More to Gardner than the mullet

LOS ANGELES -- “Business in the front, party in the back.” That, of course, is the battle cry of those who proudly sport the mullet.

Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner brings a new twist to the old saying: “Business in the front, party in the backfield.”

Known as much for his mullet as his ability register sacks and tackles for a loss, Gardner caught a lot of flak last season from teammates when he decided to chop off the mullet before the Fiesta Bowl -- which turned out to be a 41-38 overtime loss to Oklahoma State.

There are a lot of different reasons why Stanford lost last season (you can start with Justin Blackmon’s eight catches, 186 yards and three touchdowns). But Gardner cutting his hair wasn’t one of them.

And to prove a point, he almost did it again this year. Almost.

“I wanted to prove that it was an aberration last year and it wasn’t actually my fault,” Gardner said. “But they wouldn’t let me do it. I think an uprising would have started in the locker room. So I’m rocking it for this game.”

Superstitions die hard this time of year.

Stanford’s lone representative from the Badger State will square off against Wisconsin when the Cardinal and Badgers meet on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl presented by Vizio. Coming out of Homestead High School in Mequon, Wisc., about 90 miles East of Madison on the western shore of Lake Michigan, Gardner received only tepid attention as a high school player. He had some offers from smaller schools, but none from Wisconsin; other than a “preferred” walk-on invitation.

“I didn’t necessarily feel disrespected,” he said. “I just wasn’t interested in being a walk-on. Even though I did get an offer from Stanford, it was late and I was the lowest-rated recruit in my class coming in. You definitely come in looking to prove yourself. But after a year or two, once you are integrated into the team and you are so immersed in the team goals, the motivating factor has been to get to this game … I think it might have motivated me early on, but I don’t think about it much anymore.”

The two-time second-team All-Pac-12 performer is tied for second on the team in tackles for a loss (14.5) and sacks (7.5), and has been a catalyst for one of the top defenses in the country.

“I remember when he came in as a freshman, he said he was going to be a starter by the time he left,” said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov. “He’s a quiet guy, but he likes to have fun. He’s definitely the leader of our defensive line.”

And as the hair grew, so did his defensive production.

“It’s his blessing and his curse,” said linebacker Trent Murphy. “I think the mullet itself speaks a ton about Ben's personality. He's a tough, kind of nitty-gritty guy. … That's kind of how he plays on the field. He's just a tough guy.”

He’s come up big in key games this season for the Pac-12 champion Cardinal (11-2), tallying 3.5 tackles for a loss against USC and sacks against Oregon State and UCLA. He’ll look to add to his tally against the team he grew up watching.

He thinks it’s funny that his hair garners so much attention. But it doesn’t define him. And yes, he’s probably going to cut it again.

After the game.

“I think I'm probably a classic, classic guy that you find from Wisconsin,” Gardner said. “Just an average Midwest guy trying to make it out in California.”