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Former Altoona Curve, State College Spikes player Gaffney returning to NFL

Tyler Gaffney

Tyler Gaffney was a star running back player in college at Stanford, rushing for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2013 while leading the Cardinal to the Rose Bowl. He was a sixth-round draft pick in 2014 by the Carolina Panthers, but injuries prevented him from ever playing in a regular-season NFL game.

Gaffney also played minor league baseball for the State College Spikes in 2012 and the Altoona Curve in 2018. He hit well for the Spikes as a 21-year-old in 2012, with a .297 average and .925 OPS. But after his football career, he didn’t perform so well with the Curve in 2018, batting just .194 with a .611 OPS when he was 27 years old.

Now, the 30-year-old Gaffney is ready to give it one more try in the NFL — with the New England Patriots, where he won two Super Bowl rings as a practice squad player in 2015 and ’17.

Gaffney played in 51 games as an outfielder for the Curve in 2018, batting .194 (24-for-124) with three homers, four doubles, four steals and 15 RBIs. That was his last experience playing minor league baseball.

Gaffney has had quite an unusual yet sometimes productive sports career. Following is his journey, which I wrote for the Altoona Mirror upon him joining the Curve in 2018.

The Curve’s newest player rushed for more yards in his final year of college football than Saquon Barkley ever had in a season at Penn State.

The Curve’s newest player also has two Super Bowl rings, as a member of the New England Patriots.

Tyler Gaffney has enjoyed a remarkable life in sports already, and now at 27 years old, he’s in Altoona trying to add another amazing chapter.

“It’s really for the love of the game,” Gaffney, an outfielder, said of his return to baseball this season after being away for six years playing football.

Gaffney was a running back at Stanford in 2011 and rushed for 449 yards, then he took a year off to play professional baseball. He was drafted by the Pirates in the 24th round and spent the 2012 season with the rookie-level State College Spikes, doing very well as he hit .297 with a .925 OPS.

But he couldn’t let go of football.

“It was in my heart, it was my passion,” he said.

Gaffney had one year of eligibility left at Stanford, and he wanted to finish his degree. So he returned, and during the 2013 season, he rushed for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns to lead the Cardinal to a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl appearance (a 24-20 loss to Michigan State).

Asked about his dream season, he said, “That’s what you work for. I can tell you I put in the work with the guys every single day at Stanford. I prepared myself before. Right when I had left State College, I started working for football because I knew exactly where my head was at.

“I said this is my one shot, I’m not going to go in and (dog) it. When I do things, I’m all in. Someone once told me that how you do one thing is how you do everything, and that’s really sat with me.”

The 6-foot, 220-pound running back was selected in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers, but he suffered a knee injury in training camp that wound up ending his time with the team.

That was the first of many injuries Gaffney endured, which ultimately prevented him from ever playing in an NFL regular-season game. He did spend the next few years with the New England Patriots — primarily on the practice squad when healthy — and he was with the club when it won Super Bowls in 2015 and 2017.

Gaffney didn’t make his mark on the field with the Patriots, but he learned a ton being with the team for several years.

“I got to learn how to be successful from the most successful maybe dynasty that’s ever been in play for a sports team,” Gaffney said. “Learning under Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, I just tried to soak up everything I could because football is not for long. Everybody knows that. Average life span there is like 2 ½ years maybe.

“So I was going to work my hardest to get it going. And injury, injury, injury, injury, I think that was writing on the wall that, if I was going to come back and play baseball, it was now or never.”

Gaffney’s last NFL stint was with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017, but he was waived before the season. So he decided to give baseball another shot.

“The Pirates welcomed me with open arms,” he said, “and I’ve been taking it seriously, and I’m ready to show everybody that I’m here to play baseball.”

He went to spring training trying to make an impression, but things didn’t come easily.

“It’d been a while. I can honestly say I questioned it a little bit during spring training,” he said. “Body parts I haven’t used in a while were hurting. I wasn’t being as successful as I would hope and expect of myself right out of the gates. But I stuck with the process and said I’m not here to quit during my first year. I’m here to figure out what the hell’s going on. And so far so good.”

Gaffney spent the first part of this season with high-A Bradenton, and he performed well, hitting .291 with three homers, 21 RBIs and an .861 OPS in 38 games. That earned him a promotion this week to the Curve, and he’s going to get a chance to play so that the Pirates can find out what they have in him.

“It’s going to be wide open in right (field), so combination of (Logan) Hill, Gaffney, (Bralin) Jackson,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said. “Whoever’s playing the best I guess or has earned it will play more often. But the Pirates want to see what Gaffney has, and he’s going to get every opportunity.”

Gaffney brings a wealth of sports experience and maturity to the Curve, and with this being a club made up of a lot of younger players, his leadership can definitely rub off on the team.

“He can give some of these guys examples and some lessons learned that he’s gone through,” Ryan said. “He’s a grown man with a family. That’s something that our players can watch and see how he acts as far as a man and responsibilities. He’s a good addition.”

Gaffney knows he’s blessed to have been able to play two professional sports, and he’s had to make some tough decisions in his career at times. But he also knows the opportunity he has in front of him now that he’s back in baseball.

“Being back, having gone to the NFL, seeing what that world was, having gone to college, finished school and where I’m at in life — I have two kids and a wife now — going through minor league ball is a special thing,” Gaffney said. “It’s tough, it’s a grind, it’s gritty, it’s dirty at times. … And when you’re here, these dudes really love it. Because it’s not paying the bills, it’s not keeping your family afloat.

“You’re here because you love the game and you have a dream, and I think that’s in full force for me and exactly why I’m here.”

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