It’s already been a tingly good fall season for coach Todd Gerhart, whose Norco High School football has won 11 straight games and whose son Toby has emerged as college football’s hottest commodity.
But this brought Todd flat-out shivers.
Getting ready for practice Wednesday, he remembered a conversation he hadn’t thought about for years, partly because it was almost a decade ago, partly because it seemed so random and mostly because it was way out there.
Now it seems straight from Miss Cleo herself.
Seems one of Todd’s physical education peers, kind little Linda Chitwood was retiring from teaching and before she moved on she had an innocent fun little confession to make.
She had met Toby, then a seventh grader, just once while he and his dad were working out.
“I don’t want you to think I’m weird or strange,” Mrs. Chitwood said. “But I had a dream about Toby the night after I met him.”
Said Todd: “Oh really, what was it?”
“Well, I dreamt he was at Stanford University and he won the Heisman trophy.”
We repeat. This conversation was almost 10 years ago. (Insert Twilight Zone music here).
Now, the 2009 Heisman candidates won’t even be announced until Monday and though Toby seems a lock to be a finalist, no one is making Mrs. Chitwood a prophet yet, especially Todd who was reluctant to even recount the story on the basis of bad luck, Karma or form.
But it parallels a whirlwind season and period he could only describe as “dream like.”
“I told Lori (his wife) the other night the only directions things can go at this point is down,” he said. “It can’t go up. It can’t possibly stay at this level.”
Between five Norco victories by a touchdown or less, topped off with a 26-20 Southern Section Inland Division quarterfinal win over Arlington (Riverside) Friday night and all-weekend travels to watch two college-playing sons (Garth is an offensive lineman at Arizona) and three daughters playing college fall softball (freshman twins Kelsey and Teagan at Stanford and older sister Whitney at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), Todd was already burning it at all ends.
After roughly half of this season’s Friday games, Lori, Todd and youngest son Colton, would board the family 15-passenger capacity maxi-van and high tail it from Norco, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, and head North. “I sleep the first four-hour shift and Lori gets the second,” Todd said.
The other half of the season the couple has used frequent-flier airplane tickets.
“I won’t lie, it’s been very busy and pretty stressful,” Todd said. “You get tired that’s for sure.”
Coaching by committee
So how has he kept on top of his coaching duties? And helped the Cougars, ranked 15th in the state by MaxPreps.com and 115th nationally, win so many close games?
That answer is easy Todd says, but comes in three parts: offensive coordinator Alan Krueger, defensive coordinator Larry Baker and assistant/do-everything coach Reiny Klein.
All have been assistants at Norco for more than 20 years and all, like Todd, are former Norco and Cal State Fullerton students and players.
With that kind of chemistry and experience, Todd doesn’t need tight reigns or control. In his sixth season as head coach, Todd is 65-14 with a pair of section titles.
“If I have to jump on a plane or meet with recruiters, I’m just a phone call away,” he said. “Everyone keeps this thing going.”
And they keep it going on the ground.
According to the calhisports.com record book, Toby is the state career rushing leader with 9,662 yards over 44 games from 2002-2005. He’s more than 1,000-yards better than No. 2 rusher, St. Bonaventure-Ventura’s Lorenzo Booker (8,495) and he’s the career leader in carries (1,049).
In the spread era, Krueger’s offense is still full speed ahead but now spread between three runners, Arizona State-bound Deatre Lewis (187 carries, 2,070 yards, 27 TDs), Kelsey Young (142-1,459, 9) and Carl Bradford (108-706-11). The Cougars average 363 yards rushing per game.
Remarkably, they have completed just 15 passes all year but for an equally remarkable 532 yards (44.3 average).
If they win Friday at undefeated Vista Murrieta, the Cougars will advance to the championship game on Dec. 11, the night before the Heisman awards ceremony in New York.
Before Wednesday’s practice, Toby made a quick jaunt home to make sure he had a proper suit to pack just in case.
“With this schedule, you have to make sure your ducks are lined in a row,” he said.
On the cusp
With Toby’s ascent to the Heisman race, the media requests for Todd, who played one season for the Denver Gold of the USFL, have grown by leaps and Toby touchdowns.
It reached a crescendo during another breakout game Saturday against Notre Dame when Toby rushed for 205 yards and three scores and passed for another. Todd was followed constantly by network cameras and even interviewed during game action, something he didn’t appear particularly comfortable with.
“I’m just a father trying to watch his son play his last home game,” Todd said. “I want to watch all my kids, not get on TV.”
His hometown newspaper backs that up.
Riverside Inland-Empire sports writer Eric-Paul Johnson said Todd is definitely proud of Toby’s accomplishments, but never boastful. He lets others bring up Heisman and other Toby-related topics, which is often.
Norco, short for North Corona, is a one-high school city of approximately 25,000 in Riverside County.
“It’s really a close community,” Johnson said. “It really has an overwhelming old-school feeling and the people are proud of one of their graduates. … Everyone wants to talk to Todd about it. You can see by his smile, see by his face, that he’s a proud father.”
Even when he coached Toby at Norco, no one accused dad of showcasing son.
“Everyone could see clearly Toby was a special talent and kid,” Johnson said.
Like his father, Johnson said, Toby deflected attention to others, especially his lineman. He was humble, even bashful and seemed uncomfortable with the spotlight.
“Even when he scored touchdowns, he never showed much emotion and just handed the ball the referee,” Johnson said.
Except for his last touchdown, the one that secured Toby’s first and only CIF championship, a 28-14 win over Temescal Canyon in 2005. Norco had lost the previous two title games.
“That’s the only time I really saw Toby get excited and let out some emotion,” Johnson said. “He’d done everything else in high school. That was his one missing accomplishment.”
Now he appears on the cusp of attaining college football’s greatest individual one.
On Tuesday, Toby heads to Orlando, Fla. to get ready for Thursday’s announcement of the Doak Walker Award, presented to the nation’s top college running back. Alabama sophomore Mark Ingram and Clemson senior C.J. Spillers are the other finalists.
If picked as a Heisman finalist, he’ll then fly to New York where he’ll no doubt join his family sometime Saturday.
If Norco is in the title game the night before, Todd said a limo is scheduled to pick up the Gerhart family from the stadium and whisk them off to LAX where they will catch a red-eye to New York.
No word yet if Mrs. Chitwood is on the guest list.
E-mail Mitch Stephens at email@example.com.