Why Bryce Love turned down NFL millions

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PALO ALTO, California -- The billboard advertisement sits at one of the busiest intersections in town, at the nexus of a bustling shopping center, Palo Alto High School and one of the main entrances to Stanford University. All alone, against a white background, is the image of Bryce Love in something close to full flight, a football nestled in a Nike-gloved left hand. Written underneath the image is "Unanimous All-American" and "Football returns Aug. 31."

The marketing campaign made its appearance just a couple days before the Stanford spring football game, a literal sign that Love was now the new face -- the helmet- and visor-shrouded face, at least -- of the football program.

A reluctant face, that is. Rumors around the Stanford athletic complex were that Love had even voiced his disapproval -- maybe playfully, maybe not -- with the staffer who put together the ad.

"Aw, man. How'd you find that out? " he asked, the grin on his face suddenly turning flat. "I mean, yeah, I don't like stuff like that. I wish more people were up there with me."

Love will have to get used to it: By passing on a chance to enter this year's NFL draft, he will return in the fall as the presumptive Heisman Trophy favorite after finishing second to 2017 winner Baker Mayfield.

ESPN.com spent a day following Love around on campus, trying in vain to keep up with him as he navigated his motor-powered bicycle from his dorm to class to afternoon workouts amid the hordes of students.

Back at Stanford, his future so bright, his stardom seemingly on the ascent, his image beaming from the street in front of the campus, not even once did Love elicit a second glance.

It's part of why he's back, at perhaps the only place where he could ever hope to be anonymous. At Stanford, football doesn't make you famous.

LOVE: It puts things in perspective. It's cool to me -- there's so many people doing so many things outside of athletics. And even if you look at athletics, there's so many different teams, individual teams and Olympians walking around doing big things. The professors around campus who created their field -- those are the celebrities. I don't mind it at all. Every now and again someone will recognize me. Mainly the tour groups. But rarely do students stop me.

It wasn't until a few days after a Valero Alamo Bowl loss to TCU, the conclusion of a season during which he rushed for a school-record 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns, that Love started thinking about his future. That started at the dinner table with his father and brother at the family home in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

LOVE: We made a list of pros and cons and we talked about ultimately what dreams and desires I have as a person. It was going to be a win-win decision no matter what I decided.

It wasn't really a tough decision to me. I had goals and wanted to do amazing things. Talking about them and actually doing them is something different. For me it was just having the opportunity to come back and play. My big thing, look at the legacy of people who have come through Stanford: Andrew Luck, John Elway, Darrin Nelson, Christian McCaffrey. They came in and had an opportunity to go a Rose Bowl. I just wanted an opportunity to come back and accomplish something like that. I'm not saying going to an Alamo Bowl and Sun Bowl weren't great. But I believe in the team and the coaches and wanted to be a part of it.

And being able to leave here with a degree and be a representative to the black community is just an amazing opportunity. I want to affect the younger generation and show them it's possible to go off and play football and still excel in the classroom.

By returning for another year, Love also has the opportunity to graduate in December. For someone who hopes to someday become a pediatrician, finishing up his bachelor's degree in human biology without the interruption of an NFL career is pivotal to setting up his post-football ambition of going to medical school.

LOVE: I wasn't planning ahead [for the NFL] and I didn't really plan ahead in my classes, either. I would've been coming back in the offseason for probably about six or seven years just to graduate. And just for one quarter, chopping away each time. Now I'm getting closer and closer. Even now, I've still got to take 20 units a quarter. That's the max number of units you can take in a quarter. But barring anything crazy, that's where I'll be: graduating in December.

Love will return to The Farm -- as Stanford's sprawling and often picturesque 8,180-acre campus is colloquially known -- for one of the most-anticipated closing acts to a college career since Andrew Luck in 2011.

It'd be tough for Love to ever reach the celebrity of Luck, or even of his predecessor, Christian McCaffrey, the son of a former NFL receiver who had the look of an early-2000s boy-band member. Nonetheless, Love is prepared for the shift in expectations and exposure, having seen McCaffrey go through it before him a couple years ago.

LOVE: Christian had it a little bit harder than I did. But Christian was still able to walk around campus. Andrew Luck will come by riding his bright-orange bike, and he'll just be cruising. It's just a testament to the type of people we have here.

To meet those building expectations, Love was held out of spring practices and has spent the past few months rehabbing a left ankle injury that (sorta) slowed him in the second half of last season. To match his performance from 2017 and achieve his goal of playing in a Rose Bowl (or better), Love will have to be healthy for a team that was clearly not as potent with him off the field.

LOVE: Last year was the first time I've ever sprained an ankle or anything like that. It was more frustrating than anything else. But I feel light-years better now. I really feel good.

His coaches, however, almost certainly don't know that he's using that same ankle as a stopgap brake to slow down his bike while riding it around campus.

LOVE: Nobody has said anything yet. I have to do a little Flintstones-type thing. My bike's brakes ... they're not fighting for me. You know, they have the Stanford Bike Shop. My problem is that I have to order the brakes, take the bike over there, and then I'll be without a bike and will be stuck walking.

Who knows what a fourth season might mean for Love? He came to the Bay Area from North Carolina with a shaved head, a slightly heavier accent and very little knowledge of the West Coast.

Turns out, he fit right in: He's biking around everywhere, he grew out some dreads, and he's almost completely shed the Southern lilt to his voice. His family and friends back home have taken notice.

LOVE: But I definitely acclimated. Like, the clothes. I changed it up up when I got these dreads. And now they get on me, and the biggest thing is the accent. They say I talk different than I did back then.