Honor Roll No. 3: Legacy outlives Gerhart

During the summer months, we are releasing the 10 winners of this prestigious award, one by one. Gymnast Carly Janinga and soccer's Kelley O'Hara were the first two members of The Bootleg's 2009-2010 Honor Roll. Adding plenty of much-needed testosterone to the mix is our next winner, football's Toby Gerhart.

In a June 15 article, we released the 31 finalists for The Bootleg Honor Roll for the 2009-2010 school year.

The criteria are as follows:

Each academic year, The Bootleg's Honor Roll will recognize the top ten Stanford student-athletes who have performed at an exceptional level, with athletic accomplishments that are both extraordinary and inspirational. While achieving athletic success, these athletes should also have displayed uncommon leadership, sportsmanship and respect towards their fellow teammates and opponents. Finally, these honorees' performances and actions should also demonstrate their love for their particular sport as well as their school pride, the famed "Spirit of Stanford."

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Yours truly has a pretty cool job here at The Bootleg, but do not envy him for having to write this up. Writing about Toby so soon after his season for the ages is the Stanford sports version of eulogizing JFK just after his death.

Obviously Stanford sports matter far less in the course of world events than geopolitics (after all, that's pretty much the definition of "geopolitics", no?), and I don't mean to analogize leaving Stanford early to being assassinated, but as is the case at least sometimes, I do have a point, and indeed, my point is this: In our small Stanford sports universe, Toby was the man who, more than anyone, his coach included, started us on our trek to national relevance and however far above and beyond that you dare to dream.

Perhaps the best way to explain the butterfly effect Gerhart has set into motion is via further analogy. No JFK, no national dream. No national dream, no R&D funding. No R&D funding, no moon landing. Thus, only years later did we realize what JFK had meant.

No Toby, no Heisman runner-up, no shellacking of USC and Oregon, no season of the decade. No season of the decade, no top-twenty recruiting classes. No top-twenty classes, maybe no top-ten classes, as we appear to be on pace for this year, wood knocked. No nationally elite recruiting classes, no nationally elite football program, which it doesn't take a leap of faith to envision a regular presence here starting in three or so years' time.

So just like trying to write about JFK's historical legacy in 1963, six years before the space program he championed reached its pinnacle of success, how do you explain Toby Gerhart's significance when the events he set into motion are still unfolding, and will be for years to come? For as with all the brightest stars, Gerhart's legacy will outlive him.

Before Toby, entire classes of Stanford football had come and gone without playing in a bowl.

After Toby, it's quite possible, perhaps probable, that entire classes of Stanford football will come and go without missing a bowl.

Before Toby, when people thought Stanford football, maybe they thought of "The Play", in which we are the loveable losers, or maybe they thought of John Elway, another lovable loser at the Farm, despite his NFL glory. Quite likely, they didn't think of Stanford football, as we were nationally irrelevant. We were effete nerds doomed to fail at the blue-collar sport that is football. Why would you want to go to school there, be friends with those people?

After Toby, people think of an in-your-face team, people think of Jim Harbaugh and his never-back-down attitude, people think of a squad that embraces a contrarian blue-collar identity in the day and age of the spread and runs you over before dusting off and running you over again. I'm not used to saying this as a Stanford fan and I'm afraid I'll jinx the moment if I do, but folks, people like us.

Not only are we popular thanks to Toby, but what's possible has changed. We work hard in the classroom, but now our academic standing is not a handicap, but is leveraged to our advantage by applying that same work ethic on the field and, moreover, recruiting top athletes from across the nation in a way unmatchable by any school without our academic profile, save for maybe Texas, Florida, Ohio State and USC (And you can scratch that last one now.) It's not who would want to go to Stanford, it's who wouldn't want to go to Stanford, and if you think I'm overstating our new identity, go ask Jim Harbaugh, because he is using that line verbatim when recruiting.

Unlike Harbaugh, I'm no marketing or branding expert, but I was a college student rather recently and a prospective college student not all that long ago, and if you think that the football team's national appeal won't carry over to the university at large (especially if men's basketball helps matters, as they appear likely to do), and that students admitted to both Harvard and Stanford will still be going to Cambridge 80 percent of the time 10 years from now, as is the case today, not only are you psychologically foolish, but you're historically ignorant as well. You're ignoring case studies provided by Texas and Florida in recent years, and USC before that, and Miami before that.

Perhaps Miami great Lamar Thomas best explained a program's ability to affect its school in the recent ESPN documentary "The U": "We earned the university a lot of money, put some beautiful palm trees on campus, built buildings," Thomas said. "Whether it was good or bad, it happened. We changed the face of college football.

"And regardless what anybody thinks, we'll always be remembered."

So Toby Gerhart, not once in your tribute did I mention your many touchdowns, or your graduating months early, or your considerate personality and warm family, or the possibility that you will be a human pinball to defenders and a walking billboard for Stanford for the next dozen years in the NFL. No, it is the sum of all of those things that allow you to transcend the role of a football player. As for virtually all momentous events, ascribing credit to one sole individual is impossible, but as much as anyone started to turn around the reputation of Stanford football, and, by extension, enhanced the image of the University itself, it was you.

People think OJ when they think of USC, people think Tebow when they think of Florida, and people think swagger when they think of Miami. Obviously what happens in the next dozen years will have plenty to say about this, but you have the opportunity to serve as central a role in shaping Stanford's national image. It's unfair that this responsibly has been thrust upon your shoulders, but between Tebow, OJ and the ‘80's Canes, we have examples good, bad and mixed of just how important your role as national representative is, and just how longlasting footballers' legacies can be.

Shoulder the responsibility well and do your University proud. We believe in you. After all, if anyone can carry a heavy load, we suspect it's No. 7.

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