Experiencing football on the Farm

Sam Fisher’s friend found himself wedged between the two pillars that frame his Stanford life.

Sports and everything else.

Sam is sitting next to Joey Beyda on the second floor of the Stanford Daily’s offices. Sam is a senior from Jersey. He’s sports editor at The Daily, writes a sports column and does play-by-play for Stanford’s student radio station, KZSU.

Joey is a junior from nearby Cupertino and serves as The Daily’s football editor. “My dad was a junior in 1982 with ‘The Play,’” Joey says. “He’s been scarred ever since.”

They’re sports guys, and so they’re struggling a bit to explain their buddy’s predicament. Sam begins.

“I have a friend in the orchestra who has 7 p.m. practice [Thursday] night,” he says. “His instructor said, ‘I’ll be very disappointed if you’re not here.’”

It doesn’t need to be said that at 6 p.m. Thursday, No. 5 Stanford plays No. 3 Oregon in one of the most important games ever for the Cardinal. Orchestra practice or the biggest night of the year in the Pac-12.

At Stanford, you have to choose.

Twenty-four hours before kickoff and there’s no buzz around campus.

I came to Palo Alto to experience Stanford football and figured a game between top-five teams that could push the Cardinal back into the national title race would cause a flurry of activity. Instead, for now, it’s quiet.

A handful of students sit outside Green Library, sipping coffees over their textbooks. Midterms are in progress. Stray bikes whiz through White Plaza on the way to class. There’s no sense of a big game looming.

At the football building earlier in the afternoon, there were at least subtle signs.

Stanford recently moved into new facilities, which have become an attraction this week. They’re beautiful and built for recruits. On the right wall at the entry is a mural of the “Stanford Man,” with words former players chose to describe a real Stanford player pinpointed on a caricature one.

In the lobby, a massive iPad in the form of a coffee table attracts attention. Instead of resting drinks and books on it, the surface remains clear so visitors can scroll through Stanford highlights with a few finger swipes.

Each hall and meeting room holds a designation – for the offense or defense or coaches. The theater-style room for full team meetings is named after Andrew Luck.

The walls are lined with an interchangeable cloth that features pictures of former stars. John Elway, whose No. 7 will be retired at halftime Thursday night, is stuck in mid-celebration outside of the quarterbacks meeting room.

Around 4:30 p.m., players began shuttling back from practice. The Cardinal had a brief walkthrough at which family members and NFL scouts watched from the sideline. Quarterback Kevin Hogan hugged his mom goodbye before disappearing into the locker room and coach David Shaw strolled easily with the crowd, taking time to speak individually with every parent who wanted a few moments of his time.

The sun was beginning to set over the football facility, and it felt so far removed from the anxiety that would eventually build up to kickoff Thursday night.

Everyone who passed the football building, by bike or foot or car, seemed to be headed for something more important than waiting in the anticipation of a football game.

To understand why a Stanford student might be forced to choose between orchestra practice and maybe the best football game of his college career, you must find your way around the culture.

The easiest way to describe football’s place in Stanford’s fabric is it’s another extracurricular activity for a student body that’s highly involved in extracurricular things.

“Football is the extracurricular that most people do,” Sam said in the Daily offices. “But they don’t put anyone above anyone else here. I think that’s why athletes come back. Nobody bugs them. Nobody asks for their autograph. When Andrew Luck walked into class, he wasn’t bothered. You’re just you here.”

I felt the culture sprouting from the sheer beauty of the place. Stanford feels almost regal, an insulated world built on and for high achievement.

It’s vast, with acres dividing two places you may need to go, and it’s easy to feel lost amid the groves and archways. Palm Drive empties into a large park where a rose garden marks the main entrance of campus.

Hoover Tower rises above the palms, at the top of which you can look out over the brown and green hills of Palo Alto and beyond.

There are gushing fountains and hallways made of old stone.

When the sun is setting right, you might see something like this:

The scenery is humbling, in a way, and physically makes football feel small and insignificant. There’s an intellectual lining to everything here.

Thursday morning, ESPN, which would be televising the game later that night, was doing live TV hits from a set in the White Plaza. It was a modest turnout for 9:30 a.m., and the students gathered were playing it up for the cameras. They brought signs and started chants, nearly every one of which hinted at their superior intelligence or poked fun at their own reputation as being high-minded nerds.

Chants of “We like sports!” were followed by “We skip class!”

A crew from The Daily had a massive whiteboard that read, “DAT can’t even count to 40,” referencing Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas earlier in the week saying the Ducks should score at least 40 points against Stanford.

If a diss doesn’t involve a math reference at Stanford, there’s a good chance it involves social media, like this one:

At noon, a pep rally convened in the Plaza, with music and dancers and alumni tents set up with ‘Red Zone’ T-shirts for students. On the alumni association’s tents read, ‘Play hard. Study harder.’ They refer to the student body as Nerd Nation.

I found all of this hilarious in a charming way. It was the first jolt of real energy related to football since I’d been here, and it began to feel like the focus of campus was turning over to the game.

Go to the barbecue nearest the tennis center of Chuck Taylor Grove, on the west side. Ask for Jed or Duker. They’ll welcome you with open arms.

Those instructions were simple enough even though I stared into this and had no idea where I was going:

When I found Jed Solomon, he was setting up the tailgate he helps Chuck Evans host for every Stanford home game. Jed’s a lawyer in San Francisco, graduated from Stanford in ’77 and is a previous chairman of the Stanford athletics board. Chuck played for the Cardinal in the ’70s under Bill Walsh. The diversity of the tailgate epitomized the Stanford experience I’d had so far.

To get there, I passed a large tent on campus where Condoleezza Rice was addressing the Stanford Management Company and sharing details about her experiences in Washington, from little jokes to what it was like in the Situation Room on 9/11.

Now, Duker Dapper, who played football for the Cardinal in the late ’70s, gathered around with other former players and told old stories. A middle-aged man briefed a teenage girl on Civil War history, while another man drank Gordon Biersch and pitched a startup idea. Business cards exchanged hands like cash.

I heard Oregon booster and Nike co-founder Phil Knight had a tailgate a few hundred yards away, on the other side of the soccer stadium, with rented billboards and all the extravagance you’d expect Knight to possess.

I walked in that general direction until this sprung up:

Knight didn’t have a tailgate outside Stanford Stadium; he was running a  boutique.

His guests entered the tailgate through a short tunnel lined with monitors, pumping off pixels of the latest Oregon swag. In the beer garden stood two mannequins outfitted in Oregon football uniforms. I never saw Knight himself, but, as was his intention, you could feel his money.

Back at Chuck Taylor, it began to fill up two hours before kickoff. A Thursday night game and the usual poor traffic caused a late-arriving crowd, but you couldn’t tell the difference now. I went to say hello to Jim Rutter.

Jim’s a fourth-generation Stanford grad. His great grandfather, Cloudsley Louis Rutter, was part of the Pioneer Class of 1895 with Herbert Hoover. He runs The Bootleg, a Stanford website on Scout.com (disclosure: FOX Sports owns Scout), and occupies the title of Stanford Athletics Archivist. There’s a professional description of that role, but what’s important to know is he knows everything about the Cardinal.

I had called Jim a couple days before going to Palo Alto for help giving Stanford football some context within the greater framework of the university culture.

“For the vast majority of Stanford alumni, fielding a team that can be highly competitive without sacrificing academic integrity is what most fans want,” Jim said. “It’s not about doing whatever it takes to win. We don’t have that alumni pressure to beat the system.”

Now, though, there was a growing anxiousness to beat Oregon. When a nervous fan approached Jim and asked if that was possible, he belted out, “Yes we can!”

When John Elway took the field at halftime Thursday evening for his retirement ceremony, with the Cardinal leading 17-0, nobody in the stadium felt secure.

The entire first half was played through nervous energy, with cheers ringing out more as relief than statements of dominance.

Joey Beyda inherited a trait from his father. They’re so used to bad stuff happening at Stanford football games that when the Cardinal score, their first reaction is to wait five seconds and scan the field for flags. It felt like everyone was doing that through the first 30 minutes. Nobody had yet begun to believe.

So Elway took the field with his wife and children and a highlight montage began to play. “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas played over the sound system, and Elway sung the words “tonight’s gonna be a good night.”

His wife would look back at him and smile, and his kids would do the same after great highlights. They couldn’t believe they were watching their dad. Only Elway seemed like he could believe what was happening on that field.

He took the microphone and began to give thanks to the people of Stanford and say what the university’s has meant to him, what it has made him.

“But let me tell ya,” Elway said. “We got . . . some more work . . . to do tonight.”

The crowd roared.

“Let’s kick some ass in this stadium!”

For the first time, the throat of Stanford Stadium roared something sounding like assurance.

Do-Hyoung Park chose the football game.

“I hope they have a third of an orchestra there [Thursday night] and can’t practice,” he said, grinning widely as if he’s getting away with something.

What he saw was his Cardinal grind through the final 30 minutes to beat Oregon 26-20, putting themselves back in the BCS title discussion. He saw Elway engage the student section from the sideline in the second half, soaking in the “Go, Stanford!” cheers and nodding his head, remembering what it was like to be a kid here.

Students rushed the field in the middle of midterms, at a school that places value in college football but, refreshingly, not too much.

Suddenly, as students filed off the field, clusters of them were no longer playing to the intellectual stereotype. They were talking about Auburn, about Florida State, about what the road ahead is, what it can be after this win, for their Cardinal.

After two days of searching for the pulse of Stanford football in Palo Alto, and finding it struggling to rank even moderately high on the extracurricular priorities of the student body, it was here, buried in a wild mess of white-and-red euphoria.

Outside, fans piled back to their tailgates for a nightcap drink, and two elderly Stanford men, wearing hats older than Duker Dapper and his football buddies that religiously come back to Chuck Taylor to talk about the Cardinal, were already looking ahead.

“That was old-school USC football — controlling the line of scrimmage, running the ball,” one said. “That was SEC football.”

“Ha, well, we don’t know about that yet,” the other responded. “But, yes, let’s see who we play.”