Todd Gurley, Kareem Hunt, Running Towards, And Running Away

Georgia's Todd Gurley is a Heisman contender. Toledo's Kareem Hunt is a star on a low-wattage team. Each is running his own race.
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The Missouri Tigers played their first football game in 1890, which is closer to the end of the Civil War than the beginning of the Great Depression, and something like a midlife crisis’ worth of time on earth before the awarding of the first Heisman Trophy. It’s not that Tiger football is synonymous with modernity, but it arrived on the planet around the same time, during the same decade that brought the world Wrigley gum and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

And yet, over all those years, the school has no Heisman Trophy winners to its credit, and only 13 consensus All-Americans. There are a couple dozen variously visible and productive alums in the NFL, and there is also Blaine Gabbert. This lack of individual achievement would be of little significance if the program stood in monolith, but it has only 15 conference championships and two unclaimed national titles dating back to college football’s darkish ages. This is not nothing, but when Missouri appears in the broader college football conversation, it is about sporadic overachievement and intermittent near misses.

Toledo’s football history began in 1917, a year before a serious Spanish Flu pandemic, with a 145-0 loss at the hands of Detroit. The team went winless that first season, and was outscored on the year by a total of 262 points. From that early abyss, the school has gone on to post a .542 winning percentage. Their home stadium is nicknamed “The Glass Bowl,” in honor of the Ohio city’s manufacturing legacy. There really is no reason to watch a game featuring the likes of Missouri versus Toledo.

I watched it anyway, and got what I deserved. By halftime, Missouri’s lead was three touchdowns. Later three touchdowns would become four, before Toledo closed the margin to 14. The only reason to watch, by then, was for feats of individual athleticism, even if such feats were devoid of a larger narrative significance.

A quick glance at the box score suggests the Tigers’ starting quarterback Maty Mauk was easily the player of the game: he threw for 325 passing yards and five touchdowns. The score suggests he threw his two interceptions in part because he knew he could get away with it. By right of victory, this game should have belonged to Maty Mauk. Instead it belonged to Toledo RB Kareem Hunt, whose team did not win, but whose effort was the only real reason to keep watching.

Hunt piled up 148 yards on just 15 carries – that is, nearly first-down distance on every tote – and three touchdowns. Mauk, an SEC quarterback, put up huge numbers against a MAC team that failed to make a bowl game last season. Hunt, a running back on that same listless team, put up huge numbers against a Top 25 SEC team.

The rest of Toledo’s running backs did little to nothing, but Hunt, his legs unfolding like a switchblade’s metal edge, stole his yards with a master criminal’s precision. He did not outdistance defenders in some superhuman manner; he sidestepped into the hole and ran before linebackers and safeties as if he were their own shadow. Their strides overlapped and tangled with his, but, for all their seeming proximity, they could not grab him.

He was strikingly human, smaller and slower than his competition as expected, but too ephemeral to tackle. He was behind the line, he was in the field, and then he crossed into the safety of the end zone. He was everywhere he was not supposed to be. This feat of humble shapeshifting was on vivid display during Hunt’s 38-yard burst late in the first quarter. It was the last time the Rockets would pull even with the Tigers.

***

A week prior to Hunt’s silent scream, Georgia running back Todd Gurley, racked up 198 yards on 15 carries against a Top 25 ACC team in primetime, adding a breathtaking kickoff return of 100 yards for a touchdown. Kareem Hunt is by no means Todd Gurley, who is a dazzling talent that seems to have sprung from the imaginations of Stan Lee and Michelangelo, a child of Greek myth and Optimus Prime who will most likely become very rich playing football.

Gurley is something else altogether than Kareem Hunt, but—and this does matter—his performance against Clemson was behind an offensive line of SEC athletes. And, while his performance was legendary, Gurley didn’t even have the most yards per carry for his team; that bragging right belonged to freshman Nick Chubb, who rolled up 70 yards on just four carries. Three other Georgia running backs besides Gurley and Chubb ran for over five yards per carry. Gurley set the tone, but this offensive line pushed around their opposite numbers all day.

Hunt did not have this advantage on his 9.9 yards per carry; the rest of his team had 22 yards on the ground, not counting starting quarterback Phillip Ely’s negative 16. In comparison, Hunt’s sleight of hand appears singular, whereas Gurley operated as the head of a locomotive pulling a whole train of boxcars behind him. This is not the only difference, however.

After all, the Gurley Myth is not entirely his own. His narrative, and our natural acceptance of it, comes to us in red and black ink. It was a bestseller before he ever played a down, its preface already written by Herschel Walker, with blurbs from the likes of Knowshon Moreno, Terrell Davis, and Garrison Hearst. And, if the Gurley train keeps rolling, through the red clay and green pine, flattening defenders like pennies, what Gurley does in the NFL will be of little consequence to his already-made myth. His college career will be as fixed in bronze as a bust in UGA’s Butts-Mehre complex.

And yet as Georgia’s recent game against South Carolina proves, put Hercules in a helmet and Hera’s snakes can still find him. For the Bulldogs, who lost the game 38 to 35, the game’s moment of crisis appears to have been the first and goal from the four yard line in which Gurley, the nation’s best running back, was not given the ball. Instead, the Dawgs opted to rely on Hutson Mason, the team’s quarterback and a first-year starter. The result was an intentional grounding call. The team never reached the end zone; a field goal was missed. The game went into the record books as a loss. But another moment of note is one that, for the most part, never happened.

In the first quarter, Gurley erupted from the backfield—untouched—for a 55-yard touchdown in which he outdistanced linebacker and safety alike. It was a run similar to his kickoff return against Clemson in that it demonstrated the superiority of his athleticism in comparison with all other atomized bodies on the field. When Gurley romps through the defense like the mind of God, it’s not so much that he’s been set free but that he always was. To have such a moment erased by a holding penalty, then, feels like some sort of gash in the universe. Football does that a lot.

In Toledo’s game following the loss to Missouri, Hunt ran, once again, for 101 yards on twelve carries in a blowout loss to Cincinnati. Another loss on the ledger. But while the strength of Georgia’s SEC schedule (along with national TV appearances) will etch Gurley’s name in redemption, Toledo’s MAC schedule will most likely send Hunt adrift.

After all, Kareem Hunt cannot rely on the narrative power of Toledo to sustain him. Despite running for 2,508 yards and 45 touchdowns his senior year at South High School (his numbers were roughly the same in his junior season), Hunt’s life raft is lashed together out of a schedule that includes the likes of: Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Massachusetts, Kent State, Bowling Green, and—drumroll please—Eastern Michigan. He seems fated to be a local legend; a name that crackles on the breeze, maybe, but not in bronze. That is, unless he somehow leads the Rockets to upset Iowa State. Such is the career of a galloping ghost. That might be it.

***

Football’s inclination towards narrative is a silly and mostly incomplete thing, but it is not always wrong. Kareem Hunt could not be Todd Gurley if only he were to put on a Georgia uniform. Few humans alive could be.

But, at the same time, is it possible that the Toledo uniform cocoons Hunt’s potential and achievements? Could he not be elevated in stature by swapping the legacies and traditions and pageantries of his institution for one of the SEC? Even if Kareem Hunt couldn’t be Todd Gurley on a football field, he could perhaps be his parallel in some program’s storyline. This wouldn’t do much for him as a player, but it might do wonders for his legend.

We need look no further than his teammate, Phillip Ely, to see how such transactions work. Phillip Ely, after all, is as much the transfer from Alabama as he is the quarterback of Toledo. The word transfer following him like a brand that is both a promise and a curse. Kareem Hunt, however, will always be the running back from Toledo, just as Gurley will always be the one from Athens.

But perhaps these are the wrong questions, perhaps even the wrong sentiments.

College football’s recent transition from a two-team championship game to a four-team Playoff is more oligarchy than democracy. But it’s a far cry from the barbarism that existed in the times before history. The first Heisman Trophy was first given in 1935 to Jay Berwanger from the University of Chicago, a school that no longer has a football team. There is no YouTube footage of Berwanger’s playing days to review, and the only visual we have to go with the name is a bronze statue; arm extended, its legs bracing for a collision with the present or contemplating an impossible change in direction.

Then consider the NFL career of Desmond Howard. He was a return specialist and a Super Bowl MVP, but, for better or worse, his moment of striking the Heisman pose in the end zone will be something like the sum of his college virtuosity. The images of his triumph are etched upon the internet. Consider Danny Wuerffel and Eric Crouch and Gino Torretta and Jason White, whose NFL careers (or the absence thereof) only look like busts because of the Heisman Trophies that preceded them. That particular defining notoriety is a blessing and a curse; something to chase and something from which to run. But the moment a player catches it or is caught by it, his story ossifies.

Such can be seen with Todd Gurley II. In many ways, after all, he and the Trophy have already meshed together—flesh into metal and back. Such is apparent every time he powers his way into the end zone, flexes those piston limbs, and bears the number 3 like an engine number on fire. This is the path before him.

Kareem Hunt, on the other hand, doesn’t need shit. There’s nothing tragic in his shadow runs. Watching him tiptoe through history is stirring, ducking and dodging, turning defenders to statues. He is a glitch; a floater in the eye. Let him sprint. Let him spin. You’re lucky if you see him. You’ll never notice if you don’t. His path is not an arc or a line. It punctures the moment and disappears. He’ll be forgotten, which doesn’t mean he isn’t worth remembering.

 


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I may have spoke too soon when I wrote that no footage exits of Berwanger. For example, there is this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HObZxHA2Xb0.

However, I think this footage is in line with my grandparents' home movies and the highlights of a neighborhood game on Thanksgiving.