Shortly after Stanford’s thrilling 45-38 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday night, I engaged several friends and acquaintances in a Facebook conversation in response to the following post by a colleague: “I wish that announcers could actually say that Toby Gerhart might have a hard time in the NFL draft because he is a white running back. And can he please be compared to someone other than John Riggins? Please?”
I initially glossed over the Gerhart issue and asked my buddy to list his top five white tailbacks in NFL history. As more friends joined the discussion, scanning their collective memories and search engines for names to be included, it occurred to me just how impossible the question was to answer. The reason? There haven’t been five top-flight white tailbacks worth mentioning in the history of the league.
Riggins was certainly an exception to the rule, having rushed for more than 11,000 yards in his Hall of Fame career, and scoring over 100 rushing touchdowns, but he was more of a fullback than a tailback. He did line up at the running back spot for part of his career, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Similarly, former Dolphins great Larry Csonka was a feature back in the Miami offense, but he too was a fullback. It was Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick sharing the halfback duties for Don Shula back in the 1970s. You have to go back to the 1960s to find Packers’ Hall of Famer Jim Taylor, a six-time All-Pro who ran for 83 TDs and nearly 9,000 yards, but once again — a fullback.
More recent white running backs of note include Craig James, who starred with Eric Dickerson at SMU as part of the “Pony Express,” and who had one 1,000-yard rushing season in the NFL. Merrill Hoge, as a Facebook friend reminded me, led the Steelers in carries for a couple years, as did the Tampa Bay Bucs’ all-time leading rusher, Mike Alstott. Both were fullbacks.
One online poster tried to throw Darryl “Moose” Johnston into the mix, but Johnston was the prototypical fullback of the modern day, plowing holes for Emmitt Smith in the Dallas Cowboys’ championship years of the 1990s — a guard lining up in the backfield.
The point here, returning to my friend’s expressed desire to hear broadcasters discussing the (white) elephant in the room, is that Gerhart will never be considered as a possible feature back in the NFL; and yes, his skin tone will play a large role in that evaluation.
The sad truth is that no one would ever dare to suggest racism in the fact that there are no starting, let alone star, white running backs in the NFL — which they did when black athletes were once judged to be incapable of playing the quarterback position. And keeping a tally or putting a quota on the number of white backs, as they’ve done for black QBs and head coaches? Not a chance.
I’d like to wish Toby Gerhart all the luck in the world in the Heisman race and in his future in the NFL. He’s going to need it.
Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.