Meet the Parents
You think you're nuts for Stanford football? Nobody experiences the agony and ecstasy of the game quite like the moms and dads of the players.
Photo: David Elkinson/Stanford Photo
By Sam Scott
Never mind her son’s game-winning heroics against the University of Oregon in November, which vaulted the crowd from the edges of their seats into a celebratory frenzy, Laura Burton's favorite Stanford football game this season may well have been the suspense-free rout of Colorado.
Forty-eight to zero: That's the kind of score that lets a mother relax.
Alas, Burton, the mother of kicker Jordan Williamson, ’14, and her fellow football parents rarely got to breathe so easy. Instead, one of the greatest seasons in Stanford history kept turning the screws with tight game after tight game.
Watching in person, Burton says, the tension wasn’t so bad, especially with fellow parents to lean on.
But tuning in from her home in Texas, with cameras framing each moment and announcers fanning the drama, the intensity could be nearly unbearable. After Williamson missed an earlier kick against Oregon, Burton had to leave the room to pray.
Then he nailed the winner in overtime to defeat the top-ranked Ducks, 17-14, and disappeared under a pile of screaming Stanford players. The pain of his miss in the final moment of last year’s Fiesta Bowl was suddenly so much dimmer. Burton was an explosion of emotion. Her sister, calling to celebrate, was baffled by her tears. “I was sobbing uncontrollably,” Burton says. “It was so, so special.”
And so it goes for parents of the players. Other fans gnaw their fingernails in the crucible of the fourth quarter, but for families—rooting for flesh-and-blood and privy to backstories others can only guess—the agony occasionally rivaled the ecstasy this season.
Of course, rooting for a national juggernaut is a fun ride, too. Lesley Thomas spent the season shuttling back and forth from Marietta, Ga., to watch her son, redshirt senior linebacker Chase Thomas, haunt opposing offenses. She says her family has turned tailgating into an art during Chase’s years on the Farm.
Typically, players end up at the gathering after the game, drawn by good food and the chance to celebrate victory. Stanford has lost only two home games in Thomas’s son’s tenure, a history of dominance that tends to keep the mood light and the parties long. “We kind of joke that we are the first ones in the lot and the last ones to leave,” she says. "We've had up to 100 people at the tailgate."
But during the games, it can be a trying affair. There’s a lot of praying in the stands, Thomas says, foremost for an injury-free outcome, but also for a win.
She records each game, for posterity and for the chance to re-watch the action with a head clear of the anxiety that bears down during the game; anxiety that seemed to hit a little harder this year.
“Last year we were racking up such great margins of victory that is was more comforting sitting in the stands,” says Thomas. “This year, there was so many overtimes and games determined by a few points. That’s a lot more nerve-wracking as a parent.”
For David Yankey, father of the junior All-American offensive lineman who shares his name, tensions reached their zenith in the 54-48 overtime win against Arizona. The elder Yankey was in the stands watching with his middle son, a high school lineman, who is normally quick to comment on each play.
But as Arizona seemed to pull beyond reach, fueling the Wildcats around them, Yankey says even the talkative 15-year-old fell silent. “He never said a word till the game was over,” Yankey laughs. “It was too tense.”
Lisa Ertz, mother of senior All-American tight end Zach Ertz, prefers such close games—so long as Stanford wins. She has never missed a home game since Zach started at Stanford, and has been present at every fan-lined Walk the team takes from the football locker room to Gate 1 of Stanford Stadium, cheering her son on; it is a tradition as set for Ertz as the Cardinal earrings she wears to each game.
But even a stalwart can find the heat too much. In the Pac-12 championship against UCLA, the promise of the Rose Bowl hanging in the balance, Ertz briefly fled the stands for the mezzanine, the first time she’s ever ducked out.
For Ertz, though, the most emotional game was against Oregon. When Williamson hit the game-winner, Ertz, like Burton, was sobbing. It was a mix of joys, she says, for Williamson throwing off the ghosts of the Fiesta Bowl; for the team finally beating Oregon; and for her son, whose acrobatic touchdown tied the game late in the fourth quarter.
But there was more. Zach’s grandmother Dede, who often joked she got as exhausted watching Ertz play as if she'd been on the field herself, died unexpectedly just days earlier. Ertz took the field with her name written across his wrist tape—a tribute clearly visible in photographs of his crucial touchdown, but never mentioned in broadcasts.
When the refs initially called the catch an incompletion, his calmness with the officials was as if his grandmother’s influence was holding sway, Lisa Ertz said. “If that's not an example of my mother on the field, I don't know what is.”
The January 1 Rose Bowl Game presents another chance for agony and ecstasy. Ertz has more than a dozen tickets, heading down with an entourage including her three younger sons. How tense the Badgers will make it remains to be seen. But there is nowhere Ertz would rather be. “Watching your child achieving their dreams. There is absolutely nothing better than that.”
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Data is from the past two weeks.