Leaving a Legacy: Zac Stacy
11 Feb 2015
One afternoon in Nashville a few years ago, two future Rams running backs stood on opposing sidelines, each in vastly different stages of their collegiate careers. On the visitors sideline, Auburn’s Tre Mason was just getting started -- hardly the household name he would become just over a year later.

For the home team, however, there stood a back who was about to break the program rushing record. While he would accomplish the feat in the fourth quarter, he would use the rest of the season to become the first Vanderbilt player to run for over 3,000 yards. He was one of the driving factors in the Commodores finishing the season 9-4, ranked No. 23 by the Associated Press after coming away with a victory in the Music City Bowl.

Indeed, Zac Stacy is arguably the best running back to ever come out of Vanderbilt. And while he set the Commodores’ rushing record that Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, his success in the program is about much more than one fall afternoon.


A Vanderbilt graduate in December of 2012, Stacy was recruited by then-head coach Bobby Johnson and entered the university in 2009.

“I think the city of Nashville is kind of what made me go there. Nashville is a great city,” Stacy said recently. “Obviously, you’re getting the best of both worlds with Vanderbilt being the prestigious institution that it is, and also getting a chance to play and compete in the SEC.”

Vanderbilt hired Johnson in 2002, and the coach put the Commodores on the road to winning. In 2008, he led the program to its first bowl appearance since 1982 -- a 16-14 victory over Boston College in the Music City Bowl.

“Bobby Johnson, over the course of eight years, kind of changed the culture of Vanderbilt that is still evolving now,” said Larry Leathers, who has been the sports information director for football at Vanderbilt for the past 13 years. “He brought in a work ethic that wasn’t here, brought in an integrity component that has been a part of Vanderbilt for a long time, but really focused on that.”

Along with Stacy, Johnson brought in another dynamic back named Warren Norman. Both players made an immediate impact from their first game as freshmen, especially Stacy.

“His first game, I remember, was against Western Carolina,” said Brent Dougherty, co-host of 3HL on 104.5 The Zone in Nashville, adding that Stacy “actually set the Vanderbilt freshman rushing record for yards in a game in his first game, which was absolutely amazing.”

Splitting time with Norman, Stacy gained 133 yards rushing on 20 attempts in Vanderbilt’s 45-0 victory over Western Carolina on Sept. 5, 2009. Norman gained 105 yards on 18 carries in the same game.

While Stacy clearly showed good promise from that first win, injuries prevented him from becoming dominant early in his collegiate career. Norman, however, would rack up 1,941 all-purpose yards in 2009 (891 from scrimmage, 1,050 kick return yards -- including three touchdowns) to earn SEC Freshman of the Year.

Vanderbilt, however would finish the season 2-10.


Johnson unexpectedly retired just prior to the 2010 season, leaving Stacy with his second coach in two years, Robbie Caldwell. Still, injuries plagued Stacy through his sophomore year as well, which allowed Norman to continue as the feature back. And in 2010, Vanderbilt finished 2-10 once again.

But after that, Vanderbilt hired a Maryland assistant named James Franklin. Now the head coach at Penn State, Franklin immediately and drastically improved the Commodores’ performance in 2011.

“James Franklin came along … and really elevated things to another level to the point where, now, the fan base has a realistic expectation that this program should win,” said Joe Fisher, Vanderbilt’s director of broadcasting and the play-by-play voice of the Commodores.

“Once they made that hire, he immediately went to work to try to change the perception of that program, to kind of prove that your history doesn’t dictate your future,” Dougherty said. “He did an amazing job of not only selling that brand and that program in Nashville, but also finding players who fit his system and that could work hard and that could compete at an SEC level -- because if you can compete at an SEC level, you can obviously compete at a national level.”

The Commodores fared much better that season, and Stacy was a key factor. With the injury bug shifting from Stacy to Norman, the former had an chance step up.

“Any opportunity that I get, I’m taking full advantage of it,” Stacy said.

That he did, setting Vanderbilt’s single-season rushing record (1,193 yards), and tying the single-season rushing touchdown record in the process (14).

“I think Zac, his career was really created his junior year when he ran for 1,100 yards,” Leathers said. “Late in the season against Kentucky … there was one play, it was about a 15, 20-yard run at the end of the game. The game was already decided, but Zac literally carried the entire Kentucky team into the end zone.”

The run stands as one of Stacy’s signature plays in his four years at Vanderbilt, displaying the bruising style of running that he brought to the NFL.

“He had kind of a bowling-ball-type of game, bowling-ball-type of size at 5-foot-8, 220,” Dougherty said. “He just maximized every yard you could possibly get out of a carry.”

Stacy rushed for 125-plus yards five times in 2011, including the day he broke the single-season record -- the final contest of the regular season. Stacy took 28 handoffs for 184 yards and three touchdowns leading to a 41-7 victory over Wake Forest on Nov. 26, 2011. He finished the day with 1,136 yards, eclipsing Corey Harris’ 1991 record of 1,103 yards rushing.

While Vanderbilt showed marked improvement with a 6-7 season record, following a loss to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl, Stacy had plenty left in the tank for an encore in his senior year.


The running back entered 2012 with 2,002 career yards rushing -- just 630 away from Frank Mordica’s record set from 1976-1979. After his dominant 2011, everything was in place for Stacy to shatter Mordica’s mark.

But over the first two games of the season, Stacy tallied a total of 84 yards rushing in losses to South Carolina and Northwestern. Then he got back on track by tallying 174 yards and a touchdown in a 58-0 blowout over Presbyterian in Week 3.

From there, Stacy kept chipping away at the record all the way to the Commodores’ seventh game of the season -- Oct. 20, 2012 against Auburn.

The running back entered the day needing 131 yards on the ground to place his name at the top of the record books. By the middle of the fourth quarter, he had 117. It was clear that the running back would have a chance to set a new mark that day.

“I remember thinking, I hope he does me a favor when I’m calling this game: When he breaks the record, I hope he does it convincingly. I hope he doesn’t get it by a yard or so,” Fisher recalled of the afternoon.

With 4:41 left in the contest and Vanderbilt up 17-13, Stacy lined up behind the center in a wildcat formation, and took the ball 27 yards.

“He very clearly became No. 1 at that point,” Fisher said with a smile.

“I think that kind of set the tone for not only my career on the field, but also just finishing after that and getting my degree,” Stacy said of breaking the record. “That kind of set the tone for not necessarily the landmark that I wanted to leave, but just to get that perspective of, ‘If you put your mind to it, set goals for yourself, anything is possible.’ So, definitely, that moment was one that I’ll never forget.”

Part of what made the day so special was what happened after the 17-13 victory. Firmly entrenched at the top with 2,670 career yards, Stacy’s teammates made sure he’d remember leaving the field.

“The offense posed for a picture with Zac sitting in front of the scoreboard after he had set the record, and then his teammates carried him off the field,” Fisher said. “I think that says volumes about how much he was loved by his teammates.”

In all, Stacy would tally 1,141 yards rushing in his senior year -- just 52 yards short of his own single-season record from the year before. In the process, he became the first player in Vanderbilt history to eclipse 3,000 yards rushing, ending his career with 3,143.

“His last two years here were the most productive years by a running back in Vanderbilt history,” Leathers said. “Whether it was yards, whether it was production, whether it was leadership, rushing touchdowns -- from a complete component.”

His final contest in a Commodores uniform was the Music City Bowl against North Carolina State, held at LP Field in Nashville. Vanderbilt won 38-24 and Stacy was named the game’s MVP after accumulating 107 yards rushing on 25 carries with a touchdown.

“They relied on Zac Stacy and that run game to kind of keep that strong-armed quarterback [Mike Glennon, who currently plays for the Buccaneers] off the field,” Dougherty said. “To win a bowl game in your own hometown is really, really cool stuff. And [Stacy] had a lot to do with that.”


Stacy may have advanced to the NFL for the 2013 season, but he has certainly not been forgotten at his Alma Mater. That’s clear from taking a short tour through Vanderbilt’s football offices.

“He is beloved by everybody. You walk around this facility, you’ll see his picture in a lot of places,” Leathers said. “You’ll see a lot of stories that have been told about him in the past, and will be in the future. He’ll be remembered as a record holder. He’ll be remembered as a winner. And both of those things kind of go hand-in-hand.”

“I’m always getting calls from young guys just checking on me, and I’m checking on them as well,” Stacy said, adding that helping lay the foundation for success during his time at Vanderbilt keeps him invested in the program. “Guys have reached out to me, just for advice, whatever the case may be.”

And players likely continue to contact Stacy because they have come across his reputation for being a genuine, caring person. Former teammate Johnell Thomas called Stacy the “ultimate friend.”

“He’s someone that’s compassionate,” Thomas said. “He can talk to you, he can share experiences with you, he can help you through situations that you’re going through.”

Those at Vanderbilt speak highly of Stacy’s relationship with his little brother, Justin, who has Down’s syndrome.

“Zac told me when he signed here that the biggest thing he was worried about was leaving Justin. It was the first time he had ever been without his brother when he came to school here,” Leathers said. “I’m telling you, there’s a light that comes on in Zac’s eyes and Justin’s eyes when they see each other.”

“I remember when Zac broke the rushing record -- the all-time career rushing record -- one of my favorite shots afterward on the television broadcast is a shot of the stands and there is Justin and Barbara, Zac’s mom, celebrating,” Fisher said. “Just the sheer joy on Justin’s face is a great credit to what Zac has done for his younger brother all these years.”

Stacy’s strong bond with his younger brother even influenced his education. Zac completed his degree in Educational Studies, saying that he focused on special education.

“It was actually funny, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at first,” Stacy said, adding that he first took a special education class his sophomore year out of curiosity. “The professors in that department were great … and they just put a different perspective for how things work in the special education field.”

With his major, Stacy did internships in the Nashville community, working with kids with special needs.

“It was a great deal for me. I still do that here sometimes in St. Louis, working with kids with different disabilities,” Stacy said. “It turned out to be pretty good, just being able to relate that to my little brother.”

According to Leathers and Thomas, it’s those factors off the field that make Stacy truly outstanding.

“I think most of all, anybody that got a chance to be around him remembers him not for the player, but for the person,” Leathers said. “I think that’s what makes it an even better story for everybody.”

“If you ask me, the records come and go. But I think the one thing that remains is the man that people see you as,” Thomas said. “People see this guy as a great young man who has developed into someone they want their little kids to look up to one day. And to me, that’s the legacy that he’s left.”

This post was written by sports

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