Why Toby Gerhart's Race Will Prevent Him from Winning the Heisman
It was news to me—as it probably was to everyone else, including Pete Carroll—that Toby Gerhart set the all-time record for rushing yards in the state of California as a high school player.
When you consider the outstanding running backs that played their high school ball as native sons of the Golden State—OJ Simpson, Jahvid Best, Reggie Bush, Marcus Allen, hell, even Ken Simonton—that's a pretty staggering accomplishment.
So it should also not be news that this season, Gerhart's 1,395 yards are best in the Pac-10 and third best in the country. Also, his 19 rushing touchdowns are second only to Ricky Dobbs, who quarterbacks Navy's triple-option rush offense.
He's put up 223 yards and 178 yards against the (supposedly) two best defenses in the conference, posting back-to-back top-10 upsets for the former Pac-10 bottom dweller.
In that Oregon game, Gerhart rushed a bruising 38 times, then came back the next week to pound USC for 29 more in the Coliseum, scoring three of the Cardinal touchdowns in the 55-21 rout.
But none of that will matter. At least, not for individual accolades. Toby Gerhart is a white football player in the wrong position for white people.
Like the skepticism that voters showed toward the Iowa Hawkeyes throughout the year, no one with a ballot thinks Gerhart's rushing statistics are legitimate.
They're waiting for a game in which he rushes for under 100 yards to declare, "A-ha! He's a flash in the pan! He's benefiting from a great offensive line! Not enough credit was being given to Andrew Luck! Now, if he just threw the ball..."
Why? Because a white running back is called a fullback, or a slot receiver who forgot to motion out of the backfield (and even then, we're talking Wes Welker, the guys at BYU, and few else).
Because no one believes white people have the innate physical gifts to succeed at the running back position like black players do. White players throw, play tight end, punt, and kick; black players run, or catch and run. That is the simple, immutable order of things.
And finally, because Gerhart's style of running is not fancy. He runs powerful and upright and he hits the hole quickly—like a fullback, except faster and with better balance.
What he doesn't do is dance around. He won't flip unless you hit him right. Juking and spinning are pretty much out of the question. He'd rather knock you down than leap over you, and he'd certainly rather hit you than run around you.
His runs will not make you go, "Oh, damn!" in that way Reggie Bush's or Jahvid Best's can. They're rather like watching a prize fight, where the boxer about to win is slowly stringing together a bruising, deadly combination.
That his running style is of particularly low "intelligence" and appears to demand less "skill" certainly doesn't help matters. Nor does it help that he plays for Stanford, a historical bottom-dweller in the Pac-10 that only recently began flirting with a winning record, on the wrong coast.
To the voters, Gerhart is, if I can venture the term, a "system runner." A trumped-up fullback in a power-running game who's shown uncommon speed and balance, but is nowhere near the "other" running backs in terms of skill because of his race.
This will be what prevents him from winning the Heisman.
Now, I am certainly not saying the Heisman is biased against white people. That'd be a tough argument to make, given that only two black players have won this decade.
But Gerhart is still the victim of a subtle, persistent racism against white running backs—and against blacks in the quarterback position, for what it's worth. And though this subtle racism can be supported by NFL combines and Wonderlic tests, it harms those small few who are the exception.
Donovan McNabb is probably one of the greatest players this decade, and certainly one of the most exciting to watch, lack of Super Bowl rings aside. But in those games, or stretches of games, where he's struggled, it is his intelligence, not his ability, that is routinely questioned.
We can fire the Rush Limbaughs of the sports announcing world all we want. (Although, is Keith Olbermann really a better choice?) The belief that McNabb, Jason Campbell, or Vince Young cannot succeed because they're not naturally bright will persist each time they face difficulty in games.
On the other side of the coin is Gerhart. Heisman voters will be quick to point out his 82 yards against Wake Forest in Stanford's 24-17 loss in Week Two, or his 96 yards in the Cardinal's 38-28 loss to Oregon State.
If Gerhart was the Great White Hope, why didn't his natural ability help him rise above those struggles?
The truth is that every running back struggles—through injury, but also just by being off, not seeing the hole, or facing defenses that have their "move" all figured out. But when Gerhart—and Stanford—lose, their hype takes a precipitous tumble.
Those aren't bad breaks in the polls—you think BCS voters had an easy time voting the Cardinal ahead of their darling USC this week?
No, the penalty is more severe because respect for this program and this player was never there to begin with.
Gerhart's great games, even if they outnumber the bad ones 4:1, are aberrations to a de facto rule: White people cannot play tailback at the same level as black people.
I'd like to believe this is all wrong, that Stanford will win out and flirt with the Pac-10 title, and Gerhart will sway the Heisman voters to his cause once he storms Cal and trucks Notre Dame's defense for 200 yards apiece, even with defenses gunning for him.
Maybe a rogue Heisman campaign has begun in the time it took to write this.
I hope so. Gerhart deserves better than our embarrassing, stereotypical biases and our disrespect. He's not the Great White Hope—I have no idea who or what that could be—but he's a damn good running back and arguably the most productive player at his position on the year.
If a black man can win the presidency, why can't a white running back who leads the nation in touchdowns be called the greatest college football player of the year?
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