STANFORD -- Ben Gardner stood near the Stanford bus outside Oregon State's Reser Stadium more in shock than in pain.
"I'm not ready for it to be over," he said through tears as parents Kim and Carl Gardner tried to console him.
Gardner, a 6-foot-4, 277-pound defensive end who almost wasn't recruited, wouldn't get his fairy-tale finish. He suffered a season-ending chest muscle injury Oct. 26 while trying to sack Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion in the second half of Stanford's 20-12 victory.
Gardner, 22, knew it even before doctors had a chance to confirm it. No Oregon. No final Big Game.
And now no Rose Bowl.
The fifth-ranked Cardinal would love to have its hard-charging co-captain for the physical faceoff against No. 4 Michigan State on Wednesday in Pasadena. But Gardner has spent the past eight weeks doing what he can to remain a vital part of the 11-2 team that is playing in its fourth consecutive BCS bowl game.
"He's still been there every step of the way," said defensive end Josh Mauro, one of Gardner's roommates. "He was not going to be an invisible player now that he couldn't play."
Gardner, who graduated this month with a degree in Science, Technology and Society, had moments of despair shortly after the injury. Many athletes go through an array of emotions, asking, "Why me? Why didn't I approach the play differently?"
"But that's the crazy thing about football: You can't rewind the things that you do," said fullback Ryan Hewitt, Gardner's other roommate. "It's hard, but Benny G has been a great emotional leader for us ever since the injury."
Gardner gave a rousing locker room talk 12 days after his injury when Stanford played then-No. 2 Oregon in a nationally televised game. He hasn't missed a practice or a film session since his college playing days ended.
"I know they are still out there leaving their hearts and soul on the field, and I want to be alongside them to help them out," Gardner said.
The fifth-year senior had planned to spend his last quarter at Stanford sharing final moments with a program-changing senior class. Gardner needed only a few credits to graduate and thus had more time than ever for football.
It could not have gone much better for Gardner, who still was named first team All-Pac-12 this year. In eight games, he had 19 tackles and 41/2 sacks, tying Shayne Skov for second most on the team in tackling the quarterback.
But trying to get the fifth sack changed everything.
"He beat the guard as he has done thousands of times," Mauro recalled. "He was going to get another sack."
When Mannion tried to wriggle free, Gardner tore a pectoral muscle. The injury was similar to one that ended the career of Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes in the spring.
Gardner already had been playing with shoulder pain.
"Maybe the wear and tear of the season took a toll," Mauro said. "Nobody was more prepared and ready for the games than Ben was. But it's football. You could lose it in a play."
Through surgery and rehab, Gardner has been a familiar sight on the sideline during practices and games for the past two months. Last season, he was a headliner in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin, his home-state school that didn't recruit him.
Stanford found Gardner only because Jack Harbaugh lived in the same city as Gardner. The father of former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh encouraged his son to recruit Gardner, whose only other scholarship offer came from Northern Iowa.
Gardner joined a heralded recruiting class that included Zach Ertz, Tyler Gaffney, Stepfan Taylor and Skov.
Upon arriving in the Bay Area, Gardner told his mom, "I don't belong here."
"When he first stepped on campus, a part of him doubted that he could do what he has done," Kim Gardner said.
Gardner not only excelled academically but also became a three-year starter who has been all-conference each of those seasons. Now he is focusing on impressing scouts at Stanford's annual NFL day in March. He expects to start conditioning exercises after the Rose Bowl.
Before the injury, some analysts had projected Gardner as a third-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft. It won't bother him if his value has plummeted since then.
He already has proved the brain trust of college football wrong.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.
Stanford (11-2) vs. Michigan State (12-1), at Pasadena,
2 p.m. ESPN