You remember Toby.
Even though he had put up some astounding numbers in high school, expectations were low for him upon his arrival at the Farm. Other Pac-10 schools had recruited him, but most had seen his bruising running style and physical frame and figured he translated into a fullback at the collegiate level. Stanford offered him a chance to compete at the tailback position -- and play baseball as well -- so Toby became a Cardinal.
He played in every game as a freshman, and even started once, but his contribution was modest: 106 carries for 375 yards. Even so, he entered his sophomore campaign as one of the top backs on the squad and rushed for 140 yards on just twelve carries in the season opener against San Jose State... before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the third quarter.
Expectations are obviously reduced for any running back returning from a serious knee injury, but Gerhart had a phenomenal junior season, one of the best of any Stanford running back in history. He broke Tommy Vardell's single-season school rushing record, racking up 1,136 yards, and also ran for fifteen touchdowns. Following the season he was named second-team All-Pac-10 and seemed poised for an historic senior season.
It's hard to believe now, but there were whispers that Gerhart might not even play as a senior. Another in a long line of Stanford two-sport stars, Gerhart was performing as well on the baseball diamond as on the football field. He finished his junior campaign with Mark Marquess's baseball team hitting .356 with four homers and 12 RBIs in his last eleven games and seemed ready to improve from there. Gerhart would be eligible for the major league draft following his junior season, and there was real concern on the football side that an impressive junior campaign could draw enough interest from baseball people to pull him away from football forever. Gerhart's final season of baseball, however, was disappointing, and he returned his focus to the grid iron.
If Gerhart's junior season on the football field was historic, his senior season was otherworldly. He opened eyes with a 200-yard effort against Washington in the fourth game of the season, ran off a string of hundred-yard games through the middle of the schedule, and then burst onto the national consciousness by staging his own personal Heisman campaign over the season's final four weeks: 38 carries for a school-record 223 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon; 134 yards and three touchdowns in the "what's your deal?" blowout of USC; four-touchdowns and 136 yards against Cal in Big Game; and finally the exclamation point in the season's final game against Notre Dame.
If your DVR is set to record all Stanford sports events like mine is, you get the pleasure of watching this game every few months or so when it's replayed on ESPN Classic. If you don't, it doesn't matter -- it's burned into your memory. There are the numbers, which are ridiculous: 29 carries, 205 yards, and three touchdowns, plus a touchdown pass to Ryan Whalen, just for fun.
But those statistics don't tell the whole story. On that night Toby Gerhart was the best player on the planet. He was Jim Brown. He was Paul Bunyan. He was Superman. When Notre Dame defenders tried tackling him, he simply ran them over, and eventually they stopped trying, choosing to let him walk into the end zone for his final touchdown. It was anti-climactic, but it was informative. The defense was powerless to stop him, and they knew it.
Next came a moment that changed the outward perception of Stanford Football forever. Fans poured onto the field to celebrate the victory after the final gun, and all attention focused on Gerhart. A national television audience watched as ABC's field reporter tried to interview the winning coach, Jim Harbaugh. It was certainly a big win for Stanford and it's rising head coach, but Harbaugh wouldn't speak to the reporter until he was able to find Gerhart.
The reporter, the coach, and the running back stood tightly together, swaying back and forth against the surging sea of Stanford fans, all serenading Gerhart with slow, rolling chants of "Heiiiiiis-man! Heiiiiiis-man!" The exact quote escapes me, but the spirit I'll never forget. Harbaugh grabbed hold of Gerhart's shoulder pads to pull him close and leaned into the microphone before shouting over the din of the crowd, "Here's your Heisman Trophy winner right here! He's the one you should talk to!"
The camera pulled back to pan the entire crowd, and Brent Musberger admitted that while he had seen a lot of great performances in his decades-long career, he didn't think he had ever seen anything as impressive as what Gerhart had done that night against Notre Dame. It should've been his Heisman moment, but the voters got it wrong. Seduced by the Dark Side (the SEC), they chose Alabama running back Mark Ingram in the closest vote in Heisman history.
Even without the Heisman on the top line of his collegiate résumé, Gerhart finished as one of the greatest running backs in Pac-10 history, and certainly the greatest in Stanford history. He won the Doak Walker Award, given to the top running back in the country, was chosen Pac-10 Player of the Year, and was named to at least five different All-America teams.
He finished that senior season with 343 carries for 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns -- all Stanford single-season records. On his career he compiled 3,522 yards (second only to Darrin Nelson's four-year total of 4,033) and a school record 44 touchdowns. He rattled off eleven 100-yard games in '09 and twenty in his career, again, Stanford records.
The legacy Gerhart leaves, however, has nothing to do with any of that. He showed the nation that it was possible to come to Stanford University and play football at the highest level. It was even possible to wear the Cardinal and White and become the very best player in America. He doesn't have a Heisman Trophy to show for any of that, but one day he'll have a place in the College Football Hall of Fame, and -- if it were up to me -- a bronze statue outside Stanford Stadium.
#3 Bob Whitfield
#4 Troy Walters
#5 Brad Muster
#6 Ron George
#7 Glyn Milburn
#8 Ed McCaffrey
#9 Owen Marecic
#10 Tommy Vardell
#11 Tank Williams
#12 Steve Stenstrom
#13 Riall Johnson
#14 Kailee Wong
#15 Eric Heitmann
#15 Chris Marinelli
#16 John Lynch
#17 Kwame Harris
#18 Chase Beeler
#19 Willie Howard
#20 Shayne Skov
#21 DeRonnie Pitts
#22 Anthony Bookman
#23 Sione Fua
#24 Richard Sherman
#25 John Hopkins
*My first thought was to try to come up with a list of the best Stanford football players of all-time, but I quickly realized that I'm not qualified. I've only been watching Stanford football since the fall of 1987, so I can't really comment intelligently on players who suited up before then. Sure, I know that Jim Plunkett belongs, but I know nothing about Randy Vataha. Sports Illustrated once named Ernie Nevers the greatest college football player of all-time, and that's certainly good enough for me, but how can I possibly rank him against players of a more modern era? So I decided to create a list of the best Stanford players that I've actually seen in my time as a fan, and since that's roughly twenty-five years, I'm calling it the Silver Squad. (Catchy, isn't it?) Anyway, I'd love to hear your own memories of these players, and I won't be offended if you argue about who should or should not have been included on this list. Enjoy.
[Photo Credits: 1. Uncredited; 2. Marcio José Sánchez/AP Photo]