STANFORD, Calif. — Four Stanford graduates have become Supreme Court justices since the football team produced its only Heisman Trophy winner, Jim Plunkett, in 1970. Into this yawning gap burst Toby Gerhart, a senior tailback, who has insinuated himself into the Heisman conversation this month while leading Stanford to consecutive upsets of Oregon and Southern California.
Gerhart, 22, has stiff-armed convention, critics and convenience while gaining 1,395 yards on 262 carries and scoring 19 touchdowns this season. The Cardinal, which has not won a national title in football since 1926, finished 1-11 in Gerhart’s freshman season.
He is on a pace to finish with more than 1,800 yards for Stanford, which hosts cross-bay rival California on Saturday, is 7-3 and guaranteed its first bowl appearance since 2001.
The N.F.L. potential of Gerhart, who ranks second in touchdowns and third in rushing yards in the Football Bowl Subdivision, has shot up the way 14th-ranked Stanford has in the polls. But his presence in the April draft is not a foregone conclusion. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Gerhart is also a professional baseball prospect. A three-year starter for the Cardinal, he is an outfielder known for his defense and speed on the bases.Continue reading the main story
After the bowl season, Gerhart will decide whether he will train for the N.F.L. scouting combine or plow right into his senior season of baseball. Gerhart has juggled both sports in high school and college because he could never settle on one.
“I still don’t know which one I’m going to choose,” Gerhart said last week. Five days earlier, after running for 223 yards on 38 carries and 3 touchdowns against visiting Oregon, he conceded, “At this point, football has the upper hand.”
As he does when he carries the ball, Gerhart will review his options, then follow his instincts. He may decide to go nowhere and apply for a medical redshirt in football, having made only one appearance as a sophomore before a knee injury ended his season.
That appears his least likely path. Gerhart’s inclination since he was a child is to seek new challenges, to keep pushing himself.
“From the time he was little, he was different,” Gerhart’s mother, Lori, said in a telephone interview. “People used to joke that he was going to grow up to be the president of the United States.”
The tendency is to look at Gerhart as a shooting star streaking across the college firmament, the rare two-sport standout and scholar. In fact, he is the North Star in a constellation of siblings.
Gerhart has five younger siblings who all excel in sports and school. Garth, 21, is an offensive lineman at Arizona State; the 18-year-old triplets Kelsey, Teagan and Whitley play softball; and Coltin, 14, is the quarterback of his eighth-grade team and graces the basketball and baseball teams.
Of the five Gerhart children in college, four are on scholarship and two, Kelsey and Teagan, have joined Gerhart at Stanford as freshmen. Whitley, who dropped travel softball in high school to focus on volleyball, has walked onto the softball team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
“Kind of makes you wish your last name was Gerhart,” said Jim Harbaugh, Stanford’s football coach.
Gerhart’s parents, Lori and Todd, are frequently asked how they managed to raise a family of high achievers. Their secret, they say, is pretty simple. They had Toby first and watched his influence rub off on the rest.
“When people ask me who I look up to,” said Teagan, a pitcher, “I always say Toby. He set the path.”
Early on that required stepping over a lot of diapers. At one point, the Gerharts had five children younger than 5.
“Toby was the one who always wanted to help with the triplets,” Lori Gerhart said. On mornings when she was running late for school, he would help. “He’s the one who taught them how to braid their hair,” she said.
Gerhart’s parents were high school sweethearts before they married. Todd was a star running back and Lori, two years behind, was a standout in basketball.
Todd played football at Cal State Fullerton, spent a season with the Denver Gold of the United States Football League and had tryouts with the Minnesota Vikings and the Houston Oilers of the N.F.L. before becoming a high school physical education teacher and football coach at his alma mater, Norco High School, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.
Once Coltin started grade school, Lori Gerhart enrolled at Riverside Community College so she could become credentialed to teach. She was nervous about returning to the world of academia after immersing herself in motherhood. Her husband had a brainstorm. Why not have their eldest son take some courses, too?
Gerhart was a smart kid, after all, and could attend the college for a pittance. His parents reasoned that the more college credits he earned, the less it would cost to put him through college later.
So mother and son had reunions in class, meeting to study philosophy, public speaking, biology and anthropology.
“He held my hand,” Lori Gerhart said, “because I was so scared to be the older lady going back to school.”
Not everybody thought it was a bright idea. Their biology professor implied that her classroom was no place for a 13-year-old. She graded Gerhart’s first exam in front of all the students. To her disbelief, he had aced it, earning the highest score in the class.
Gerhart made the same impression in anthropology. Before returning the students’ midterms, the professor read an essay that was clearly a cut above. It was Gerhart’s. Lori Gerhart, who teaches special education in elementary school, laughed at the memory.
“Toby’s always been really mature for his age,” she said. “I think he was a great role model for the other kids.”
The Gerhart siblings compete with one another for the best grades. When they were younger, anybody who brought home a B could count on being heckled. Toby and Kelsey were class valedictorians at Norco High.
“Toby set the tone of academics and competition,” Kelsey said. “He got straight A’s through high school, so of course we wanted to get straight A’s.”
Gerhart, who is majoring in management, science and engineering, has maintained a better than B average at Stanford. He had to overcome his fears, which he expressed to his mother in a phone call during his first week of freshman classes, that he was the stupidest person on a campus full of intellectuals.
This quarter, Gerhart is taking five courses. He could not help himself. He took calculus because he wanted to learn from the professor, who has an excellent reputation. He enrolled in Introduction to Prehistoric Archaeology because it sounded interesting.
“That’s the one we couldn’t understand,” Lori Gerhart said, laughing.
His workload would be heavy even for someone without a full-time job, which is what college football at the highest level has become. Asked how he manages, Gerhart chuckled and said, “A lot of late nights.”
On the field, Gerhart is indefatigable. He runs like a bull wearing ballet slippers. His strengths — size, power, balance, toughness, competitiveness — are hard to find in one player and harder to teach.
When Gerhart was young, he would strike the Heisman Trophy pose in the kitchen and crack up his mother. Now it could be argued with a straight face that he is the embodiment of the award.Continue reading the main story