"I didn't think I could be one of these guys," Gerhart said. "It was like, 'Wow, it would be awesome to be included here.' I was not projecting myself to do it but just thinking this is a special place and to be included in this would be a dream."
That dream still seemed farfetched when Gerhart was recruited to play fullback and linebacker at Southern California despite setting a California high school record for yards rushing. It didn't appear any closer as he struggled through his first two years at Stanford. And it still seemed like a long shot early in his senior year.
After a remarkable closing stretch to the season that Heisman dream is coming close to being a reality. Gerhart was picked Monday as one of five finalists for college football's most coveted individual award.
"It's the greatest honor I've ever received," Gerhart said. "It's like a dream come true. Once you get to this level you dream of getting nominated as a potential Heisman candidate. To be mentioned like that is an honor and I'm thrilled to death."
Gerhart earned the honor by rushing for more yards (1,736) and more touchdowns (26) than any other player in the country, while leading No. 19 Stanford (8-4) to a second-place finish in the Pac-10 and its first bowl bid in eight years.
Barely on the national radar when the season began, Gerhart will join 2007 winner Tim Tebow, 2008 runner-up Colt McCoy, Alabama running back Mark Ingram and Nebraska defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh as finalists when the award is handed out Saturday.
"The Heisman Trophy is one of those awards that has evolved to 50 percent of it is about preseason hype, 25 percent is about giving it to somebody on the undefeated team and 25 percent is about what the player is accomplishing," coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Gerhart might be lacking in the first two categories, but his accomplishments this season match up with just about anyone's in college football. He scored touchdowns in all but one game, topped 100 yards 10 times and 200 yards three times, and averaged at least 4.4 yards per carry in every game this season.
And it's those accomplishments that might finally help Gerhart shed some of the stereotypes he has had to overcome in his career as a white tailback. When Gerhart tells strangers he's a running back, he said they automatically assume he plays fullback.
That's in part because of his solid build but also because of his race. There are currently no white running backs starting in the NFL and even now Gerhart hears the questions about whether he will be moved to fullback at the next level.
"I don't really have all the flash," Gerhart said. "I just go out and produce. I'm a big running back. I don't want to say race has anything to do with it but that was definitely a question coming out of high school. A lot of people were saying I was going to be a fullback not a tailback."
Gerhart will likely join 1982 runner-up John Elway and 1970 winner Jim Plunkett as the only Stanford players to finish in the top five in Heisman voting in the past half-century. Fittingly, the news came as Gerhart was rushing off to take an Investment Sciences final on Monday, part of his 21-credit quarter that he has balanced along with football.
"It put me in a good mood for my test," he said. "Actually I think I did pretty well on that one."
Gerhart burst onto the national scene by rushing for 334 yards and four touchdowns in back-to-back early season wins over Washington and UCLA. But it was his performance in November in the toughest stretch of the season for the Cardinal that made him a legitimate contender.
He started it off by running for 223 yards and three TDs in a 51-42 victory over No. 7 Oregon. He followed that with 178 yards rushing and three more scores in a 55-21 win over No. 11 USC that left the Trojans wondering why they didn't think Gerhart could play tailback.
He had 136 yards and four TDs in a 34-28 loss to California, before finishing his season off with 205 yards, three touchdowns rushing and a TD pass in a 45-38 victory against Notre Dame.
That performance rocketed him up Heisman lists around the country, even as he discouraged Stanford from doing any marketing gimmicks to help his campaign.
"I let the production and play speak for itself," he said. "There wasn't a lot of preseason hype, or no preseason hype to be exact. To be recognized for what you do on the field and not as a media baby, that makes it that much more special."
Gerhart is also quick to credit his teammates, especially his blockers and QB Andrew Luck.
While the Heisman is an individual award, Gerhart views it as an honor that shows off the turnaround made by the entire program. Led by their Heisman finalist, the Cardinal are nationally ranked and headed to the Sun Bowl to take on Oklahoma.