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."
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.