‘Our touring circus’: Inside Stanford soccer’s wild exile in Pacific Northwest
David Shaw hardly waited for the question to be answered.
When asked what he will remember most about the 2020 football season, the Stanford head coach quipped, “The passage in the park.”
Just four days after Santa Clara County banned contact sports to contain the surge in coronavirus, Stanford was exiled to the Pacific Northwest and was looking for a place to practice. From the windows of her hotel in Bellevue, Washington, Shaw spotted an under-used open-air car park.
The Stanford players went to the empty third floor of the garage on December 4th to begin their run for the Washington game. However, within five or ten minutes of their last preparation, they were run away by a guard who said they were loitering.
Undaunted, the Cardinal marched to Bellevue Downtown Park, a picturesque setting that, strangely enough, left behind a great football program that practiced in front of the public. Viewers snapped photos and shouted “Go Dawgs” as Stanford players tried to navigate acclimatized ducks and mud.
A handful of players – including Thomas Booker, who wore the Jordan 1 – finished training barefoot. During the walkthrough, the duckling grew from three to six to around 20.
“These ducks got very close and thought they were going to be fed,” Shaw said. “They were a welcome addition to our traveling circus.”
Stanford is wrapping up its traveling circus, a three-week campus ban that is marked by absurd travel and practice experiences, some downright great games, and the wondrous logistics that made it all possible.
Shortly after the ax recovered in Cal on Nov. 27, the Stanford government learned that Santa Clara County was preparing to ban contact sports and issue a 14-day quarantine for travelers.
The Stanford operations team was in full swing when it became apparent that the team had to move to continue the season – something the players almost unanimously called for. Already forced to start a training camp at nearby Woodside High in San Mateo County due to Santa Clara’s strict coronavirus protocol, the cardinal had previously had similar conversations.
They considered building a bubble elsewhere in Northern or Southern California, or moving the entire program weekly to the location of the next game. They recorded the details to make this possible for the coaches, players, equipment workers and the medical team – around 100 people in total – and presented them to the administration.
After hearing the proposal, the school president, provost, and sports director hit the go button to move to the Pacific Northwest. They set up Stanford to play December 5 in Washington and December 12 in Oregon State and wait wherever they would be next assigned.
“We have become a traveling band. Just let us know the venue. We’re good, ”Shaw said. “Jon Gruden always talked about the Rolling Stones. No matter where they play, they’d tear the house down. It does not matter. This country. This country. Flip the bus over and go back and play on a local dive. I think our guys have reached that point. Wherever we need to play let’s go play and tear the house down. “
That’s exactly what they did.
Stanford had nowhere to practice when he arrived in the Seattle area on Dec. 1, but Washington allowed use of his interior. After practicing at Kennedy Catholic High in Burien, Washington, on December 2, the cardinal danced in the parking garage and public park on December 3.
Oh, and then they hit – no. 23 Washington 31-26 December 5th. After the Huskies cut Stanford’s 31-10 lead to five points, the Cardinal milked the final seven minutes and 47 seconds of the game with a drive of 14 games and 79 yards.
“It put a chip on the team’s shoulder. We want to prove everyone wrong, ”said quarterback Davis Mills. “Obviously nobody wants to be under these circumstances, but you could really do a 30 for 30 for what we’re going through.”
The next segment of the documentary would be the trip to Corvallis, Ore.
To ensure a safe distance for the players, Stanford hired 10 buses to take the five-hour hike there from Seattle.
Junior receiver Brycen Tremayne said he spent the time on the “foggy and scary” trek “through nowhere” by watching Netflix and sleeping.
Second Year Safety Jonathan McGill played video games when he had decent WiFi, watched “The Mandalorian” on his laptop, and tuned in to streams from his parents’ church in Irving, Texas.
“This is crazy,” he thought.
When they got to Corvallis, the Stanford players found they had a better setup in week 2 of the move. Their hotel was directly across from the Oregon State facilities, and the Beavers allowed them to practice there in the evenings.
Still, it was strange.
Street teams usually arrive in a city the day before the game and have no contact with the opponent until shortly before kick-off. For the week leading up to the December 12th game, Stanford and Oregon State players would cross their paths every day.
Stanford left practice in the late afternoon or early evening when the Oregon state players left team briefing at the facility.
“It’s all unfamiliar. It’s hard for the boys, ”said second center-back Levani Damuni, who has been married for about six months and has often been relegated to FaceTime communications with his wife. “There are definitely challenges, but we all know why we are here.”
While they were there, Cardinal hit Oregon State 27-24. They scored a 39-yard field goal from Jet Toner with 1:48 points remaining, and after the Beavers drove to Stanford’s 35-yard line in the last minute, Gabe Reid forced a fumble that Curtis Robinson recovered, to get a third win in a row the team became bowl capable.
Even before Stanford traveled to Santa Barbara this week to prepare for its final regular season game, the school announced that the team would not accept a bowl bid.
Enough was enough. The cardinal had proven her point.
Shortly after three weeks as an outcast from her county, Shaw became practical. It just wasn’t possible to find a practice site two weeks before a bowl game and then take a fifth step of the entire program into a new setting.
Shaw spoke to his captains and they agreed. They decided to treat the last week of the regular season like a bowl game, stay at a posh Santa Barbara hotel on the beach, and have extra free time to soak up some sun while thinking about the season.
Even in the midst of the unprecedented circumstances, the players tried to put it into perspective.
Senior full-back Houston Heimuli said, “Overall, it’s been a crazy experience. Not many teams can say they have been homeless for weeks. “
During this outing away from his wife, junior receiver Simi Fehoko said, “You are with your brothers who you are with around the clock, but you always have to stay away from them and you cannot hang out with them. It’s a strange dynamic, but we get by with what we have. “
There’s no telling what to expect on Saturday night, when Stanford will incorporate its three-game winning streak into its game at UCLA. The Bruins had the conference’s best team, USC, on the ropes for most of last week’s showdown.
Shaw said he would never do it, but he could write a book about what Stanford went through this season. He has Stanford staff who record it all.
In 10 years, he thinks people will be asking, “Wait a minute. Why couldn’t you practice at Stanford? Where did you go? How did you do this? How did you get your entire program on the road and still prepare your team to play really well, smart and stay together? “
“A lot of teams across America would have collapsed by now,” Shaw said. “It’s too much to handle but our boys have had a great attitude and take the opportunity to play the game they love with their brothers.”
Then his hypothetical book would get to the heart of the final chapter.
“So much of what we do in college athletics, if we don’t lose sight of what’s important is to give these players experiences that will take them away for the rest of their lives,” he said. “That’s what it’s mainly about these weeks.”
Rusty Simmons is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron