Gerhart, Rolle will try to overcome stereotypes to make it in the NFL
Toby Gerhart is trying to be one of the few white RBs to make it in NFL
Some might downgrade Myron Rolle for having non-football interests
Author overcame the stereotype of being an Ivy Leaguer playing in NFL
Stereotypes are prevalent in our society, and the NFL is no different. I know. I was one of the few Ivy League graduates trying to make a living as a professional football player when I signed with the Washington Redskins in 2001 as an undrafted rookie free agent. For the next seven years, not a single day went by in which I didn't feel as if I had to overcome the stereotypes that players, coaches and management had about me as a Princeton guy playing in the NFL.
Some people assumed I grew up in a life of privilege. I didn't. Others didn't think football was as important to me as it was to the others. They were right -- it was more important to me. Maybe some of it was just my imagination or the sizable chip I had on my shoulder, but I carried that stereotype with me and tried to combat it, whether that meant getting in a fight every time I went to a new team or spending more time than anyone else breaking down tape.
This year's draft class includes two well-known prospects who have already been typecast. On one coast, we have the stud from Stanford trying to overcome preconceived notions regarding white running backs in the NFL. On the other coast is the Rhodes Scholar who may be too smart or diverse for NFL standards. Toby Gerhart and Myron Rolle are two of the most intriguing stories in a draft class loaded with them. As these guys will soon find out, their NFL journey is going to be even more difficult than the typical rookie's.
The White Running Back
Gerhart's college numbers and game film show he is an elite runner. The Heisman Trophy finalist was one of the best players in college football last season. At the NFL Scouting Combine, he answered questions about his athleticism by running a 4.53 40-yard dash and recording a 38-inch vertical jump, while weighing 231 pounds. He is projected as a late second-round pick.
Still, questions about his ability to be a starting tailback in the NFL remain.
Why? There aren't any true white feature backs in the NFL and there haven't been any in a long time. Heck, it's an absolute rarity for a white running back to become a starter at the NCAA Division I FBS level.
I don't believe the people who doubt Gerhart can make it in the NFL are racist or prejudiced in any way. In talking with a number of coaches and scouts at many levels of football, I found the prevailing wisdom to be that it is more of a subconscious bias based upon simply not seeing it happen in a long time. The same would hold true for a white player at cornerback in the NFL, where there hasn't been a consistent starter since Jason Sehorn in the 1990's. It is only natural for people to be skeptical that Gerhart will bust a stereotype that has been building momentum for years.
But can we please think outside the box when trying to compare him to other players? The John Riggins and Mike Alstott comparisons grow a little tiresome.
"I was talking with [longtime NFL safety] John Lynch, and joking around that he was in the same situation as a safety," Gerhart said. "We're often only compared to other quote-unquote white guys that play our position. ... I'm color blind. I'm a running back. I'd compare myself to the running styles of Eddie George and Corey Dillon."
Now all Gerhart needs to do is go out and prove it for the next five or six years so that the next great white running back won't have to answer all of the same questions and face such an uphill battle. Although if Gerhart does succeed, the next "great white hope" probably will be endlessly compared to Gerhart.
The Rhodes Scholar
At least Gerhart is a player whose on-field production and passion for the game speak for themselves and have never been questioned. Former Florida State safety Myron Rolle should be so lucky.
Rolle, you may remember, passed up his senior season of athletic eligibility at Florida State -- not to enter the draft, but to accept the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and study for a year at Oxford. It wasn't exactly the typical career path for an NFL hopeful who was once the top-ranked high school player in the country. But Rolle, a projected sixth-round prospect, is anything but typical. He's probably the only NFL prospect who wants to be a neurosurgeon when his playing days are over.
The irony, of course, is that his outward admission of said goals may contribute to him being able to pursue those opportunities a lot sooner than he would like. Unlike Gerhart, Rolle did not run particularly well at the combine and he is not coming off a particularly productive college career.
He also carries two big strikes in the minds of some NFL people, though no one would ever admit it publicly: He is smarter than most of the coaches and he has other serious interests outside of football. That may seem laughable, but neither one of those is a particularly valued quality in the NFL.
Coaches are an insecure. They don't want players who could potentially question them or their philosophies, even if said players would never actually do that out of respect for the coach-player relationship.
They also are inherently skeptical of somebody like Rolle, who has other interests or opportunities outside of football -- as if that reality somehow means the player is less committed to football.
I was a little hesitant to have offseason internships during my career because I didn't want to perpetuate the whole Princeton stereotype. Ultimately, though, I decided I couldn't sit around every afternoon in the offseason playing video games like a lot of the other guys, especially when I knew football was just a temp job. And as I once told Bills general manager Tom Donahoe, putting on a suit and tie and going into the Merrill Lynch office in downtown Buffalo was unbelievable motivation for me to play football for as long as I possibly could. Besides, I was still spending more extra time at the facility than anyone else, so I don't think they really cared.
Ultimately, I think I was able to overcome the stereotype people had of me. Hopefully Rolle and Gerhart can do the same.
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