Nobody would blame Washington Redskins running back Bryce Love for being angry at the unfairness of it all. Just 18 months ago he seemed ready to own the world. He was the top running back in college football with 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns his junior year at Stanford, had nearly won the Heisman Trophy and appeared ready to make millions in the NFL draft as a possible first-round pick. All he had to do was what almost any college football star would do in his position — leave a year early for the draft.
But Love is not like most college football stars. He didn’t take a heavy course load of biology classes during his junior season to leave college before holding a Stanford degree. He wants to be a doctor someday. The diploma mattered, as did the team he didn’t want to abandon. In the end, he said no to the NFL, betting on his senior season in a way most other players who had extraordinary junior years wouldn’t dare.
Then everything went wrong. The yards that so easily disappeared beneath his cleats in the fall of 2017 did not come as easy in 2018, falling below 1,000. He tore the ACL in his right knee during the season’s final game. Any hope of the first round was gone. When the Redskins finally picked him in April’s draft, he had plummeted to the fourth round.
And yet he smiles as he sits in a restaurant during a recent day of apartment shopping with his parents. There are no regrets, he says.
“I don’t play football for the money,” he says. “I genuinely love the game from when I was a kid playing around in the backyard.”
It’s hard to say that in a draft that might have brought Washington its quarterback for the next decade (Dwayne Haskins), the team’s most intriguing pick could be a running back who won’t even practice when the Redskins begin training camp next week. He might not play this season, given Washington’s glut of running backs and the fact there is no schedule for when Love might return. But given the speed that once led him to be a child track star in North Carolina, the fact he slipped to the Redskins in the fourth round might be a gift.
“This kid does not see cloudy skies,” Stanford Coach David Shaw says. “He only sees where he has to go.”
Love has what he calls a “10-minute rule.” He allows himself to dwell on something for 10 minutes and then moves on. It’s a policy that he says he developed in his time at Stanford, where he decided that it was useless to obsess over mistakes or bad plays or even injuries. Better to shrug at the misfortune and move forward.
“That’s probably how I approach the knee thing, too,” he says. “I was probably upset for less than 10 minutes, actually, but I let myself get all the emotion out of the way, accept the circumstances that I was in and then was just ready to go from there. [I had to] figure out how I could get better from this. There’s no such thing as losing to me; it’s an opportunity to learn and to grow. And so I was ready to work from then.”
Those who know him say this might be his finest trait, the thing that will carry him far when his knee is finally healthy and he can play for Washington. Shaw says many people in Stanford’s athletic office “were in tears ” when the news came that Love had torn his ACL. That’s how much he was revered. One of Love’s nicknames in the building is “Superman,” not because of anything he has done on the field but for the way he seems so mature off it, for the way he never changed during the season he had 2,118 yards and almost won the Heisman or during the next one when he had just 739 yards and tore up his knee.
“I have been around a lot of successful people who have done great things,” Shaw says. “They take success and failure the same way. ‘This happened; what do I have to do?’ With Bryce, it was instantaneous. The way he has handled this has been an A-plus.”
The $3.2 million Love will make over four seasons in Washington is not insignificant but seems puny when compared with the $11.6 million the Redskins will pay Montez Sweat, their second first-round pick in April. Still, the goal, Shaw says, is a long career that will ultimately pay off. As a former NFL assistant who coached quarterbacks and wide receivers for the Baltimore Ravens, Shaw knows that the NFL is loaded with players drafted in the first round whose careers fizzled before they got their second big contracts. The players who are truly ready for the league, for the grind of handling pain and winning the constant competitions for starting spots, are the ones who last the longest.
When Love was 5, he became very ill. His parents, accustomed to the child who thundered nonstop and devoured “Hardy Boys” and “Magic Tree House” books with such zeal that a teacher actually told his mother, Angela, that Bryce was reading too much, were alarmed. What first appeared to be a nasty stomach bug turned into pneumonia. After several trips to the doctor in their hometown of Wake Forest, N.C., he finally recovered.
But something about those visits to the doctor impressed him.
“He was a superhero,” Bryce says. “He was someone who made me feel better when everything else wasn’t working.”
Soon Love was carrying a bag around the house with toy medical instruments, talking about wanting to be a doctor. When other kids boasted of growing up to be firemen or presidents or whatever little kids say they want to someday be, he remained committed to the same goals: to play football like his father, Chris, did at South Carolina and then become a doctor. His dreams remained the same through childhood, when he set national age-group records in the 100, 200 and 400 meters, and then when he became a high school star. Football, then medicine.
“Even when he switched up, it was always something medical,” Angela says. “The thing that was always consistent was that he wanted to do something that was going to help kids and make kids feel better and it was something that was always medical-related.”
Part of this desire is what made him choose Stanford despite serious pursuits from North Carolina and Virginia Tech, which were much closer to home. Stanford offered an atmosphere where a football player wanting to be a doctor wouldn’t seem like such a strange idea. He majored in biology and played sparingly behind future Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey for two seasons before erupting his junior year.
He set a school record with 12 100-yard games and seemed to break off one dazzling highlight run after another. He won the Doak Walker Award for being the nation’s top college running back and was invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony only to finish second to Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. It seemed almost automatic that he would enter the draft, a decision many would have seen as prudent given the relatively short shelf life of NFL running backs.
But Love did not think long about entering the draft that winter. His decision, he says, took barely more than a week, which didn’t surprise Shaw.
“He has a life wish he wants to be great and be special and break records in the NFL as a Pro Bowler, and along with that he has a desire to be a doctor,” Shaw says.
To an outsider, last season must look like a disaster for Love. But he sees it differently. He says he matured and became a better leader while also developing his on-field skill set as a blocker and pass-catcher — things he is sure will make him a stronger professional player than if he had jumped into the draft the year before.
Love would not watch this year’s draft, letting only his father monitor the selections the first two nights from a couch in the apartment the family rented in Pensacola, Fla., where he was rehabilitating after the surgery performed by James Andrews. He did not need the drama playing out on television, only the destination.
“I believe in myself,” he says.
The call from Washington didn’t come until the third day, and by then the round and pick number didn’t matter. Someday soon he will have recovered from the surgery and be able to return to the field. And when he is done with football, he is sure he will become a doctor — hopefully with his own practice.
Who could have any regret about that?