Four years ago [Toby] Gerhart was a hotshot at Norco (Calif.) High, visiting USC on a recruiting trip with fellow runners C.J. Gable and Stafon Johnson, who are black. The Trojans told Gerhart they would love to have him—as an outside linebacker or a fullback to block for guys like Johnson and Gable.
That's a little like being told the leading role is going to another actor, but how'd you like to be his bodyguard? Says Norco High coach Todd Gerhart of his son, "Even today with all he's done I had a linebacker coach say to me, 'You give me one year with him, and I'll turn him into Junior Seau.'"...
For those who do reach the NFL, the path doesn't get any easier. In 2003 Brock Forsey was a Bears backup who started one game in place of injured starter Anthony Thomas and was spectacular, rushing for 134 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. The next week Thomas returned to the lineup and Forsey went back to the bench, getting only three carries. He never started another NFL game. "It's hard to tell exactly what happened," says Forsey, who starred at Boise State and is now an executive at a title and escrow company in Nampa, Idaho. "No one ever said anything about race. But there may be some preconceived notions out there. A white guy from Idaho isn't what you have in mind when you envision an NFL running back."Evaluating players shouldn't be about what we envision but what we see. That lesson should have been learned from the decades of discrimination against black quarterbacks at colleges and in the pros. Despite the obvious parallels, no one seems to be as concerned that white tailbacks are getting the same treatment. "I did dozens of interviews about the lack of opportunity for an African-American to be a QB back in the 1980s and early '90s," says Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida, "but this is only the second time I have been asked about the lack of opportunity for whites to be running backs."
But that raises the question of how much should you really want to be an NFL running back?
The most amazing running back I ever followed was Earl Campbell. Houston Oiler coach Bum Phillips came up with the ingenious strategy of having Earl just plain hurt the defenders for first three quarters so that by the fourth quarter, the 11 players on defense would be just so broke-down from tackling Campbell that his one man could run wild.
For Campbell's first three years in the NFL, this insightful approach worked brilliantly. After that, not so much. These days, Campbell mostly gets around in a wheelchair.
The good news about being an NFL running back compared to being a quarterback is that, unless you are Brock Forsey or somebody like that, you'll probably at least get to carry the ball a few times. Carrying the ball in the NFL is such a punishing line of work that coaches are always putting subs in during games to give star running backs a breather. And starting running backs are always getting hurt or just wearing out at age 26 or whenever, so there's a fair amount of work to go around.
In contrast, starting quarterbacks are expected to play every offensive down, except at the end of blow-outs. And quarterbacks can play effectively into their late 30s, or beyond. So, a backup quarterback might never get much of a chance to show what he can do during a real game.
Not surprisingly, Gerhart hoped to get selected high in last spring's baseball draft and pass up this season in football. But, his college hitting stats (.288 last season with a lot of strikeouts) suggests he's more of a prospect right now in baseball -- a huge, fast outfielder who doesn't always get his bat on even college pitching.
Or, Gerhart, who was valedictorian in high school, could, like Jay Berwanger, even get a job.