As Stanford's Bryce Love prepares for NFL, a future doctor deals with being a patient

Yahoo Sports

PENSACOLA, Fla. – On Bryce Love’s final play of his last game for Stanford back in December, he ran the program’s wheelhouse Power King play to the right side in a victory at Cal. After an inside-out read, Love darted through a hole and dashed 10 yards before twisting 3 yards short of the end zone. He got up gingerly, limped to the sideline but proceeded to celebrate with his teammates and pose for the customary on-field senior picture.

Love remembers feeling “off,” got an MRI when he returned to Palo Alto, California, and then went to dinner with his family. That night, he received a call from the team doctor that he’d torn his right ACL on that final carry, a setback that would alter his NFL draft stock and heap on second-guessers after he’d returned to Stanford for his senior season despite being projected as a top-50 pick.

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“There was nothing crazy about that play except that it resulted in an injury,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “I was shocked and went into a mini-depression, honestly.”

Stanford running back Bryce Love, pictured here giving a stiff-arm to USC’s Iman Marshall in September, couldn’t match his stellar 2017 season in 2018. (AP)
Stanford running back Bryce Love, pictured here giving a stiff-arm to USC’s Iman Marshall in September, couldn’t match his stellar 2017 season in 2018. (AP)

That play is the root of the Bryce Love draft conundrum, which NFL teams will face this spring. Is Love the record-breaking back of 2017 who finished second to Baker Mayfield in the Heisman Trophy race? Or is he the runner who backslid statistically – 4.5 yards per carry from a then-FBS record 8.1 and six touchdowns from 19 – playing behind a makeshift offensive line in 2018? And how high of a pick will a team use knowing he’s not projected to return – as of now – until Week 1 of the NFL season?

The indelible images of Love from 2017 come from him essentially carrying Stanford to the Pac-12 North title on one leg. In the season’s final stretch, he limped off the field multiple times, got re-taped after meeting with athletic trainers and then returned at critical junctures to pick up important yardage. In Stanford strength coach Shannon Turley’s 12 seasons at the school, he’d never seen an athlete withstand more pain during games.

“That season around here especially lifted Bryce to the superhero category,” Shaw said. “He’s not like me and you.”

This is what the NFL is discovering about Love, who is one of the most fascinating all-around prospects – and most intriguing people – in the 2019 NFL draft. His on-field potential is compelling, as he’s been timed at 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Stanford and would have been considered the best tailback not named Saquon Barkley in the 2018 NFL draft. But Love returned to Stanford, in part to complete one of the school’s most rigorous majors – human biology – in his quest to become a pediatrician after football. (He plans to start medical school after he retires from the NFL.)

And that led to the current conundrum. Where others see questions and regret – money lost, draft stock slipped – Love sees only opportunity. Because Bryce Love isn’t like me and you, he said he abided by his 10-minute rule when he got the ACL news. He took 10 minutes to feel bad, and immediately looked ahead on getting the top surgeon (Dr. James Andrews), the best rehab plan and the most streamlined path to becoming a better version of his 2017 self.

Any regrets?

“I wish I had scored,” he says with a smile of the play where he got injured.

When news spread of his torn ACL in January, it seemed like the only person not second-guessing Bryce Love’s decision to return for Stanford his senior year was … Bryce Love. He used surgery as a learning experience – opportunity! – watching videos on YouTube and peppering Dr. Andrews and his physical therapists with questions. And while teams nit-picked his film, he saw the nine-man boxes in 2018 as a way to improve pass blocking and receiving to better prepare him for the NFL. While draftniks labeled him a cautionary tale for returning to school, Love appreciated his senior year allowing him to become “a better player, a better leader and just a better person.”

Both Shaw and Turley singled out Love’s unusual optimism, as his outlook managed to lift their spirits in the wake of the injury. Instead of wallowing in regret, Love stressed the opportunity. “That’s the ugly beauty of football … ” he says. “The only things that [are] guaranteed is you have 12 Saturdays.”

***

On a rainy January morning, as Senior Bowl practices are ongoing in Mobile, Alabama, 60 miles away, Bryce Love is sipping on a strawberry mango smoothie in the airport hangar-sized EXOS training facility. That building is on the same campus as the Andrews Institute for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine where Love is training and rehabbing. His recovering right knee is wrapped in a gray compression sleeve, the kind favored by NBA wings, and he wears a Stanford hoodie and telegenic smile.

Love walks back through his story – going nearly 3,000 miles away from his home in Wake Forest, North Carolina, to Stanford, waiting his turn behind Christian McCaffrey and ascending to win the Doak Walker Award and the Pac-12 Player of the year. While he holds career goals beyond football, Love’s singular focus remains the NFL.

“The first thing that I stress beyond anything else is that you’re getting someone who is a competitor,” Love says, resolutely, when asked what he’ll tell NFL teams. “I want to be great, I want to be the best that’s ever done it.”

To those who watched Love ransack the Pac-12 as a junior, those words are bold but believable. Former UCLA coach Jim Mora, who spent more than two decades in the NFL, has a projection that matches Love’s optimism.

“Christian was incredibly difficult to defend,” Mora said of McCaffrey, now starring with Carolina. “But I would argue that Bryce was a little more dangerous.”

Bryce Love (20) and Christian McCaffrey celebrate after Love scored on a 50-yard touchdown run against Rice in 2016. (Getty Images)
Bryce Love (20) and Christian McCaffrey celebrate after Love scored on a 50-yard touchdown run against Rice in 2016. (Getty Images)

Even without the ACL injury, Love’s status wouldn’t have been a linear draft debate. There’s a distinct on-field dichotomy between his on-field production from his near-Heisman junior season to a senior season that was pedestrian compared to the standard he’d set for himself.

The junior year Love, Mora compares to “Barry Sanders in terms of running style.” He had patience, vision, burst and collision balance, as he hit the 1,000-yard mark on just 87 carries in the season’s first five games. His rarest gift may be his ability to accelerate to explosion after contact, something former Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren calls an ability to “shrink his body [though holes] and came out at Mach 12.”

Shaw moonlights as an NFL Network draft analyst, so he knows the fan obsession with comparisons. For a similar tailback, he uses four-time Pro Bowler Jamaal Charles. In terms of pure speed, he invokes Joey Galloway and Rocket Ismail. “They’re on a different speed than everyone else and take your breath away,” he says, slotting Love alongside them.

Immediately after Love’s 2017 season ended in a loss to TCU in the Alamo Bowl, he huddled in the team hotel with his parents, Angela and Chris, that night for their first formal NFL discussion. The choice was left up to Bryce, as his parents delivered a simple message.

“We obviously did not live in fear, we knew what the expectations were on the football field,” Chris said, “and we were prepared to meet them.”

Love also consulted former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. In 2011, Luck returned to Stanford despite being projected as the No. 1 pick in the draft. But Love says he knew the answer all along and proceeded without fear.

***

Identifying why Love averaged 3.6 yards less per carry, scored 13 less touchdowns and went from unanimous All-American to honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2018 is a tricky diagnosis. In the 10 games Love played his senior year – he missed UC-Davis and Utah with injury – Love lacked that elite pop he flashed his junior year.

The slog began opening night at San Diego State, when the Aztecs loaded up the box so aggressively they dared Stanford to beat them through the air. Stanford did, as junior quarterback K.J. Costello threw for four touchdowns and 332 yards. Love ran for 29 yards on 18 carries, and Mora said the Aztecs gave Stanford opponents a blueprint, essentially daring Costello to beat them by the air. That meant single coverage for receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside (14 TDs), who emerged as a star.

The defensive shift to stop Love combined with an offensive line ravaged with injury – the eight different starting line combinations were the most Shaw remembers playing at Stanford – pulled Love back from transcendence to mortality. Shaw points out the spectacular runs that he turned into breakaway touchdowns in 2017 were 2-yard losses that he turned into 5-yard gains in 2018. NFL scouts wonder if Love was a pinch too heavy from muscle gain, slowing him a tick.

There were improvements that didn’t show up on Instagram. In an early season victory over USC, for example, Shaw raved about Love’s ability to step up in the A-gap and pass block. Love also caught a career high 20 passes, up from six his junior year. He also never pouted, doubted or regretted a second.

“It’s just so many different variables,” Love said, comparing the seasons. “I felt like I had the same juice, and I felt like I was still me trying to do things that I could do. It just wasn’t opening up, and it wasn’t working like it was the year before.”

Shaw drew a parallel to McCaffrey’s moderate statistical dip from his sophomore to junior year, as Stanford faced increased defensive pressure and saw a drop in overall rushing and receiving yardage. (McCaffrey became a trailblazer by skipping the Sun Bowl his junior year, something Love insists he wouldn’t have done if healthy.)

Shaw believes both his former star tailbacks were better off having endured their final seasons – though McCaffrey’s drop-off wasn’t as pronounced. He coached in the NFL for nine seasons and said being physically and emotionally ready for the pounding is more important than leaving while one’s statistics would indicate they are more ready.

“As far as body of work football wise,” Shaw said, “[Love] was stronger and more physical and could step up in the A-gap to block, the best he’s ever done. For me, he’s overall more ready than after his junior year.”

Mora said the smart evaluators will go back and study 2017 to focus on what Love could become, noting the character he showed running on that high ankle sprain didn’t disappear. “He’ll be back as good as new,” Mora said. “I’d imagine it’ll hurt his draft stock, the injury combined with the subpar 2018. But there’s some smart evaluators who’ll go back and look at the 2017 film and talk to David Shaw and Bryce. A guy like Bill Belichick, Andy Reid or Pete Carroll. He’s going to be a heck of a good NFL player.”

Can Bryce Love be the running back steal of the 2019 NFL draft? (Getty Images)
Can Bryce Love be the running back steal of the 2019 NFL draft? (Getty Images)

***

Angela Love smiles as she recalls the story. Her son, Bryce, got pneumonia when he was around 5 years old. The doctor had a way of lifting his spirts, along with his health, which gave young Bryce aspirations beyond his own recovery.

“It was at that time,” Angela says, “that he identified that he wanted to be a doctor.”

That desire remains, which is why Bryce Love plowed through all those human biology courses at Stanford. Classes got particularly intense his sophomore year, when he’d take 10 units of biology per quarter. That covered everything from the evolution of skeletal systems to the cellular structure of pregnancy. Love never wavered, never got tempted to venture into a major that may offer a deeper exhale on weekends and a few more hours of sleep at night.

“Once you get to the winter,” he said, “I mean at that point there’s no going back, you are too far in.”

As Love readies his body for the NFL draft, he cautiously addresses the unfortunate reality of his future career path. Love knows that his interest in medicine, which was celebrated at Stanford, could be viewed skeptically by NFL evaluators. In learning the rhythms of how the NFL evaluates prospects, so-called “varied interests” that could distract from football, can be seen as negatives. Yes, even something as altruistic as practicing medicine.

NFL scouts came back with multiple theories on Love’s future profession. Some say they’re more worried about his knee. Others admit they can overthink “varied interests,” pointing to scouts frowning on Myles Garrett’s fascination with dinosaurs. Mora recalls NFL personnel defining football character simply – Do prospects eat, sleep and breathe football?

“Football is my first love and it’s something that I’m passionate about,” Love says. “Football is my happiness, and I have a lot of goals set for my life and, ultimately, down the line, [becoming a doctor] is a goal I want to check off. But right now, I’m fully invested in being the best football player I can.”

Former Florida State defensive back Myron Rolle fought this perception when he delayed the draft for a year on a Rhodes Scholarship. Rolle played parts of three seasons in the NFL and is now in his second of seven years as a neurosurgery resident at Mass General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. (He’s going into pediatric neurosurgery, which means he’ll require an additional year of fellowship.)

“It was something different for NFL teams to kind of hear and include as part of their evaluation of me,” Rolle told Yahoo Sports. “I think it did make some people question my commitment to the sport. If something went wrong, would I go to the other quote un-quote ‘varied interests?’ ‘Does another guy want it more?’ It’s all nonsensical.”

Kansas City Chiefs starting guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who graduated from medical school while playing in the NFL, makes that notion of varied interests even more fodder for mockery. Rolle’s advice to Love is to dedicate 100 percent of his energy to football, which he’s planning, but perhaps subscribe to a medical journal to stay connected until he starts med school.

“We need more like him,” said Rolle of Love. “Hopefully he leads other great athletes to consider medicine.”

There’s an underlying confidence around the Stanford program that Love will outdistance all the questions about him – the decline, the injury and even the alleged “varied interests.” Turley, the strength coach, said that his optimism lies both with a “very positive” result to the “anatomy outcome of the surgery” and an unmatched work ethic at a placed known for them.

To those who’ve seen Love sashay through backfields, ace a rigorous course load and play through debilitating pain, the upcoming choice NFL franchises are facing isn’t much of a choice at all. “Bryce is going to come back very well,” Turley said. “There is no other option for Bryce. He doesn’t think of it any other way.”

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