for once in his life, bryce love moves at a leisurely pace, walking out of a class on child cognitive development and riding his bike through lunchtime traffic on the stanford campus without even bothering to power the pedals. his lunch is stuffed on the seat behind him, and a large camouflage backpack is strapped around his shoulders. Apart from the number 20 emblazoned on his sweatpants, there is little to distinguish one of the best runners in the country from any of the other students who emerge from the basement of a building packed with high-level math students and peppered with flyers promoting conferences. on the quantization of compact Lagrangians and mean-field learning models.
There are many things about love that can be classified as abnormal, his amazing olympic-caliber speed being the most prominent. But on a campus swarming with the gifted, Love is just another prodigy, an aspiring pediatrician spending what little free time he has working alongside a Ph.D. candidates in a stem cell lab, many of whom, like the other students he swerves on that bike, have no idea he plays football.
Reading: Bryce love 40 yard dash
That anonymity is a big part of why Love, like the Stanford stars that came before him, chose to play running back here in the first place. It’s also why he seems vaguely uncomfortable with the school’s last-minute campaign to promote him for the heisman trophy in the midst of a remarkable season that was slowed down only by an ankle injury that limited his workload during the second half. of the year.
However, what makes love unique, even on this campus, is that, over the course of his three football seasons at stanford, he has used his analytical mind to both work his way through a resume challenging as a human biology student to transform himself. from one of the fastest runners in the country to one of the best runners in the country heading into this weekend’s pac-12 championship game against usc.
“When you challenge bryce love with something, he will obsess over it and turn that weakness into a strength,” says stanford strength coach shannon turley. “will not allow it to be a liability.”
Perhaps if you’ve witnessed snippets of Stanford’s football season from afar, you’ve only seen the highlights of the marathon touchdown bursts that have elevated a Heisman contender to love. Perhaps, as some pro scouts will no doubt see, you see love as a potential NFL archetype: a 5-foot-10, 196-pound speedrunner best deployed as a passing option on third downs, a player who isn’t big enough to become a durable back three player.
“his size and speed make you think of scatback,” says b/r nfl draft scout matt miller, “but the lack of reps as a receiver (love has six catches this season) makes him an unknown right now.”
but this is where the people who know bryce best will tell you you’re wrong. Stanford coach David Shaw likens love to a young Jamaal Charles, a player who endured questions about his ability to run between tackles before rushing for 1,000 yards in five of the six NFL seasons between 2009 and 2014.
this is where you’ll be told you’re doing what motivates love the most, except unlike the myriad of modern athletes who publicly direct their motivation at those they perceive as “doubts”, love challenges itself . they occur almost entirely in his head.
“the best thing you can do for bryce is put a limit on it,” says dr. michael longaker, who oversees the stem cell lab where love works. “He’s thinking way beyond what you’d expect. Bryce is incredibly comfortable with himself and doesn’t need approval or attention. He’s extremely quiet, but don’t underestimate him.”
It’s something of a challenge to make love talk about itself, so here’s a little secret he hasn’t often shared: Before his speed made him something of a legend in his hometown of wake Forest, North Carolina, was a “chubby” little boy who wasn’t particularly fast. By the time he reached first or second grade, a growth spurt allowed genetics to kick in, and Love, the son of a former college football player and former sprinter, began outrunning his classmates during their daily runs on the playground.
shortly after, love began to run. when he was eight years old, he made it to nationals and started writing down and internalizing goals for himself. “Then he asked me, ‘What are the fastest times you’ve ever run?'” says his father, Chris. “The way he outlined his goals was amazing.”
“He’s very meticulous in everything he does,” says angela, his mother. “and [in] every decision he makes.”
Stories of bryce’s speed soon became legend: during a pop warner game, an opposing coach asked if love’s jersey could be greased. The moment he started playing junior varsity, says Wake Forest High football coach Reginald Lucas, his coaches and teammates began holding their breath on every play, waiting for love to break into the outfield. in those simple sweeps to the left or to the right.
On the track, he set several national records and was nicknamed “baby bolt.” His burst off the line was so powerful that if his trainers didn’t place the blocks carefully, he would knock them over. Before his freshman year in high school, he set a national record for the 13-14 age group by running the 100-meter dash in 10.73 seconds. A few years later, he took off so fast during the main leg of a 4×100 relay that his teammate couldn’t catch up to pass him the baton.
Despite the potential to pursue a career on the Olympic track, love continued to gravitate towards soccer.
“i started hearing about this kid named bryce love before he even got to high school,” says lucas. “His brother [Chris Jr., who had just completed his senior year at cornerback at East Carolina] was already on my team and he was very talented, and people started saying he was going to be better than his brother. I thought, ‘Yeah that’s right, this kid is going to be pretty good.'”
At the same time, across the country, Shaw had begun a search for a new kind of athlete. The Cardinal’s main PAC-12 nemesis at the time was Oregon; While Shaw generally relied on size and physicality as the cornerstones of Stanford’s success, a pair of brutal losses to the Ducks in 2010 and 2011 led him to realize that he, too, needed to recruit speed on both sides of the ball. .
shaw shifted the cardinal’s recruiting focus from big backs like toby gerhart to smaller, faster talent like christian mccaffrey and love. Shaw sent former running coach Lance Taylor to wake up Forest to confirm if love was as fast in person as it seemed on tape.
“He calls back and says, ‘Coach, this guy is fast,'” Shaw says. “‘He’s not the biggest guy, but he runs physically. He’s not like a slot catcher dressed up as a runner.'”
love flew across the country to visit the stanford campus and found that it was exactly what she was looking for, both athletically and academically. And so, a program seeking to be faster and an athlete seeking to capitalize on her speed forged a partnership.
Love was brought on board to fill the role of a valet that Christian McCaffrey (with whom Love became close friends) had previously taken on as a freshman. one of the first things love did was to subject himself to an evaluation of his weaknesses. For someone who had grown up confident in his ability to outdo others, Love wanted to figure out how to become more than just a fast guy.
love bided his time as mccaffrey’s backup, averaging more than seven yards per carry in his first two seasons. At the same time, she worked through a challenging second year of classes in her Human Biology major: 10 units in the fall, winter, and spring, all while working in the Longaker lab. none of that seemed to faze him. “She has good control over her emotions and a great perspective,” says Melissa Schellberg, academic advisor for the Stanford football program. “I’ve never seen him get angry or frustrated about anything.”
in the weight room, he consulted with turley, the cardinal’s strength coach, who challenged him to modify his body.
“I think it’s well-documented that Bryce is fast,” Turley says, but what Love lacked, in part because of his background as a sprinter, was what’s known as “strength reduction”: he could run, but he couldn’t stop. the same. Eventually, Turley says, that inability to reduce his strength could affect his tendons. it also made him less effective as a running back now that he was facing college defenders who could surround him, particularly when he was running between tackles.
love had hit the weight room hard since high school, but it never completely shed that childhood bulk, which wasn’t a bad thing for someone running a 4.35 40-yard dash. Turley’s goal was to make him stronger and more flexible without sacrificing that speed. Throughout her career at Stanford, Love has gained 16 pounds while losing body fat; she can bench press 345 pounds for nearly 20 reps at a time. By using specific exercises, Turley helped Love develop more flexibility in his hips, lower body, ankles and spine, allowing him to develop the kind of twisting movements and jumping cuts that have baffled so many defenders. this season.
“When I was doing combined NFL-style agility tests and cone drills as a freshman, you’d see a blur and then I’d have to touch the line and I’d be stuck there, like you pressed pause,” Turley says. “that’s the force reduction, when you stop. you have to train this on people. it’s not natural. now i don’t see blurry, stop, blurry. now all i see is blurry.”
Without slowing down, Love became a much more dangerous runner, able to carve paths through the center of a defense rather than simply looking for open space to use his speed.
in stanford’s win over washington on november 10, love carried the ball 30 times for 166 yards, most of them punishing runs between tackles as the cardinal clung to the lead in the fourth quarter. Love had to repeatedly go to the bench to bandage and then re-bandage a sore ankle that could have limited a runner without Love’s strength and flexibility at half speed, had he not been confined to the bench.
takes copious notes, whether in class or at team meetings, love is always watching and analyzing. her parents say she studied youtube videos of runners like barry sanders growing up. he now studies both a defense’s tendencies and the habits of its offensive linemen, with a focus on “understanding where the crease might be and understanding how you’re going to hit if the d-line slides back and forth, love says.” Understanding little things like that just results in a comfort back there, and through that comfort you’re relaxed, and not in a hurry, so to speak.”
Put all that together and you have a broker that is much more complete than it seems. if you talk to his coaches, his teammates, and his parents, they’ll tell you that love has worked hard to become a more well-rounded soccer player just as he’s become a more sophisticated thinker.
love has been able to grow and mature under the radar on the stanford campus, even as heisman hype has blossomed nationally. This, Schellberg says, is a place where former Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov once landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college football preview in 2013, and someone in a class asked him, “What is it?” sports illustrated? But soon enough, love will be subject to the prodding of NFL scouts who will point out its weaknesses. And if the story holds up, love will internalize each of those criticisms until they too become strengths.
“He’s incredibly sophisticated in his thinking,” Longaker says. “the more you master, the more you can do.”
michael weinreb (@michaelweinreb) is the author, most recently, of The Saturday Season: A History of College Football in 14 Games.
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