‘The leader of our leaders’: Latter-day Saint QB Tanner McKee is making the most of his Stanford experience
McKee, a returned missionary, is recently married and he’s looking to help the Cardinal rebound from a disappointing 3-9 season
Entering his third season, quarterback Tanner McKee has become the face of Stanford’s football program.
Not only does his image grace the promotional content for Cardinal season-ticket sales, but he’s also an impactful team leader.
“What I love is we’ve got a great leadership council. I’m so proud of these guys for what they’ve been able to instill in our team this off-season and for that great leadership council to also point to Tanner and say, of our leadership council, this guy is the leader of our leaders,” coach David Shaw said during Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles. “That says a lot about him as a person, him as a football player. I’m really excited for this year of football for him because I think he’s really going to show the ceiling that we saw from him many years ago.”
“It’s definitely a game we’re really excited about. Utah’s obviously a very good team. It’s going to be a hostile environment. It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be loud. There will be a ton of fans. It’s going to be crazy.” — Stanford QB Tanner McKee on playing the Utes in Salt Lake City this season
McKee signed with Stanford as a four-star recruit in 2018 before serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Brazil, returning during the summer of 2020.
Last September, McKee earned his first collegiate start and promptly helped lead Stanford to a 42-28 win at then-No. 14 USC. Later, he helped direct a dramatic upset of then-No. 3 Oregon.
On the season, McKee completed 206 of 315 passes for 2,327 yards with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He took big strides last season and he’s hoping to build on that performance this fall.
“I feel great physically. I’m ready to go and I put on a few pounds. As far as last year, more experience, just being in the offense,” he told the Deseret News. “A lot of things that are changing pre- and post-snap that defenses are trying to do to mix up looks and things like that — just a little more experience of seeing that. It’s being able to play with a little more anticipation. It was great.”
Still, the Cardinal finished 3-9 last season. McKee is aiming to help Stanford bounce back this year.
On top of that, the Corona, California, native has plenty of family from Utah and other ties to the Beehive State, so he’s looking forward to games at Utah (Nov. 12 at Rice-Eccles Stadium) and at home against BYU (Nov. 26).
Last November, the Utes crushed the Cardinal 52-7 at Stanford Stadium in a game that McKee did not play in due to an injury. He is eagerly anticipating the upcoming game in Salt Lake City against the defending Pac-12 champions.
“It’s definitely a game we’re really excited about. Utah’s obviously a very good team. It’s going to be a hostile environment. It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be loud,” he said. “There will be a ton of fans. It’s going to be crazy. We’re really excited for it. We’re preparing for that. Obviously, we didn’t play the game we wanted to last season. I didn’t play in that game. We’re excited to have our guys back and play a great game against Utah.”
Shaw is optimistic about what Stanford’s offense can accomplish this year after suffering a rash of injuries in 2021. With the entire offensive line returning as well as a few receivers and tight end Ben Yurosek, the pieces are in place for success, according to Shaw.
“For us to look at it and say we want to be one of the most dangerous teams in America, run and pass, I believe we have the talent to do it,” Shaw said.
McKee is confident in what he and the program can accomplish in 2022.
“I definitely have very high expectations for myself and for the team. But as far as outside noise from outside pressure, I don’t put too much undue pressure on myself,” he said. “But I do have high standards for myself and for the team. I’m going to push myself to be the best that I can be and I’m going to bring guys along as well.”
During the summer, McKee got married. He and his wife, Lauren, are living in married housing on Stanford’s campus.
McKee enjoys having that additional support and stability that Lauren provides.
“Things are going great. She’s actually super athletic, so we run around, throw the football around and play volleyball. It’s been a great time. It will definitely help me mature and become a better person and a better man and a better leader for the team,” he said.
“Going into football, it’s 100% football. It’s all focus in the film room and in the weight room. Then you come home and it’s a great way to get your mind off of different things,” McKee said. “She helps me focus on football and on those different things. It’s just different aspects of life that you can really balance everything.
“That’s what Stanford has helped me improve on. Stanford expects you to be great in everything. It doesn’t expect you to slack in academics and be great in football. They really expect you to excel in everything. That’s just another aspect in my life that I want to excel at — I want to have a great relationship and a great family. That’s another thing that can help me lift my life as a whole.”
McKee, an economics major, has been working on an internship for a private equity firm. He’s benefited from the NCAA’s relatively new name, image and likeness legislation — and so has his wife.
“Actually in the NIL process, I got my wife a ring, actually,” he said, smiling. “That was my most interesting, unique story — getting my wife’s wedding ring with NIL influence, which was great.”
Academics at Stanford
It’s no secret that academics at Stanford is no picnic. It is one of the most prestigious and rigorous academic institutions in the world.
McKee has enjoyed the challenges he’s faced in the classroom.
One of his toughest classes was computer science. “I don’t really understand it well,” he said. “I took one class and it was brutal.”
What has been his favorite class he’s taken at Stanford?
“I took Economics 1 and I’m an economics major so it doesn’t surprise that I like that class that much. But it opened the door of the world of economics,” he said. “It’s one of the first classes that I took. Now I’m into private equity right now. I’m working on an internship at a private equity firm. It’s interesting to see that whole world, especially at a place like Stanford that has so many networks. It’s been really great.
“During the season you take more general classes to take more time in the weight room. It’s definitely challenging. There’s a lot of work you have to do on your own. But it’s very rewarding. The Stanford network is really incredible. I definitely appreciate that.”
Before he enrolled at Stanford, McKee hadn’t decided on a major but after taking that economics class, he knew that was a discipline that he wanted to pursue.
“I took that Econ 1 class and really enjoyed it. I took a few more classes. It’s definitely a challenging major,” McKee said. “I have a lot of math requirements and statistics. But overall, the econ course would be very practical in the real world and I’m seeing that play out in this private equity internship.”
During the pandemic, only student-athletes were allowed to be on campus. That helped Stanford teams to bond.
McKee added that the Stanford administration is “really good about balancing the academic schedule with football because classes are challenging. At different times, you have different priorities. During the season, I’m not going to take as many units as I do during the offseason. They definitely help you out a lot.”
The Cardinal quarterback legacy — and the NFL
Stanford has produced a host of great quarterbacks, like Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett, John Elway, Andrew Luck and Davis Mills, currently a quarterback for the Houston Texans.
McKee wants to continue that QB tradition.
In July, he had dinner with Plunkett. He has had multiple conversations with both Luck and Davis when they return to campus.
“Talking to those guys that have been in my shoes and have done what I want to do in the future is really great,” McKee said. “I learn from them and their process. What do they do now that they wish they would have done? I try to get a step ahead, which is great.”
If McKee has the kind of season that he’s hoping for, he could declare for next April’s draft.
“It’s definitely a goal of mine to play in the NFL,” he said. “I’m going to take care of business on the field and hopefully things will pan out. So, yeah, that’s the plan as of now.”
Playing ‘Stanford football’
McKee and the Cardinal have unfinished business to take care of this season.
McKee said Shaw, who’s in his 12th season at the helm of the program, has taken a different approach this season in the wake of a three-win campaign by going back to the basics.
“We’re going to do what we do and do it to the best of our ability. … It’s not going to be super fancy or super flashy. We’re going to go out there and do what we do and play Stanford football,” — Tanner McKee
“We’re going to do what we do and do it to the best of our ability. … It’s not going to be super fancy or super flashy. We’re going to go out there and do what we do and play Stanford football,” McKee said. “We’re also going to have a chip on our shoulder doing it. We know that we’re coming back from a 3-9 season. We have a lot to prove. Training like it’s a normal year isn’t going to cut it for us. We have to do that extra work to beat those teams.”
This year, there’s a new feeling within the program.
“As a team, the whole culture. Guys have more of a chip-on-their-shoulder mentality,” he said. “This year, guys are fired up. A little more attention to detail. Guys realize that that’s what really separates good teams from great teams and bad teams from good teams. It’s a very fine line. We have more energy and passion in the way that we train.”
Despite the program’s woes last season, Stanford did record a memorable 42-28 victory at USC, after which Trojans coach Clay Helton was fired and subsequently Lincoln Riley was hired. Then this summer, USC and UCLA announced they are leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten.
A reporter at media day asked McKee if Stanford was responsible for unwittingly blowing up the Pac-12.
“Great question,” he said.
During his life, McKee has battled and overcome melanoma skin cancer. He also spent two years serving a mission, learning Portuguese and working to bring peace and happiness to the people of Brazil.
No wonder he’s unfazed when it comes to dealing with adversity.
“When you go through things like that (cancer), or a mission, or things like that that could be life-changing, it definitely puts things in perspective and makes you grateful for everything you have, like good health,” McKee said. “You don’t know if the game is going to be taken from you. You’re grateful for everything you have. You’re grateful for those little things that you otherwise wouldn’t have that perspective. So it’s great.”
Certainly, Shaw has a lot of belief in McKee.
“Tanner … is an outstanding person, just a great human being. All the way back from recruiting, he’s one of those people that when you talk to him, he makes you feel good about humanity. He’s just a really good person,” he said. “And now over the years that really good person has a really good fire, right? That’s a great combination that you want. You want a quarterback that the guys like, but the guys also respond to him. When he says, ‘Get your butt going,’ he means it, and our guys respond to him. He brings his own fire, his own energy, his own juice.”
And now, Tanner McKee is the face of the Stanford football program.