half. Every team but us. Why do we always give up that advantage?"
The old man pauses for a second and shakes his head, as if he's heard this question before. "It's simple. I'm an offensive guy. My whole life I used to go to bed the night before games thinking about the routes I would run, the blocks I would make... I couldn't sleep! And then we played so many night games back then... The wait was interminable! I could never imagine waiting any longer. I always wanted the ball first. Always."
"But what about the advantage? What about starting the second half with a long touchdown drive? What about..."
He waves his hand to cut her off. "What about a three and out by our defense to start the second half? What about that momentum? Anyway, back to it -- there's really only one thing you need to know about this game -- Christian McCaffrey. He made this play on our first possession of the half..."
"But I know about Christian McCaffrey -- my dad tells me about him all the time, and I walk past his statue outside Luck Stadium every Saturday. He was like, amazing."
The man smiles, almost apologetically, before continuing. "You probably think you know how great he was. You can read the statistics, you can listen to the stories... But unless you were there. Unless you were in the stadium, unless you were on the practice field, unless you were in the locker room, you can't really understand how phenomenal this kid was. Doggone it, he was the best football player I've ever been around, period.
"And this play I'm talking about, it was pure Christian." He closes his eyes as he speaks, clearly going back again to that day. "It was 2nd and 8 from our own ten, and even though we had the play called for Christian, in the back of my mind I was already thinking about something conservative to run on third down so we could just punt it out of our end, but before those thoughts could even come together, they became irrelevant. The play was simple, designed to go to the right, with Christian following Daniel Marx and crashing into the line. Maybe we'd get three or four and set something up for third down, you know? But then Christian did what Christian always did. He saw something open up to his left, so he skipped that way instead, probably hoping to get those three or four yards. Three Cal defenders crashed down on the play and zeroed in on him, but somehow -- and this is what I mean about having to be there -- he didn't just escape. He went through them as if he hadn't been touched. He could break tackles without breaking stride, and that's what he did here -- he ran through them as if they weren't even there. After that, of course, it was over. He was clear of everyone at the fifteen, and he inhaled the next 85 yards in just a tick under nine seconds. Just phenomenal. Even now, I can only shake my head.
"We gave up a field goal on Cal's next possession, which bothered me a bit, but I wasn't worried." He turns and admits with a wink, "It's nice to be able to say that out loud now. When you're in the moment you have to worry about every little thing -- every play comes with the possibility of a fumble or a penalty or an interception or an injury -- but deep down I knew that all we had to do that day was hand the ball to Christian and everything would be okay. On our second drive of the half we gave the ball to Bryce Love a couple of times, and Keller Chryst scrambled once, but aside from that it was all Christian. After that previous touchdown he was already over 200 yards rushing for the game, and he piled on more on this drive. There was nothing Cal could do to stop him. Nothing. You know how confident we were? We had a 3rd and 7 from the Cal 42. Passing down, right? Not when you've got Christian McCaffrey. Ten yards later we've got another first down. A few minutes later he was skipping into the end zone with his second touchdown of the day, and we were up 31-17."
"Did you ever worry that he would wear down? That he was getting too much work?"
"People used to ask that all the time. People wondered why he was returning kicks and returning punts. Why he was in the wildcat. You know what? Christian was a football player, the best football player in the country, and he wanted to be on the field. Shoot, he would've played defense if the coaches had let him. He would've asked for more work, not less."
"So the final score was 45-31. How did the rest of the game go?"
"After Cal scored again to get back to within a touchdown at 31-24, we decided to diversify the offense a little bit, just because we could. Cal's defense had already given up almost 300 yards rushing, so they really had no choice but to load the box and play our receivers one-on-one, so there were opportunities to be had for Keller Chryst. On 3rd and 7 from our own 34, Keller showed us a glimpse of what we'd see so much of in 2017. He had J.J. Arcega-Whiteside isolated one-on-one out to the left. All J.J. did was give his defender a hip swivel and shoulder shake to the left, and by the time he came out of it the ball was already on its way. Chryst hit him perfectly in stride down the left sideline, and if not for a momentary stumble by J.J., it would've been a touchdown.
"We settled for a 59-yard gain, and three plays later Christian was leaping into the end zone for his third score of the day. And you know what's funny about that? Early in that 2016 season folks were talking about how Christian couldn't score touchdowns on the road..."
"So was this the best you ever saw Christian play?"
Again, the apologetic smile. "Asking which was Christian's greatest game is like asking which sunset is the most beautiful. How do you compare the soaring magentas of one evening to the majestic purples of another? It was like that with Christian. Each game was spectacular in different ways."
"So that's only 38 points. Where did the last touchdown come from?"
"Keller Chryst. I said before that all you needed to know about this game was Christian McCaffrey, but this was a big game for Keller, too."
"You said something about that earlier. What was the big deal? Everyone knows Keller Chryst was one of the best quarterbacks ever to play at Stanford. Maybe not as good as Luck or Mills, but still great, right?"
"Oh, he was great, but people didn't always see it. He always had his doubters, just like Hogan and Costello..."
"No, no one ever questioned Andrew."
"But what was the problem with Chryst? How did anyone ever doubt him?"
"It was the usual stuff. He locked on to his receivers, held the ball too long, took too many sacks. All the young ones do that; it just takes time to grow out of it. This was only Keller's fourth start, and he was still struggling with some of that stuff, but he was definitely getting better. In his first two starts, against Arizona and Oregon State, he played just about as poorly as a winning quarterback could. He threw for just 104 yards in the first game, and only 60 in the second, and none of that threatened the defense. He averaged less than three and half yards per attempt, which is less than half of what's acceptable. We were winning, but he wasn't giving us the production we needed from the position.
"Against Oregon, though, it started coming together for him."
"Didn't Oregon used to be really good back then?"
Ignoring the question, he moves on. "He was 19 for 26 for 258 yards and three touchdowns, but more important than that, his yards per attempt jumped all the way up to 9.9 -- suddenly he looked like a Pac-12 quarterback. And he just built on that against Cal. His numbers weren't quite as good, but they didn't need to be. He had that nice deep ball to J.J., but his nicest throw came late in the fourth quarter.
"Some of the guys on the team were lobbying to keep giving the ball to Christian to get him up over 300 yards, but we felt like there were still some big plays out there to be made. Trenton Irwin had already been doing great things for us -- he was such a technician, a great kid, a phenomenal route runner -- but he just hadn't gotten into the end zone yet. We had him lined up wide to the right -- one on one coverage, of course -- and we knew he'd beat his man. The offensive line did a great job on the play, allowing Keller to settle back into the pocket and survey the field. He threw the prettiest rainbow you've ever seen and dropped it right into Trenton's pocket for an easy thirty-yard touchdown to finish things up."
"Cal scored again, though, didn't they? It says the final score was 45-31."
"The game was over at that point. We wanted to play some of our twos and threes -- and even some of the walk-ons. Those things are important, too. But you know what's most important?" He points at the Axe, and slows his speech for emphasis: "Tangible evidence of a job well done."
He turns and slowly walks toward the door, but pauses briefly and looks back over as his shoulder as he adds, "Never forget that. Tangible evidence of a job well done."
She watches him walk slowly away, then raises her voice to let it carry down the corridor. "Thank you, Coach Shaw. Thank you for everything."