The Mike Tolbert moment. Everybody has one, though they almost all differ in time and circumstance.
Mine came in late July of 2004. The talk of Tolbert’s immense talent had preceded the true freshman fullback’s arrival on campus for several months, almost to the point that we expected big on-field contributions in the second season of Coastal Carolina football.
CCU Standout: Coastal fullback Mike Tolbert during the 2006 season
Blue-chip recruits are almost like radio personalities — you develop an image of them in your head, almost always overestimating how much more athletic or awesome they are than the rest of us. Reality is usually a letdown, as was the case when I first laid eyes on Tolbert at our preseason camp cookout that year.
A pudgy, stumpy teammate none of us had ever seen was loading his plate during a trip through the buffet line. He drew our attention, both because he didn’t look in shape nor did he seem, based on his dimensions, to have a position that suited him. When I learned that it was Tolbert, my response was loaded with cynicism: “This guy is going to help us?”
Just hours later at our first practice, the question was answered. In fact, Tolbert didn’t even wait until practice had started to leave his first football-playing impression. The quarterbacks were throwing swing routes out of the backfield to the tailbacks and fullbacks. In Tolbert’s first repetition, the quarterback’s throw was astray, low and hard a few yards in front of Tolbert’s projected path.
Instead of watching it bounce incomplete, Tolbert accelerated and reached down with his right arm, smoothly corralling the pass, which was no higher than 8 inches off the ground. He pulled the football in next to his body and ran another 10 yards before returning to the back of the line. It was a seemingly insignificant moment, but it was the first time that many of us realized that Tolbert was special. Few players could have made that catch — a very small percentage played a position other than wide receiver. All the hype we had heard was legitimate.
For others, both inside and outside of the program, there were other moments that stood out. Perhaps it was the first time they saw him level a linebacker in the hole and make a spin move on the perimeter after making an acrobatic catch. Or perhaps it was the pummeling run at Gardner-Webb in 2006 or maybe the 86-yard touchdown run against VMI in 2007, a game that saw him run for a school-record 244 yards. Others had to wait for him to arrive in the NFL, perhaps witnessing his brilliance for the first time on a goal-line touchdown or on a big special teams hit.
No matter the timing, Tolbert always seems to create the moment, the instant when he makes it apparent that not only does he belong — but he deserves to be recognized among his peers as one of the best.
Praise is heaped upon Tolbert these days. Widely considered to be among the best fullbacks in the NFL, he has started cementing his legacy through the constant need to prove himself to others. Although Tolbert has more athleticism than he’s given credit for, there are certainly fullbacks in the NFL with better ball-carrying, blocking and pass-catching skills.
But what Tolbert might lack in top-end skills, he makes up for in versatility. Sure, other players might be better than him at one thing or another, but it’s hard to find players as good at so many different roles. In the NFL, sometimes it pays — literally, in Tolbert’s case — to be better than average at everything instead of great at some tasks and terrible at others.
Charger: Tolbert made his NFL debut with the San Diego Chargers in 2008.
Tolbert earned his first career Pro Bowl invitation in 2014, capping a season that saw him rush 101 times for 361 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 27 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns. The numbers may seem modest, but he was one of the foundational rocks that Carolina rode to a 12-4 record and the team’s first playoff berth in six years. The success came in the first year of new offensive coordinator Mike Shula, who used Tolbert much more in the running game than his predecessor, Rob Chudzinski.
“When I came back for offseason workouts [in the spring of 2013], we talked for a good 20 or 30 minutes one day,” Tolbert said of Shula. “He said, ‘I’m going to be leaning on you heavy,’ and that’s not just to play fullback or running back or to block. He was leaning on me a lot to be a leader. That means a lot — just knowing that he had the faith in me to know that I could do different things. I think I’m pretty good at what I do. For him to validate it definitely feels good.”
Tolbert is a consummate jokester, using his wacky, post-touchdown end zone dances to become a fan favorite. For the same reason, he’s also a player favorite, helping to keep his teammates loose with his locker room antics. That has also helped increase his value as a player, earning him a four-year, $10-million contract before the 2012 season.
Over the course of his career, Tolbert has accumulated almost 3,500 total rushing and receiving yards, scoring 40 touchdowns. He was also a special teams ace during his four seasons in San Diego, where he started his career as an undrafted free agent.
“He’s just so versatile,” said former Coastal Carolina and NFL safety Quinton Teal, who spent the 2010 season playing with Tolbert in San Diego. “If you give Mike a task, he’s going to do it. He still lives by that today. You need me to do this? I can do it. You need me to catch the ball? I can do it. You need me to pass protect? I can do it. Whatever you need, I can do it. He still has that blue-collar mentality, even though he’s in the NFL now.
“He’s just that hard-nosed player. He’s also a clown that keeps the team loose. But when it came time to work, he worked. He’s working so hard that you knew you had to come out and work just as hard.”
These days Tolbert is a family man. The apple never fell far from the tree, which is one of the reasons he left San Diego, which tried to re-sign him in 2012, for Carolina. His mom, Secelia Tolbert, still lives in his hometown of Douglasville, Ga. Though she attended every game he played for the Chargers, Tolbert wanted to make it easier for his mom, other family and friends to see him play.
They supported him along the way, so he wanted the chance to show them his appreciation.
“Out in San Diego, I was playing great football, but it was rare that my family and friends got to see me play,” he said. “Now that I’m back in the Southeast, friends that I’ve known for years and families members who really couldn’t get out to see me play in San Diego can see me play in Charlotte. That’s a great feeling.”
Still, it doesn’t compare to the lack of worry on his mother’s face or in her words. She struggled to raise her two children as a single parent, often working two jobs to make ends meet. One of Tolbert’s first priorities when he got paid in the NFL was to ensure his mother never had to worry about money again. She always told her children to keep getting good grades, and she would worry about the rest.
“There’s no concern about how am I going to get this done [financially] when I ask her how everything is going,” he said. “Being able to have the ability to write a check and buy my mom a house is something that I can’t explain. To say that when she retires, she’ll have money put away for her, is great. It’s nice to know that everybody in my family has been or will be taken care of.”
First and foremost, that includes his wife of three years and his two children, who have become the center of his life. For all the stories you hear about NFL players taking advantage of their stature, Tolbert seems to be the antithesis. Instead of hanging out with teammates or with fans, he instead rushes home after games to see his family.
It’s those characteristics that make his mother even more proud of what he has become.
“I’m a proud momma,” Secelia Tolbert said. “He told me that he wanted to buy me a house, and I wanted him to know that he didn’t owe me anything. The only thing he owed me was to be a good person who loved God and loved his family.
“I’m just so proud of him for the father that he is. He has matured into a great young man. ... When I told him how proud I am of him, he told me that since his dad was never there, he knows what he doesn’t want his children to go through. He is a wonderful husband who loves his wife and a wonderful father.”
Panther: Tolbert signed with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent in 2012.
In multiple ways, Tolbert is returning to his roots this offseason. He lives in San Diego for half of the year, but he’s also enrolled as a CCU distance student this spring. He promised his mom that he would eventually graduate and is just a few online credits shy of walking across the stage in May.
Though now entrenched as a key component of Carolina’s offense, the 28-year-old knows each off-season is integral in his career. That’s why he works harder than ever.
At his age, most NFL fullbacks and running backs are starting to wear down, the result of the endless pounding they take in the trenches. LaDainian Tomlinson and Lorenzo Neal were nearing the ends of their careers in San Diego about the time that Tolbert was starting his, providing the opportunity to glean some wisdom. They told him to always be concerned about somebody working harder than he is.
“My first few years in the NFL, I was looking over my shoulder, looking to see who would be the guy like me that was going to come and take my job,” Tolbert said. “Now I’ve proven myself in the game enough to know my capabilities. I don’t look over my shoulder nearly as much. I still take a peek back from time to time, but I’ve worked my tail off to know that nobody is working as hard as me. Nobody is doing the things in the off-season that I am to make myself mentally and physically ready to play the game.
“I’ve put in the work. And, honestly, I think I’ve been the best fullback in football for the past two, three or four years, but that’s just my personal opinion. I know there are guys out there that want to take that from me, but they have to come prove it. I think I’ve gotten better over the course of my career.”
—Josh Hoke, a 2006 graduate of CCU, was a member of the Chanticleer football team from 2002 to 2006. He is owner/head coach of Crossfit Mountain Island, a fitness clinic in Charlotte, N.C.