Remembering the Lions’ “Touchdown Tommy” Vardell

Detroit Lions' running back Tommy Vardell

In his first season with the Lions, Tommy Vardell helped spring Barry Sanders for more than 2,000 yards in 1997.

It was the second quarter of an important mid-season game between Detroit and Minnesota in 1997. From the one-yard-line, Tommy Vardell took the handoff from Lions quarterback Scott Mitchell and barreled into the end zone, boosting the home team’s lead to 10-0.

Later in the quarter, Vardell took a handoff from Mitchell and plowed into the end zone, again from a yard out. Now it was 17-0.

In the third quarter, Vardell took a handoff from Mitchell and…well, you know where this is going. Another one-yard plunge, another score. The Lions won, 38-15. Barry Sanders may have done the long-distance hauling that day, scooting here and there while racking up 108 yards on the ground, but it was his fireplug fullback who delivered the package from curbside.

“Touchdown Tommy” Vardell specialized in such deliveries deep in the red zone. In eight NFL seasons, he rushed for 18 touchdowns, including a dozen during his two seasons with Detroit. All but one were one-yard bursts. The exception was a three-yard “scamper” that presumably required long draughts from the oxygen tank afterwards.

Vardell was a stud at Stanford, where in 1991 he set single-season school records for rushing yardage and touchdowns. He got his nickname after scoring four TD’s against Notre Dame – all on one-yard bursts, natch. He was the ninth overall pick in the ’92 draft, but injuries hampered him during his four seasons with Cleveland and a fifth with San Francisco. The Lions acquired him in 1997 to become Sanders’ first fullback, and the 6-foot-2, 234-pound Vardell didn’t disappoint. That season Sanders became only the third back to run for more than 2,000 yards, with Vardell’s blocks regularly helping to spring him loose on gallops.

Although Sanders was a threat to go all the way every time he touched the ball (his 15 career touchdown runs of 50-plus yards remain an NFL record), he was less effective from close in. This is where the straight-ahead style of “Touchdown Tommy” was best employed. In 1997, he had only 32 carries, but six went for TD’s. He added a postseason tally as the Lions lost to Tampa Bay, 20-10, in the opening round. The following season, Vardell picked up six TD’s on just 18 rushes (outscoring Sanders, who finished his tenth and final season with just four TDs on the ground). Always an effective receiver, especially when he got up a full head of steam, Vardell added a seventh TD on a pass from rookie quarterback Charlie Batch. All told, in 31 regular and postseason games as a Lion, Vardell scored 14 touchdowns, roughly one every other game.

The Lions finished 5-11 in 1998. Sanders retired and Vardell wound up back with the 49ers for a final injury-plagued season in 1999. His last NFL touchdown was–you know it–a one-yarder.

Vardell admitted he never reached the heights he would have liked in the NFL, but he still enjoyed what he described as a “very satisfying” pro career. “I was a starting fullback for eight years, something that very few people have the opportunity to do,” he reflected. “Certainly I would have loved to be the NFL rushing leader, which was a goal I had. For awhile I believed I was coming up short somehow. But it became evident that, one, there was not a likelihood that I would beat Barry Sanders for the rushing title; and two, that I needed to open my eyes to all that I was achieving. It was limiting to pin my happiness or success to such a goal. Also, I was being really ungrateful for what I was doing and for all the grace and everything that got me to where I was.”

Today Vardell is the managing director of a private equity firm he co-founded after leaving the NFL. His new career requires the occasional 10,000-mile round trip between offices in California and London, as if to make up for all those short-mileage trips to the end zone.