By Jon Sprenger
In league with its share of poster child quarterbacks and prima donna receivers, the fullback position tends to fly under the radar in the NFL. It’s a selfless position, one in which the player’s main objective is to sacrifice his body – and his media attention – for the TD-scoring and headline-grabbing tailback. When you talk with Tommy Vardell (Stanford) you quickly realize why the Academic All-American was attracted to the fullback position and how this persona continues to inform his character as managing director of Northgate Capital.
Growing up in El Cajon, Calif., Tommy enrolled at Stanford in 1988 and played for Denny Green during what proved to be a remarkable rebuilding era for Stanford’s football program.
Tommy has never been one to “follow the masses,” as he puts it. When his friends were out at the beach or socializing, Tommy was reviewing playbooks, hitting the weight room, or preparing for engineering exams. He maintained the self-discipline to avoid alcohol in high school and college, focusing instead on academics and the game of football.
The life of an Academic All-American athlete is rigorous and demanding. Vardell’s daily schedule settled into a routine of early morning classes, afternoon football practice, and focused evening study sessions. Afternoon practices would often cause Vardell to miss professors’ office hours, leaving him in the position of figuring things out on his own – a skill that would prove useful as a Sigma Nu candidate and later as an entrepreneur.
Vardell’s coaches played a major role in developing his character, each one imparting different leadership lessons along the way. He had the chance to play under Tyrone Willingham, who served as Stanford running backs coach before advancing to eventual head coaching positions at Washington and Notre Dame. “Coach Willingham practiced what he preached,” Tommy recalls. He remembers coach Willingham doing pushups and running sprints with the team. “If the team was expected to be accountable then so was Coach Willingham,” he says. This leadership style resonated with Tommy while at Stanford, and it stayed with him through his college career and into the NFL.
Vardell remembers Denny Green reminding his players how achievement in one area of life tends to spill over into others. “Coach Green would tell us that you cannot be a poor student in school and a good student of the game of football,” he recalls. “You cannot be a disloyal friend off the field and be a good teammate on the field. How you conduct yourself off the field directly relates to how you perform on the field,” Tommy remembers of coach Green.
Tommy realized the importance of strong character playing for Denny Green, and it was this commitment that eventually lead him to the Beta Chi Chapter of Sigma Nu in 1989.
“I took my Sigma Nu vows very seriously. The ideals of the fraternity are woven into the fabric of who I am as a person.”
Beta Chi Chapter recolonized in the late 1980s and Tommy’s self-starter mentality was a perfect fit for the rebuilding process. The new chapter didn’t fit the fraternity caricature at that time, he remembers. The group, according to Tommy, knew how to have a good time, but they were focused on performing at a high level, both as a group and as individuals. “I was blown away by the caliber of these men,” he recalls of the recruitment process. “There were guys who talked about starting software companies in high school, physics majors who had internships with NASA, athletes and much more.” It didn’t take long for Tommy to realize that Beta Chi Chapter possessed the culture where he could contribute and thrive all the same.
Vardell was drafted by the Cleveland Browns as the ninth overall pick of the 1992 NFL Draft, and was side by side with a newly minted head coach in Cleveland named Bill Belichick. “Bill had some struggles in Cleveland, but it was very clear that his mindset was going to yield wins for somebody over time. His attention to detail and his commitment to the game were far beyond those around him.”
One of Vardell’s proudest NFL accomplishments occurred during the 1997-1998 season. He was playing for the Detroit Lions the year Barry Sanders rushed for 2053 yards, which just happened to be the first year Sanders had a fullback blocking for him. “Barry was the kind of player who made world class athletes look foolish,” Tommy says of the legendary running back. “He had an uncanny ability to see a play develop before everyone else could, and he could run toward congested spaces that seemed to open up upon his arrival, with players diving at his feet along the way.
Tommy enjoyed a great NFL career spanning eight seasons with the Browns, Lions and 49ers. He rushed for 1427 yards, caught 119 passes for 1010 yards, and scored 21 career touchdowns. He retired from the game after the 1999 season with the San Francisco 49ers.
Mere months after retiring from the NFL, Vardell partnered with fellow players Brent Jones and Mark Harris to found Northgate Capital, a Bay Area investment firm with offices now spanning the world. Since its founding Northgate has grown to a staff of 47 employees and $4.5 billion worth of investments.
Tommy has been an entrepreneur as long as he can remember. He recalls an economics project in high school that helped him understand the entrepreneurial concept of observing an unmet need and finding a new way to deliver that service. “School lunches were $1.50 and usually your parents would give you $2.00 every day for lunch. Most students would pocket the remaining $.50 for something later. So, I would go and buy blow-pops for $.05 and then turn around and sell them $.25. A quick 500% markup and profit.” He says the project lasted quite a while until, “the principal shut him down.”
Later in college, Vardell noticed a similar need on campus in a lack of Stanford school apparel. His business acumen prompted him to design, market and sell Stanford football gear to teammates, parents, fans, and football camp attendees.
It’s easy to tell how Vardell’s entrepreneurial mind has carried over to Northgate. Perhaps more gratifying for Tommy than the success of Northgate is the people he works with each day. Vardell sees parallels between fraternity recruitment and the corporate hiring practices used by his company. “We look for good people, people we like to be around,” he shares. “Every good business school in the country is going to have qualified applicants on paper, but we look for the intangibles that can’t be taught in the classroom. We want good, happy people who are a pleasure to be around, with great character,” he continues. “I would choose character over intelligence all day, every day when it comes to potential employees.”
“Much like being a good Sigma Nu candidate, Northgate wants earnest, hardworking, selfless people.”
Northgate’s approach to strategy is not to “lead the parade,” he says. Much like the fullback position in football, “we prefer to fly under the radar and take satisfaction in getting our job done and in doing things the right way.”
“Being kind, accountable, transparent and honorable have been the underlying factors of any success I have had on the field, in the classroom and now, at Northgate Capital. I attribute much of that to what I took from my time in the Sigma Nu chapter at Stanford.”
Looking back on his playing career and his experience founding Northgate Capital, Vardell can identify the common characteristics that lead individuals and groups to success. “You cannot limit yourselves –you must go beyond what you or others have labeled you as,” he says. Vardell recalls one game in particular that reinforced this lesson for him. 1-3 Stanford was visiting South Bend to face No. 1 Notre Dame and Vardell remembers having doubts about their ability to win in a hostile road environment. “During warmups I can remember thinking, I’m not sure we can win this game. Of course my heart said, Sure we can win, but my head was saying the opposite. It was not until I broke down those limitations in my head that I knew we could go into South Bend and win.” (Stanford emerged victorious in the October 1990 meeting.)
Tommy attributes much of his success in life to his experience with Sigma Nu. “I took my Sigma Nu vows very seriously. The ideals of the fraternity are woven into the fabric of who I am as a person,” he says proudly. “Being an athlete is only temporary, but being a good person and having character…no one can take that away from you.”
“While being an athlete has been helpful in building a business, it has not been everything that has made Northgate successful,” Vardell continues. “Being kind, accountable, transparent and honorable have been the underlying factors of any success I have had on the field, in the classroom and now, at Northgate Capital. I attribute much of that to what I took from my time in the Sigma Nu chapter at Stanford.”
“Touchdown” Tommy Vardell has all the accolades to go along with a distinguished football career. He learned from legendary coaches and blocked for Hall of Fame running backs. He retired from the game on his own terms and founded a successful investment firm. He did things the right way and inspired others to do the same. Through it all, Vardell’s proudest accomplishment is earning the distinction of Academic All-American as a Stanford engineering major.
Tommy and his wife Andrea live in the Bay Area with their two kids, Colton (12) and Grace (14).