Ranking the 15 best football players from Stanford and Cal

Nov. 15, 2023, 2:00 a.m.

In the 131-year history of the Big Game, some great players have suited up for both the Stanford Cardinal and the California Golden Bears. Many of them continued into the NFL, with some becoming legendary figures in the sport. 

In preparation for the 126th meeting between these two storied programs, here’s a (relatively unbiased) ranking of the 15 best players to have taken the field in this historic rivalry. (Note that the players were ranked based on their accomplishments at all levels of the sport.)

Honorable Mentions: Gene Washington, John Brodie, Jim Plunkett, Mitchell Schwartz, Nnamdi Asomugha

15. Hardy Nickerson (Cal 1983-1986)

Nickerson was a linebacker drafted in the fifth round to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1987. In his 16-year NFL career that spanned four different teams, Nickerson was a five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro (two-time First Team). Additionally, his 1,586 combined tackles is eighth in NFL history, going along with 21 career sacks and 19 career interceptions. Nickerson was named to the 1990s All-Decade Second Team and is currently a nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2024. 

At Cal, Nickerson was voted the team’s MVP for three consecutive years from 1983-1985. With 501 career tackles, Nickerson was named in the First-Team All-Pac-10 in his senior year. 

In the Big Game, Nickerson was 2-2.

14. Alex Mack (Cal 2004-2008)

A seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time second-team All-Pro, Alex Mack was a dominant force at center for the Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers during his 13-year NFL career. In 2016, Mack led a Falcons offensive line that reached the Super Bowl, and would eventually have a streak of 90 consecutive regular season starts. 

At Cal, Mack was a three-time first-team All-Pac-10 honoree, while being just the third player to receive the Morris Trophy twice (an award for the best Pac-10 offensive lineman as voted by the conference’s defensive linemen). 

In the Big Game, Mack’s Cal teams were 3-1, with Mack recording a season-high six pancake blocks against the Cardinal in his senior season. 

13. David DeCastro (Stanford 2008-2011)

DeCastro was a massive (6’5″, 315 pounds) guard who had a nine-year career for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In those nine seasons, the first round draft pick from 2012 had six Pro Bowls and three All-Pro honors (two-time First Team). DeCastro anchored a strong Steelers offensive line that led them to the AFC Championship Game in 2016. 

While a Cardinal, DeCastro was twice named First-Team All-Pac-12 and was a unanimous All-American in his senior season. 

His Stanford teams were 2-2 in the Big Game. 

12. Christian McCaffrey (Stanford 2014-2016)

One of just three active players on the list, it’s expected that McCaffrey will end his career far higher on the list than this current placement. However, based purely on current accomplishments, the former Cardinal running back takes the 12th spot. Being the eighth pick from the 2017 NFL draft, McCaffrey is a two-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro (two-time First Team). 

Playing his first five seasons with the Carolina Panthers and currently a member of the San Francisco 49ers, McCaffery has racked up 5,378 rushing yards and 47 rushing touchdowns to go along with 4,048 receiving yards and 26 receiving touchdowns. He also holds the NFL record for the most consecutive games with a touchdown, at 17 games. 

McCaffrey was electric for Stanford as well. In three seasons, he totaled 5,128 total yards and 31 total touchdowns, earning him two First-Team All-Pac-12 honors as well as being named a consensus All-American, Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, AP College Football Player of the Year and a finalist for the Heisman Trophy during his sophomore year. 

In the Big Game, McCaffrey’s Stanford teams went 3-0, with McCaffrey being a big reason why. In 2015, McCaffrey had 389 all-purpose yards and 2 touchdowns, leading the Cardinal to a 35-22 victory. In 2016, McCaffrey backed-up his previous Big Game performance with another dominant display, gaining 317 all-purpose yards and scoring three rushing touchdowns against the Bears. 

11. James Lofton (Stanford 1975-1977)

Lofton was an eight-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro in his 16-year NFL career. The wide receiver was the first player in NFL history to reach 14,000 yards, and he played in three Super Bowls. After a career spanning five different teams, for which Lofton had 764 receptions, 14,004 yards and 75 touchdowns, the former sixth-overall pick in the 1978 NFL Draft was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003. 

As a senior at Stanford, Lofton had 53 receptions for 931 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning him second-team All-American honors. More impressively, he was also a dual-sport athlete, winning the 1978 NCAA Track and Field Championship in the long jump and being a three-time All-American in the event. 

In the Big Game, Lofton’s Cardinal teams were 2-1. 

10. Les Richter (Cal 1949-1951)

Arguably the most versatile player on this list, eight-time Pro Bowler and seven-time All-Pro Les Richter was a dominant force on offense, defense and special teams. After serving in the Korean War for two years after college, Richter played center, guard, linebacker and placekicker for the Los Angeles Rams for the entirety of his nine-year career. The former number two pick in the 1952 NFL Draft was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011. 

At Cal, Richter showed that same talent in all phases of the game, playing guard, middle linebacker and placekicker for the California Golden Bears. He’s also the only player from Cal to be recognized as a consensus First-Team All-American twice, earning those honors in 1950 and 1951. Richter graduated as the valedictorian of his class in 1952. 

In the Big Game, Richter led his teams to a 2-0-1 record against Stanford. 

9. Andrew Luck (Stanford 2008-2011)

Luck might be one of the biggest “what ifs” in NFL history. If he hadn’t retired early due to injury, many believe that he would be in conversation as one of the greatest football players of all time. In his seven years as a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, Luck was selected to four Pro Bowls and won NFL comeback player of the year in 2018. 

However, what made fans most convinced about his potential for greatness was his knack for breaking records. Being the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Luck threw for 4,374 yards and 23 touchdowns as a rookie, breaking numerous NFL records for passing yards by a rookie quarterback. Throughout his six active seasons, Luck would throw for a total of 23,671 yards and 171 touchdowns, also breaking numerous Colts franchise records that had been set by Peyton Manning. If he had finished out his career, he would likely be near the top of this list, if not at the top. But his premature retirement puts him at ninth, which is still ahead of some all-time greats. 

Luck was as much a legend for the Cardinal as he was for the Colts. In his three active seasons, he racked up 10,387 total yards along with 89 total touchdowns, earning him two-time first-team All-Pac-12 and two-time first-team All-American honors. 

In the Big Game, Luck went 2-1. In 2009 he struggled, only throwing for 157 and an interception in a 34-28 loss. However, he bounced back in 2010, with 307 total yards and 2 passing touchdowns in a 48-14 rout of the Golden Bears. In his final season, Luck threw for 257 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception for a 31-28 victory. 

8. Ernie Nevers (Stanford 1922-1925)

Another highly versatile player, Nevers was a fullback (and kicker, punter and occasionally quarterback) who dominated the 1920s. After a stint in professional baseball, Nevers played five years in the NFL for the Duluth Eskimos and Chicago Cardinals, earning All-NFL honors in all five seasons. He also still holds the record for the most points scored in a game with 40 points against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving Day in 1929. Being widely considered as one of the best players in the first half of the 20th century, Nevers was named to the 1920s All-Decade Team and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its inaugural class. 

At Stanford, Nevers was a multi-sport athlete, competing for the Cardinal in football, basketball, baseball and track. As a part of the football team, Nevers was a consensus All-American in 1925 and was 1-1-1 in Big Games. The loss came in 1923, despite Nevers gaining more yards than the entire Cal offense. In 1924, Nevers was injured for the rivalry match that ended in a 20-20 draw. However, in 1925, Nevers rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns to lead Stanford to a 27-14 victory. 

7. Marshawn Lynch (Cal 2004-2006)

Nicknamed “Beast Mode,” Lynch was arguably the most electrifying player of the 2010s. In a 13-year NFL career spanning three different franchises, the running back is most known for his time at the Seattle Seahawks, where he was a key part of two Super Bowl teams, winning one. A five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, Lynch accumulated 12,627 total yards and 94 touchdowns in his career. 

Although Lynch has fewer individual accolades than some listed before him, when healthy, Lynch was truly an unstoppable force. This was most evident in his “Beast Quake” run, in which he broke nine tackles en route to a 67-yard touchdown in the 2010-2011 NFL playoffs, which is considered one of the greatest runs in NFL history. A member of the NFL 2010’s All-Decade Team, Lynch will likely see his name enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

An Oakland native, Lynch stayed home at Cal, racking up 4,629 all-purpose yards and 37 touchdowns over three years (as well as a legendary injury cart joyride). In his final season, Lynch was selected to the first-team All-Pac-10, a first-team All-American and the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. 

In the Big Game, Lynch’s Cal teams were undefeated against Stanford. In 2004 as a true freshman, Lynch rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinal, while also throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass. In 2005’s Big Game, Lynch rushed for another 123 yards and a touchdown. In his third and final collegiate season, Lynch rushed for 67 yards and caught a 25-yard pass for his third consecutive Big Game win. 

6. Cameron Jordan (Cal 2007-2010)

Unless you’re a New Orleans Saints fan, you might be scratching your head at how Jordan made it so high on the list. However, the eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro defensive end has been sneakily crafting a Hall of Fame career wrecking quarterbacks in the NFC South. Jordan has spent the entirety of his 13-year (and counting) career in New Orleans, amassing 117.5 sacks, 672 tackles and 11 forced fumbles at the time of writing. Selected to the NFL 2010’s All-Decade Team, Jordan is also the Saints’ all-time franchise sack leader, and well-respected across the league as one of the best defensive ends of his generation. 

At Cal, Jordan was a first-team All-Pac-10 defensive lineman, recording 16.5 sacks and 175 tackles across four seasons. 

In the Big Game, Jordan’s Cal teams went 2-2, with Jordan having eight tackles and a fumble recovery in the four matchups. 

5. John Lynch (Stanford 1989-1992)

In the Bay Area, Lynch is currently known as the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, building one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. However, Lynch also had a 15-year NFL career, primarily playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The hard-hitting safety dominated the middle of the field, anchoring a feared Buccaneers defense along with Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. 

Earning nine Pro Bowl and four All-Pro selections, Lynch and his defensive unit led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory in 2002 while inventing the famed Tampa 2 defense. After a career with 26 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, 13 sacks and 1,059 tackles, Lynch was immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its 2021 class. 

At Stanford, Lynch was another dual-sport athlete, playing football and baseball for the Cardinal. Beginning his career as a backup quarterback, Lynch transitioned to safety before his junior season. By his senior year, he was leading the Cardinal defense, recording 76 tackles, four interceptions and a touchdown return, resulting in a second-team All-American selection. 

In the Big Game, Lynch’s Cardinal went undefeated against Cal in four matchups. 

4. Richard Sherman (Stanford 2006-2010)

For the casual football fan, Sherman is likely most known for his trash talk. With numerous sideline moments and a viral tirade against Michael Crabtree after the 2013 NFC Championship game, Sherman developed a reputation as one of the biggest talkers in the NFL. However, his play always backed up his talk. 

Arguably one of the greatest cornerbacks of all time, Sherman was a cornerstone of the Seattle Seahawks defense and the face of the legendary “Legion of Boom.” Throughout his career, Sherman tallied 37 interceptions, returning three for touchdowns, along with 116 passes defended and 495 tackles. Earning five Pro Bowl and five All-Pro selections, Sherman helped lead the Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory in 2014. Also a member of the NFL 2010’s All-Decade Team, Sherman is a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

Sherman actually entered Stanford as a wide receiver, recording 1,340 receiving yards and seven touchdowns to go along with two punt return touchdowns in his first three years. Switching to defensive back after his junior season, Sherman logged 113 total tackles and six interceptions in his final two seasons of eligibility, returning one for a touchdown. 

In Sherman’s five years at Stanford, his teams went 2-3 in the Big Game, but Sherman only played in three. In his freshman year, Sherman had 81 receiving yards and a touchdown as a wide receiver in a 26-17 loss. By his fourth season, Sherman had transitioned to defense, racking up six tackles, an interception and three passes defended in another loss to the Golden Bears. Sherman finally beat Cal in his final season, logging five tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. 

3. Tony Gonzalez (Cal 1994-1996)

The greatest tight end of all time (for now), Gonzalez’s resume is stacked. In a 17-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons, Gonzalez was a 14-time Pro Bowler (second-most in NFL history) and 10-time All-Pro. 

Let that sink in. He also holds the league record for receiving yards and receptions by a tight end, while ranking third in receptions by any position. Gonzalez, and his 1,325 receptions for 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns, revolutionized the tight end position and its role in offenses, paving the way for modern-day players like Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce (known by many as Taylor Swift’s boyfriend). Gonzalez was a selection for the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team, as well as the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. 

Like many others on this list, Gonzalez was also a dual-sport athlete, playing both football and basketball for the Cal Golden Bears. On the football field, Gonzalez recorded 1,302 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in his three years in college, earning him first-team All-Pac-10 and consensus All-American honors in his final year. 

However, Gonzalez and his Cal teams were 1-2 in the Big Game. The Bears won in 1994 in a tight 24-23 result, but lost in both 1995 and 1996, despite Gonzalez scoring touchdowns in both. 

2. John Elway (Stanford 1979-1982)

When you think of the Denver Broncos, you think of Elway. Easily one of the best quarterbacks in football history, Elway spent the entirety of his 16-year playing career on the Broncos, leading them to five Super Bowls and winning two. He combined incredible arm strength with elite athleticism, making him one of the faces of the sport through the 1980s and ’90s. 

The nine-time Pro Bowler and three-time All Pro was also named the NFL Most Valuable Player in 1987, NFL Man of the Year in 1992 and Super Bowl MVP in 1999. He was also known for leading the Broncos to numerous comeback wins (most notably “The Drive” in 1987 AFC Championship Game), totalling 35 comeback wins in the fourth quarter and overtime. Elway ended his career with a whopping 51,464 passing yards and 300 touchdown passes to go along with 3,407 rushing yards and 33 rushing touchdowns, earning him a spot on the NFL 1990s All-Decade Team, the NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team and a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. To add onto Elway’s accolades from his playing career, he also won a Super Bowl with the Broncos as a general manager. 

Elway’s greatness was on display during his collegiate career at Stanford as well. Yet another dual-sport athlete, Elway was exceptional at both football and baseball. On the gridiron, although his win record didn’t show it, Elways left his mark in the collegiate record books. His 77 touchdown passes are a Stanford record, and his 9,349 passing yards were enough for second in school history. He won the Pac-10 Player of the Year twice in 1980 and 1982 while also being a unanimous All-American and finishing second in Heisman trophy voting in 1982. 

However, Elway’s record in the Big Game is not his finest. During his tenure, Elway’s Cardinal were 1-3 against Cal, with the 25-20 loss in 1982 being particularly painful due to The Play, in which Cal scored a last minute game-winning kickoff return touchdown that included five laterals. 

1. Aaron Rodgers (Cal 2003-2004)

Even as a Stanford student, Rodgers’s spot at the top of this list cannot be disputed. Widely considered the most talented quarterback of all time, Rodgers has built a career that’s only rivaled by the pinnacle of the sport. 

A 10-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro, four-time NFL Most Valuable Player and Super Bowl champion and MVP, the former Green Bay Packers legend and current New York Jets quarterback is a masterclass in efficiency and precision. He holds the NFL records for single season passer rating at 122.5, lowest interception percentage in a season at 0.3%, as well as consecutive passes without an interception at 402. With 59,055 career passing yards and 475 passing touchdowns on top of 3,466 rushing yards and 35 rushing touchdowns, Rodgers is a member of the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team and a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer. Not to mention, he’s currently set to make the (unofficial) quickest recovery from an Achilles tendon tear in NFL history at 39 years of age, just adding to an already legendary resume.

Rodgers transferred to Cal after starting his college career at Butte College. In his two seasons with the Golden Bears, Rodgers totalled 5,815 yards with 51 total touchdowns while setting multiple school passing records. 

In the Big Game, Rodgers stepped up, leading Cal to a 2-0 record against Stanford in 2003 and 2004. Rodgers’s first Big Game saw him throw for 359 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 55 more yards, leading Cal to a 28-16 victory. In 2004, Rodgers only had to throw for 120 yards and a single touchdown, as Cal’s dominant rushing attack (including previously mentioned Marshawn Lynch) carried them to a 41-6 rout of the Cardinal. 

Despite a short time at Cal, Rodgers has cemented himself throughout his professional career as the greatest player to ever come out of either program. 

Kevin Jing is a contributor to The Daily's sports section.

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