Sports hero, just like the ones from yesteryear

Dec 1, 2009 5:05 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

A month ago I wrote that I had a new sports hero, Myron Rolle, the former star safety for Florida State who spent his spare time teaching health habits to Seminole Indian kids, and then won a Rhodes scholarship, one of the highest academic honors in education, to study at Oxford in England. To go there, he passed up an NFL career.

Now I have another new hero, who blew me away last weekend with one of the greatest power running performances I have seen in six decades of writing about football.

He is Toby Gerhart of Stanford, and he is my choice over the glossy array of quarterbacks competing for this year’s Heisman Trophy.

He is not likely to win it, or perhaps even be nominated, unless those who vote were at their TVs Saturday night. Those shining signal callers, particularly Tim Tebow and the romantically named southwestern slinger Colt McCoy, have the advantage of playing at football’s glamour position. Their passing and running statistics deserve the notice and attention they have received, with the full glare of television falling on them and the powerhouse football factories they represent.

Stanford, of course, is better known as one of the best academic institutions in the world than as a producer of football stars. Its last Heisman winner was a quarterback, Jim Plunkett, 40 years ago next year.

As I watched Gerhart dismember Notre Dame last Saturday, I thought back to bone crushers like Bronko Nagurski and Jim Brown, legendary fullbacks of earlier eras.

Nagurski, who played his college ball at Minnesota and starred on both offense and defense as a pro for the Chicago Bears in the 1930s, was the hero of my youth. He played fullback on offense and tackle on defense, and was known as the toughest man in pro football. The great Red Grange called him "the best football player of all time," and he became known as a runner who no single defenseman could bring down. For his heroics, Bears owner-coach George Halas paid him $5,000 a year.

I knew Jim Brown first in the old All America conference, where he played for Paul Brown and the champion Cleveland Browns in the late 1940s, first in the All America and then in the National Football League, where he was a unanimous All-Pro eight times, played in nine Pro Bowls and retired at 30 at the height of his career. Like Nagurski, he was a battering ram, a destroyer difficult to bring down.

Gerhart, who signaled his future greatness Saturday night, is the same type of slashing runner as Brown and Nagurski. Last Saturday he was carrying two and three Notre Dame players on his back on many of his 29 carries, dragging them four or five extra yards after being hit. He scored three touchdowns and threw for another, and at 6'1" and 235 pounds he and is sure NFL material.

He also is a Major League Baseball prospect, but will have to make a choice if he moves on to the pros.

Before this season, the NFL Draft, a predictor of pro talent, wrote about Gerhart’s attributes, "Strength, Toughness, Power, Vision, Patience, Explosiveness, Blocking, nose for the end zone." Under weaknesses, they said, "Not much at all, speed is a question mark, but he looks very fast on the field."

He may not win the Heisman, but he has as much chance as any of the likely winners to star in the NFL. Watching his father, who coached him before he got to Stanford, it was easy to see on television where the young man got his coolness. Almost impassive standing the whole game on a top level of the stadium, his only visible emotion was an approving nod as his son wrecked the Fighting Irish.

When the cameras turned to Gerhart’s present Stanford coach, Jim Harbaugh, who played quarterback for six NFL teams in the 1990s, for the obligatory post-game interview, Harbaugh turned and asked, "Where’s Toby?" and turned the mike over to his line-wrecker.

Harbaugh knew who had beaten Notre Dame, and wanted to make sure Toby got full recognition for it.

No one who watched the game needed to be told.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Stan Bergstein