Dec. 8, 2009
STANFORD, Calif. - Toby Gerhart was 12 years old when he first walked into the Downtown Athletic Club.
In the state of New York for a baseball tournament, Gerhart and his football-mad family spent a day sightseeing in New York City. Stopping at the home of the Heisman Trophy was a given.
The wide-eyed boy stared at the portraits of past winners lining the walls, and stared at the trophy.
"I didn't really think I could be one of those guys," Gerhart said. "I never projected myself to do it. I just remember thinking, `Wow, this is a special place.' To be included would be a dream.'"
His dream has become reality.
Gerhart learned Monday that he will be among five finalists for the nation's most prestigious and well-known athletic award. He was to leave Tuesday night on an East Coast swing that includes Thursday's Doak Walker Award ceremony (for college football's top running back) in Orlando, Fla., and Saturday's Heisman presentation at the Nokia Theater Times Square.
Gerhart was studying when the finalists were announced, not surprising for someone taking 21 units during finals week. Gerhart, a management science and engineering major, took a break to watch the announcement with teammates in the football locker room.
"I was the first one announced," Gerhart said. "Everyone was going crazy."
When former Heisman winner Tim Brown, who announced the finalists on ESPN, was asked for his vote and said "Toby Gerhart," it was even crazier.
Gerhart celebrated by running off to his investment science final.
"I think I did pretty well," he said.
As Heisman finalists go, Gerhart must be among the most humble. When the Stanford players voted for a team MVP, Gerhart voted for freshman quarterback Andrew Luck. Everyone else voted for Gerhart.
Throughout a season in which he shattered his own school season rushing record with 1,736 yards, and scored 26 touchdowns - both national-leading marks - Gerhart has deflected credit for his role in turning around a Stanford program that hadn't had a winning season or bowl appearance since 2001.
But others were more forthcoming.
"The best I've ever been around," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said after Gerhart's spectacular 205-yard, three-touchdown performance on national television against Notre Dame Nov. 28.
In the boisterous Stanford Stadium locker room after the last-minute 45-38 regular season finale victory, Harbaugh handed Gerhart the game ball, as his teammates chanted "Heis-man! Heis-man!"
And then Gerhart did it. The Heisman pose. The place went nuts.
When he arrived at class the following Monday, the room erupted in applause. When he walks across campus, he people were nudging each other and pointing. Every time he checks his Facebook account, he has 50 new friend requests - he estimates he has 1,500 "friends" and another 1,800 unconfirmed.
"I can't keep up with it anymore," he said.
Yet, he's still the guy who always keeps a fishing pole in the trunk of his car. The guy who owned only one suit, until prompted this week to upgrade for the Heisman ceremony. The guy who can see himself following the footsteps of his father, Todd Gerhart, as a career high school football coach.
"I'm extremely flattered to be invited," he said. "I'm going to be with a roomful of guys that are legends of college football. To be associated with them is going to be an honor. To meet them and hang out with them is going to be a lot of fun."
The timing may be right for Gerhart. None of the nation's big names seized the Heisman opportunity with big seasons.
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy failed to make positive lasting impressions in their most recent games. Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh is a defensive tackle, a position that has never produced a Heisman winner. And Alabama's Mark Ingram has that 16-carry, 34-yard performance against Auburn to consider.
When asked what edge he may have in the race, Gerhart said: "Consistency."
He's had 10 100-yard performances in 12 games and his low yardage total was 82, against Wake Forest. But that was with only 17 carries, Gerhart's lowest total of the season. He still had a healthy 4.8-yard average in that game.
"One thing about all this is I've let the production and play speak for itself," Gerhart said. "There wasn't a lot of preseason hype - or any preseason hype. Being recognized for what you do on the field, and not being a `media baby,' makes it a lot more special."
Voters may disregard Gerhart because of his team's 8-4 record, without realizing that it was Gerhart, who in the words of teammates "carried the team on his back," to reach that mark - a seven-victory improvement over Gerhart's freshman year.
Voters in some parts of the country may view Stanford's Pacific-10 Conference schedule as weaker than, say, Alabama's in the Southeastern Conference.
But Gerhart averaged 148.4 yards in the Pac-10, rated as the nation's strongest conference by the Anderson & Hester BCS computer rankings. And Stanford has played against more opponents ranked in the BCS Top 25 (four) than Alabama (three).
The Cardinal has played eight teams that have been ranked among the Top 25 at some point in the season, and Gerhart is averaging a national-best 200.3 yards per game against ranked opponents. It seems Gerhart has a pretty solid case.
And if he does hear his name called Saturday?
"I'll be speechless," he said. "It'll be the greatest moment of my life."
And, someday, another 12-year-old boy with big dreams will stare, wide-eyed, at a portrait of Toby Gerhart.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics