If you’ve seen Toby Gerhart carry the football, you’re well aware that the former Stanford halfback and Heisman Trophy runner-up is about as subtle as Iron Man. It’s no surprise, then, that as the NFL draft approaches, the player one AFC front-office executive described as “a bowling ball with butter knives” is hell-bent on obliterating the perception that he lacks the athleticism to succeed in the pros.
“I’m just a running back who tries to do what he can to win games and score touchdowns, but people have their opinions, and it’s kind of frustrating,” Gerhart said earlier this month between bites of pizza. “People say, ‘He’s slow,’ or ‘He’s not going to be able to break tackles at the next level.’ In college I went up against players like [USC’s] Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews–guys who ended up making the Pro Bowl [as NFL rookies]–and I ran through their tackles. It’s too bad people look at you all weird because of a stereotype.”
When NFL scouts look at Gerhart, they see a 6-foot, 231-pound power back who ran for 1,871 yards and 27 touchdowns last season, getting edged out by Alabama’s Mark Ingram in the closest Heisman vote in history. When they look at Gerhart’s numbers from the NFL scouting combine, they see that he ran a 4.50-second 40-yard dash and registered a 38-inch vertical leap, both impressive numbers for a player his size.
Yet they also see a white guy trying to make it in the league as a feature back, something that has become increasingly rare in this era. Peyton Hillis, now with the Cleveland Browns, led the Denver Broncos in rushing yards in 2008, but was limited to just 54 last season in part because of 2009 draft pick Knowshon Moreno’s addition.
Race shouldn’t be an issue, of course, but Gerhart can’t help but believe that it has colored the opinions of at least some potential employers.
“One team I interviewed with asked me about being a white running back,” Gerhart says. “They asked if it made me feel entitled, or like I felt I was a poster child for white running backs. I said, ‘No, I’m just out there playing ball. I don’t think about that.’ I didn’t really know what to say.”
One longtime NFL scout insisted that Gerhart’s skin color will likely prevent the Pac-10’s offensive player of the year from being drafted in Thursday’s first round.