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Gerharts go the extra mile to watch sons play football

On a recent weekend, Todd, the Norco coach, and Lori watch Coltin lead the school to a win, travel for Garth's game with Arizona State at Oregon and wrap it up in Chicago, where Toby's Vikings face the Bears.

November 06, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • Arizona State center Garth Gerhart chats with his parents, Todd and Lori Gerhart, in the lobby of the team hotel in Eugene, Ore., before a Pac-12 game.
Arizona State center Garth Gerhart chats with his parents, Todd and Lori… (Ben Bolch / Los Angeles Times )

Watching the Gerhart boys play football used to be as easy as heading over to Norco High.

Toby was the star running back, Garth the starting center and Coltin the ball boy who hung on his brothers' every play.

Orchestrating it all was Todd, their father and Norco's coach. And there in the stands was Lori, all those Friday nights in the fall spent cheering her husband and sons.

But times change even in the place known as Horsetown U.S.A., where equestrian trails still line a side on busy streets and hitching posts remain outside stores and restaurants.

Toby moved on to Stanford and the Minnesota Vikings, Garth earned a scholarship to Arizona State and Coltin became the high school's starting quarterback.

Every chance they get, the parents try to freeze the clock, examining team schedules and sifting through airline flights and hotels to organize what could be called, for those who don't mind nine hours of sleep over three days, a football family's fantasy weekend.

Last month, the Gerharts saw each of their boys play three consecutive days in different regions of the country.

All it took was an alphabet soup of six flights, ONT-PDX-EUG-PDX-SLC-MDW-DEN-ONT, so that Todd and Lori could see two legendary venues — Oregon's Autzen Stadium and Chicago's Soldier Field.

The tally: 4,535 air miles and one middle-of-the-night ride in a rental car.

The boys make up only half of Todd and Lori's brood of athletes. The Gerharts also have triplet daughters who play college softball.

When the kids resided under one roof, that meant everybody piling into a 15-passenger van for family sporting events. During football season, those trips are now more complicated but still start at Norco football games.

On this particular Friday, the Cougars are playing Riverside King, not the strongest opponent, but considering how poorly Norco played the previous week in a loss, nobody is taking chances. Before the game, voices rise and expletives fly.

Todd takes a spot in the press box high above the field, hoping it will give him a better vantage point than standing on the sideline.

Early on, he doesn't like what he sees. A bottled-up running back laterals the ball to Coltin, who is immediately swarmed by several defenders.

"What is he doing?" Todd barks into his headset. "Get him out of there!"

Todd knows what a running back should and shouldn't do. He played the position at Norco, where he met Lori, a star on the basketball team. Todd also played at Cal State Fullerton and briefly in the defunct United States Football League.

Coltin reminds everyone in the Gerhart family of older brother Toby even though they play different positions. Coltin is the same size Toby was as a high school sophomore — 5 feet 11 and 200 pounds — and has a similar running style, his legs churning like pistons no matter how many defenders are wrapped around him.

Although a bit short for a quarterback, Coltin typically accounts for about 70% of Norco's yardage with his passing and running. King certainly can't stop him. After his second touchdown pass, the game is a runaway before halftime.

Norco goes on to win, 42-7, and afterward Lori squeezes her son in a warm embrace near midfield before shifting her attention to her husband.

Their first flight departs at 6 the next morning, she reminds him, and they need to be out the door by 4:30.

"Four forty-five," Todd replies, already negotiating for every minute of sleep he can get.

If he really wanted to nap on the plane, Todd shouldn't have worn an Arizona State sweatshirt and sun visor.

On the second flight in their journey, from Portland, Ore., to Eugene, Ore., a flight attendant wearing a University of Oregon sweatshirt inquires about his affiliation with the Sun Devils.

She returns a few minutes later, kneeling next to him in the aisle.

"I know who your kid is," she announces, referring to Toby's exploits against the Ducks a few years earlier. "He killed us."

Garth, the middle son — but at 6-2 and 305 pounds, by far the largest — will try to uphold the tradition.

After parking the rental car about a mile from Autzen Stadium, Lori slips into the back seat and uses her iPad to search for an inspirational quote she can text to Garth, a weekly pregame routine.

She finds one from the late Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers: I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.

Victory today is not assured. Oregon is ranked No. 9 in the nation and is undefeated in Pacific 12 Conference play; Arizona State is ranked No. 18.

With a light mist compounding the gloom of a chilly, overcast afternoon, Todd and Lori take their seats in the Sun Devils cheering section, four rows up from the field in a corner of the end zone.

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