Toby Gerhart was born in March 1987 and has been rushing the football since he was in high school, which means he has been a white running back for at least eight years.
The last white running back to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio? Washington’s John Riggins, back in 1992.
As the NFL draft approached this weekend, scouts from around the league had reservations about Gerhart because … he was also an accomplished baseball player. Yeah, that’s it.
We began this post rather haphazardly to highlight an issue that is very much a part of Gerhart’s story as the Minnesota Vikings’ pick at No. 51 Friday night, yet doesn’t get nearly the same scrutiny — more like microscopic biomolecular inspection — that most elements of most draftee’s games receive.
Instead, it gets dealt with sideways, cautiously, even self-consciously casual, although it has much to do with where and when Gerhart was drafted and even more so with the projections all the experts have for his career.
Gerhart, if you didn’t know by now, is white. Which is a rarity these days, akin to being a black Olympian in the butterfly or a fifty-something journalist with two job offers. It was backdrop heading into the draft — as much as his runner-up finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting or his 27 touchdowns and 1,871 yards gained last season at Stanford.
And it figures to be subtext to his pro career, good, bad or indifferent. Whether folks ‘fess up about that or not.
Just when you thought Vikings coach Brad Childress was about to tackle the topic head on — “I know you guys [media] want to put him in a box because of…,” Childress said in his post-pick news briefing — he veered away from it. Finishing his thought, the coach said: “… what his weight is.” Oh, right, because of what Gerhart’s weight (231 pounds, by the way) is. Let’s just say the real answer is contained therein, anagram style: w-h-i-t-e.
Reporters had asked about Gerhart being a lead blocker for the Vikings, rather than a featured back. Code lives, apparently.
Even the most innocent references to Gerhart and where he’ll fit into the Vikings’ pecking order can get a little awkward. Adrian Peterson’s “shadow” in the Purple backfield? Ahem. What if the roles were reversed — would Peterson be referred to as Gerhart’s shadow? People would be waiting for a Sammy Davis Jr. number to break out.
More than 22 years have passed since Washington’s Doug Williams, the MVP of Super Bowl XXII, allegedly was asked in the days leading up to that game: “How long have you been a black quarterback?”
But that sort of stereotyping — even without any malice involved — still goes on. Where once it focused on black QBs, now the shock and skepticism is associated with white RBs or WRs.
Gerhart told Yahoo! Sports that race came up as he prepped for, and was poked and prodded by curious teams, the NFL draft. Sure, they liked his size (6-0, 231), his 4.50 time in the 40-yard dash and the athleticism suggested by a 38-inch vertical leap. But there were little insinuations and, sometimes, blatant queries, all based on his unintentional challenge to, er, positional assumptions.
“One team I interviewed with asked me about being a white running back,” Gerhart told Yahoo! NFL writer Michael Silver. “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.”
It also is curious that, when experts compare Gerhart’s style as a back, names like Riggins, Tommy Vardell and Craig James come up in the conversation. All white running backs. It works that way in the NBA, where the young fellows who get compared in playing style to Larry Bird or John Stockton — lo and behold — almost always are Caucasian. Christian Laettner, during his stay with the Timberwolves, even lectured a local AP reporter for almost mindlessly, certainly harmlessly, linking him and Bird.
In Minnesota, folks like to think they are beyond such superficial factors (though the Timberwolves, like Utah and Boston, share a reputation for wanting white players in the mix for fan appeal). As for Vikings fans, they are like NFL fans in most places — they care mostly about victories and defeats, cheering the guys who contribute to the former, criticizing those who seem responsible for the latter.
But in the equivalent of another NFL lifetime, a fullback named Rick Fenney was cheered seemingly out of proportion to his on-field production, with Twin Cities sportswriter Patrick Reusse suggesting it was directly attributable to Fenney being white.
And if we start hearing Bill Brown or Dave Osborn mentioned more often in 2010 than in recent seasons — in talks about Vikings rushers past and present and anywhere in the vicinity of Gerhart’s name — we’ll know that these things haven’t quite gone color-blind.