Say this about Tyler Gaffney: The Carolina Panthers’ sixth-round pick does not shy away from contact.
Gaffney, a running back from Stanford, rushed for more than 1,700 yards last season on 330 carries, the second-highest total in school history.
In his lone season of minor-league baseball with the State College (Pa.) Spikes in 2012, Gaffney was hit by a pitch 20 times, shattering the team record and leading the New York-Penn League in the dubious category.
Given his history, it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the first things Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman mentioned about Gaffney was his willingness to block.
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Blitz pick-up was an issue for the Panthers during the preseason last year, making it hard for Gettleman and the coaching staff to evaluate the reserve quarterbacks and receivers at the end of exhibitions.
Gaffney, 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, can do more than hit and be hit.
He finished eighth in the country last season with 1,709 rushing yards, and his 21 rushing touchdowns ranked fifth. He ran for 133 yards and three touchdowns against Arizona State in the Pac-12 championship game, leading Stanford to a Rose Bowl berth and winning game MVP honors.
Gaffney was a three-year starter for the Cardinal’s nationally ranked baseball team, and was drafted in the 24th round in 2012 by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He skipped the 2012 football season to play pro baseball. Gaffney lasted one year, then returned to Stanford.
He enjoyed his one season in State College; he enjoyed football more.
“That kind of opportunity doesn’t come around for everyone. It was something I didn’t think I could pass up at the time,” Gaffney said. “I took the year and towards the end of that year, I realized that football was my love and something I couldn’t put behind me.”
Gaffney, whose father Gene played baseball at the University of San Diego in 1981-82, batted .297 with the Spikes, a short-season Class A affiliate who shared their stadium with Penn State’s baseball team.
Gaffney said he dropped by one of the Nittany Lions’ football practices, but one of his most lasting memories from his summer in State College was driving to the baseball stadium and seeing workers taking down the statue of Joe Paterno at the adjacent Beaver Stadium.
“I got to see, fortunately and unfortunately, the emotions of taking down the Paterno statue. I was actually there for that,” Gaffney said. “Just to see how much it actually meant to an entire town was a surreal experience, coming from a West Coast football fan base.”
Gaffney grew up in San Diego and went to high school with Courtney Rivera, the daughter of Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
Ron Rivera recalled Gaffney being a gym rat at Cathedral Catholic, where he was a multisport star and one of the top-rated fullbacks in the country.
“Whenever I was down there … he was at the baseball field, he was at the track, he was at the gym playing basketball, he was on the field throwing the football,” Rivera said. “The young man’s all about sports and I remember watching him play in the high school playoffs and just really being the guy. I’m excited about who he is.”
After Gaffney decided he wanted to go back to Stanford, there was the matter of convincing Cardinal coach David Shaw to allow him to return.
Before he was a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Russell Wilson was a second baseman for the Asheville Tourists. His decision to skip spring football practice at N.C. State upset then-Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien and led to Wilson’s transfer to Wisconsin.
Shaw took Gaffney back on Stanford’s team, but stuck him at the bottom of the depth chart.
“I started with the third and fourth scout teams and moved my way up from there,” he said.
Gaffney, who ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, worked his way into one of the best seasons by a Stanford running back. Gaffney, who calls himself a “slasher,” had nine 100-yard rushing games in 2013, including a 189-yard, 33-carry performance against Notre Dame.
“He had a real quality senior year at Stanford in the type of downhill run attack that we like,” Gettleman said. “Tyler’s got good skills that we like – the ability to run the ball, pick up the blitz and he’s a very tough and very smart kid.”
Unlike Wilson, who struggled at the plate in his two minor-league seasons, Gaffney said he could hit the curve ball – and just about any other pitch that wasn’t plunking him in the shoulder or side.
“I could hit it all,” he said.
He’s never second-guessed his decision to hang up his cleats with the Spikes, though.
“I let them know that football is where I’m at and what I love,” he said. “I’m here to play football now and that’s what I want to do.”