All of the players listed on Stanford’s football roster have never known what it’s like to not have the Stanford Axe.
Well, all but one.
Fifth-year senior Brennan Scarlett stands alone among the 95 members of the Cardinal football team to know what it feels like to be on the losing end of a Big Game. But after four years of chasing the Axe as a California Golden Bear, it’s probably safe to say that he didn’t anticipate finally getting his hands on the coveted trophy in the way he did — as Stanford’s first ever graduate transfer.
But for him, the fact that he and the Axe finally reside on the same campus isn’t enough — it still doesn’t feel right for him.
“I don’t feel like I’ve earned the Axe, if that makes sense,” Scarlett says. “It’s here and I’m here, but I didn’t really win it. In that regard, I’m still looking to earn the Axe this year with the Stanford team.”
It’s not for lack of trying.
Even though he’s one of the elder statesmen of this year’s Stanford team, Scarlett has never actually played in a Big Game before — after having been sidelined with injury for his first four chapters of the Stanford-Cal rivalry, the 118th Big Game on Saturday will mark the first time in his five-year career that he’ll be healthy enough to play.
“It’s a blessing to have made it this far into the season,” he says. “I haven’t made it this far for a long time and I’ve obviously never played in a Big Game so I’m really excited about it.”
The Bears probably aren’t as excited to see Scarlett, once a team captain, line up against their front line come Saturday. Although he only played in 17 games in his three seasons wearing the blue and gold, they — particularly the linemen — know better than anyone else how disruptive Scarlett can be when he’s healthy.
Scarlett already knows who he’s going to be lining up against for most of the game — guard Chris Borrayo and tackle Steven Moore. When he was at Cal, he lined up against them for three years in practice.
With a grin, he confirms that yes, he would beat them in practice, too.
He’s very clear, though, that he won’t be fueled by any hatred or animosity towards the program that he left behind — and that he doesn’t expect there to be any particular hatred towards him from the other side. He’s been in contact with some of his good friends on the Cal team in the week leading up to the game, and a change of scenery hasn’t done much to soil the friendships that he developed over four years in Berkeley.
“It’s definitely good luck [wishes],” he says. “There’s some good-hearted humor in there and we’re good friends and our relationship runs deeper than the colors and jerseys on our backs.”
Head coach David Shaw isn’t usually one to use strong superlatives about his own players, but when talking about Scarlett, he doesn’t hold back.
“He’s been a godsend for us. We’ve been so excited that he’s been on our team.”
There might have been misgivings at first — in the Bay Area, the blue and gold of Berkeley and the cardinal and white of Stanford mix about as well as oil and water — but Scarlett was quick to win his coaches and teammates over with the captain’s attitude he brought over from Berkeley and his much-needed performance on the field.
Scarlett still remembers getting weird looks in the weight room when he made his unofficial visit to Stanford last year, and teammate Blake Martinez remembers that it took him a while to get over the weirdness as well.
“I went and had dinner with him and at first I was kind of like, ‘Cal guy? Stay away from him,’” Martinez said. “But after a couple hours sitting and talking with him, I liked his personality… He’s a cool guy, and going into the offseason, he’s an extremely hard worker.”
That hard work was really what helped win his teammates over. Although he was new to the team and wasn’t able to be as vocal in practices, he led by example with his tireless work, and it didn’t take long for his teammates to notice and for his impact on the field to be known.
“I wouldn’t say it was overly difficult [to adjust] because these guys over here are great guys,” Scarlett said. “The culture here is definitely different and one that is earned — you earn your respect around here.”
“What he’s brought is really energy and passion in practices,” Shaw said. “During games, he makes those extra effort plays, running plays down from the backside, very similar to a lot of guys that we’ve had around here that just kind of bring fire and energy and lifts up the defensive line and lifts up the defense with some of the plays he makes.”
“It’d be tough to say where we would be without Brennan on this team right now.”
It’s actually not all that tough to say: Without Brennan Scarlett on this team, Stanford would not be 8-2 with a clean shot at the Pac-12 North title. That much is for sure.
After Week 1, when starting nose tackle Harrison Phillips was lost due to a season-ending injury, Scarlett, a natural defensive end, was forced to rotate inside out of necessity due to Stanford’s crushing lack of depth on the defensive line. That involves learning a whole new set of techniques and plays on the fly while also playing pretty much every snap — but he’s put his head down and excelled at it.
Scarlett is fourth on the team with 5.5 tackles for loss and third with 3.5 sacks. Those numbers also don’t do justice to his ability to penetrate opposing offensive lines and get pressure on the quarterback — he leads the team with 6 quarterback hurries as well.
With Solomon Thomas and Aziz Shittu as the Cardinal’s only other viable options at defensive line and Stanford having had to play linebackers as down linemen in nickel sets this season, Scarlett’s presence hasn’t just been a pleasant surprise for Stanford — it’s been a necessary one.
“He’s been a trooper about it, he’s had a great attitude about it, he’s been willing to learn, he wants to learn, he wants to do it well, he wants to do it right,” Shaw said.
Scarlett is peaking at the right time — he had a career-high 2.5 sacks of Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams on Saturday — and he’s eager to finally be able to tackle Cal quarterback Jared Goff after three years of no-contact practice.
“That’s the plan,” he says with a grin.
It is wonderfully delicious irony that the first graduate transfer in Stanford history came from its arch-rival in Cal. And yes, there were some hard feelings from Cal fans when Scarlett made his announcement last spring that he would be transferring to “Furd” for his final year of eligibility.
But that wasn’t important to Scarlett, who had experienced firsthand the ugly side of just how fleeting football careers can sometimes be — with his post-football future in mind, he just wanted to find a one-year graduate program to complement his business degree from Cal. His only motive behind transferring was that Cal didn’t offer a graduate program that fit his career interests.
It just so happened that the MS&E program at Stanford fit the bill. And it no doubt helped that his younger brother, Cameron, was committed to attending Stanford as well.
“When I got hurt last year, it was a wake-up call as far as football is something that isn’t going to last forever,” he said. “What I’ve realized is that the mental side and the academic earnings as far as that goes is really what sticks with you. So with a master’s program, what better place than Stanford?”
Although he considered USC and Notre Dame, Scarlett only applied to Stanford and put all of his eggs in one basket. It was a risky move — many fifth-years had considered applying to Stanford in the past before realizing just how difficult it was to gain graduate admission and going elsewhere. But unlike the countless candidates that had come before him, Scarlett wasn’t daunted, and like he has done on the field so many times this season for Stanford, he saw things through to the finish.
“Brennan Scarlett’s the one guy that’s actually stuck with it,” Shaw said. “Because it’s difficult. We just point him in a direction and we wait to hear just like they do.”
In that way, Brennan Scarlett’s story becomes one not of defection, but of determination and perseverance — overcoming a rash of injuries and the notorious Stanford admissions process — which is something that, rivalry aside, has to be respected and commended.
As such, it’s impossible to ask Brennan Scarlett to pick a side in the Stanford-Cal rivalry moving forward, because in a way that nobody else has ever done in the 118-year history of the rivalry, he’s truly seen the best of both worlds.
He relishes wearing the cardinal and white, but he also hasn’t parted with his Cal shirts and sweaters.
He’s happy to be on a team with as much success as Stanford, but he’s also thrilled that after three tough seasons, his alma mater is once again bowl-eligible.
He’s going to be looking to earn that Axe from the Stanford side of the historic and heated rivalry on Saturday, and in a way, it’s almost poetic that his last hurdle to doing so will be to take down the program that he spent the last four years of his life building up to where it stands today.
“I was definitely there for some of the tougher seasons, and I know it was a lot of hard work to get to where they are today,” he says. “I’m proud of those guys and what they’ve done this season.”