LOS ANGELES — Calls and text messages from old friends back home have been filling Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner’s cell phone with increasing frequency this month. The sudden level of interest comes as no surprise to Gardner given his team’s next opponent.
“I heard from a lot of people that I haven’t heard from in a while,” Gardner told reporters Thursday. “Everybody’s fired up about the chance for me to play Wisconsin.”
None more so than Gardner himself.
Gardner, you see, grew up in Mequon, Wis., just 90 miles east of Wisconsin’s campus in Madison, and dreamed of someday wearing the Badgers’ cardinal and white colors. He watched Wisconsin on television every Saturday during the fall and attended a few games each season. He became a first-team all-state defensive end at Homestead High School and figured the Badgers would make for a perfect match.
Instead, Wisconsin offered Gardner a preferred walk-on position with no scholarship, while one of Gardner’s high school teammates received a full-ride from the Badgers. Gardner’s only scholarship offer came from Northern Iowa, a Football Championship Subdivision school.
Four years later, Gardner is wearing cardinal and white of a different variety and leading one of the best defenses in the country. So when No. 8 Stanford (11-2) plays Wisconsin (8-5) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, you can bet sticking it to the Badgers will be front and center on Gardner’s mind.
“Obviously I was a big fan, and I wanted to play for Wisconsin,” Gardner said. “That obviously didn’t happen, so I won’t say I have hard feelings. I’ll just say they’re our opponent this week, and we’re fired up for the chance because Stanford, the whole time we’ve been here, we’ve been trying to come to this game and win this game. It’s been hard to get here.
“Now that we’re here, Wisconsin’s in our way, and that’s all I’ll say about them. I’m fired up to play them.”
The opportunity for Gardner to ruin the Badgers’ Rose Bowl dreams wouldn’t have been possible if not for a late and unlikely scholarship offer from Stanford during his senior year of high school. At the time, Jim Harbaugh was Stanford’s head coach and his father, Jack, served as an associate athletic director at Marquette.
Jack Harbaugh also happened to be good friends with Gardner’s high school coach, Dave Keel.
“He was in our weight room one day, and I was working out, and coach Keel called me over, and I talked to him for 15 minutes,” Gardner said of Jack Harbaugh. “I got to know him and asked him if he would take a look at my highlight tape, because I knew his son was out at Stanford. He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take a look at it. I didn’t think anything would come of it. But he looked at it and told me he liked it, and he was going to send it on to coach Harbaugh at Stanford.”
A scholarship offer quickly came, and Gardner accepted even quicker.
During his time in Stanford’s program, Gardner’s hard work and attention to detail have allowed him to develop into a defensive force — ironically following the type of bide-your-time approach that has worked for so many players at Wisconsin.
Gardner took a redshirt season in 2009, tallied one sack with three tackles in 2010 and then started 12 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2011 with 35 tackles and 4-1/2 sacks. He earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors for his play and carried that momentum forward.
This season, the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Gardner has started all 13 games and amassed 43 tackles with 7-1/2 sacks — tied for the second-best mark on a team that ranks No. 1 nationally in that category with 56 sacks.
“When he first got here, one of the memorable quotes was he said he would be a starter by the time he left.” Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov recalled of Gardner. “We saw flashes of it early on, and he just kept working and getting bigger and focused. And I think that’s what he’s trying to instill in the younger guys behind him is that it’s a continual process.”
Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy described Gardner as a “blue-collar, nitty-gritty tough guy” who isn’t afraid to create havoc in the trenches. That mean streak and tough-minded attitude may be inherent, but it also may have grown from Gardner being overlooked despite being a talented prep prospect.
Gardner’s high school teammate who received a scholarship from Wisconsin, defensive end Shelby Harris, never played a game for the Badgers and was suspended one year after signing due to a violation of team rules. He transferred to Illinois State. Gardner, meanwhile, used the snub as motivation, particularly early in his college career.
“Just coming into college with the initial chip on your shoulder,” he said. “Thinking even though I did pick up an offer from Stanford, it was late, and I was the lowest rated recruit in my class coming in. So, yeah, you definitely come in looking to prove yourself.”
It is safe to say Gardner has more than proven himself. Now, Wisconsin will take its turn seeing the player it missed out on up close and personal.