Gardner was raised in Mequon, a town on Lake Michigan about 15 miles north of Milwaukee. Homestead High won the state Division I championship in Gardner's senior year, finishing with a 14-0 record.
On signing day, Gardner went with Stanford while teammate Shelby Harris signed with Wisconsin (he's no longer there).
"We took a lot of hypothetical questions about meeting in the Rose Bowl," Gardner said. "People didn't really expect it to happen. In fact, they laughed about it."
Gardner hopes to get the last laugh, as the Cardinal goes against Wisconsin in this year's Rose Bowl, a rematch of the 2000 Rose Bowl, in which Stanford lost, 17-9.
Both schools changed coaches since that game, though Wisconsin changed back after current coach Bret Bielema took a job with Arkansas. Former coach Barry Alvarez, the guy who beat the Cardinal 13 years ago, will return to the sidelines to coach the unranked Badgers when they face No. 8 Stanford on New Year's Day.
"I'm very excited about coming back," said Alvarez, the school's athletic director. "This will be one game. I'm not looking to do it any longer than one game."
David Shaw is Stanford's fourth coach since Tyrone Willingham led Stanford into the 2000 Rose Bowl, with current radio analyst Todd Husak as his quarterback.
The Cardinal is still looking for its first Rose Bowl since 1972, when the late Don Bunce led Stanford past Michigan.
"Before you're aware of any other bowl game there's the Rose Bowl," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said. "The Rose Bowl is the premiere bowl game. I grew up watching it."
Cardinal linebacker Trent Murphy said this game was the goal from the moment he committed to Stanford.
"We wanted to win title and go to bowl games," Murphy said. "This was our mission statement from the beginning."
Stanford (11-2) qualified for the Rose Bowl game when it shut out No. 17 UCLA in the fourth quarter en route to a 27-24 victory in the Pac-12 championship game at Stanford Stadium last Friday night.
Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan posed for pictures with some kids on the way to the locker room. Chase Thomas was one of several players to clinch a rose in their mouth. As quick as he is, Stepfan Taylor was nearly the last one into the locker room.
This was something special.
"It's really special," Shaw said. "It's the goal and the goal doesn't change. It's about trying to play our best football. Two years in a row we have been one game away and we lost to Oregon twice. We knew this year it was going to come down to beating Oregon up there. We had to beat Oregon to get over the hump. That was the signature game for us."
The Bruins (9-4) took a 24-17 advantage into the fourth quarter and Stanford was showing no signs it would be able to stop Johnathan Franklin, who finished with 194 rushing yards. He was held to 29 yards in the final period, but did not touch the ball in UCLA's final 13 plays.
The Cardinal defense held the Bruins on their final possession, forcing a 52-yard field goal that went wide, clinching the conference title.
"It's been a pretty good month," Hogan said. "We've been playing well and the guys around me made it easier, We knew we had to stay calm and play our style. We kept at it, pounded the ball, got field position, got the touchdown to tie it and then Jordan made a great kick."
Jordan Williamson made two nice kicks in the contest, sending a 37-yard attempt between the goal posts at the end of the first half to give the Cardinal a 17-14 edge at halftime, and then nailing a 36-yard attempt with 6:49 remaining to play that turned out to be the game winner.
"Jordan has a lot of confidence," Shaw said. "He's strong enough to kick it from 60 yards out and all we ask is that he's smooth and consistent."
Williamson kicked the game-winner against the Ducks in overtime to propel Stanford into the title game.
Taylor had 78 yards to bring his career total to 4,212 rushing yards and eclipse Darrin Nelson's all-time Stanford career record (4,169, 1977-81).
Hogan, named the game's MVP, added 47 important rushing yards and scored a touchdown for Stanford. He also threw for 155 yards and a 26-yard touchdown pass to Drew Terrell, tying the game early in the fourth quarter.
"It's been our goal since I've been here," Terrell said. "When I got here, the standard was to win the Pac-12 championship. It was something we had to believe."
Wisconsin reached the Big 10 title game despite going 4-4 in conference. Both Ohio State and Penn State, which finished 1-2 in the Leaders Division, were ineligible for the postseason.
Following Stanford's 2001 trip to the Seattle Bowl, Willingham left for Notre Dame and Stanford's success left with him. The Cardinal floundered through three coaches and seven consecutive losing seasons.
Those days seem like ancient history now that Stanford qualified for its fourth straight bowl game — and third straight BCS game — and Hogan will be the third different quarterback.
"We know we can compete with anybody," Shaw said. "We play with a chip on our shoulder and part of that was to prove we're not a one-man organization. We're a team. We'll have more great players leave this year and we expect to be good again next year."
With Hogan improving to 4-0 as a starter, all against ranked opponents, the future looks as good as the present for Stanford.
"He's still growing," Shaw said. "The sky is the limit and he's making progress. He still made mistakes but when we needed him to make plays he made them. A couple of times he put us on his shoulder."
Said Thomas: "He doesn't play like a freshman. The type of leadership he brings to the huddle gives us confidence. He can extend plays with his arms and legs."
Thomas recorded two sacks, part of the nine tackles for losses Stanford recorded.
"It's been unbelievable, this ride," said Hogan. "We knew we were capable of it. It's a great journey . . . I'm happy to go to Pasadena."