Before the Carolina Panthers headed west for Super Bowl 50, fullback Mike Tolbert says he got some words of encouragement from David Bennett, his former head coach at Coastal Carolina.
Before that, a few of his old Chanticleer teammates had stopped by to see him at the NFC Championship Game two weekends ago as the Panthers rolled past the Arizona Cardinals, and there are many others still that he keeps up with regularly as well.
“Oh man, let me go through the list,” he said before rattling off 10 quick names.
As far as Tolbert goes – and he has certainly come a long way, now playing a key role for the Panthers as they take on the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl on Sunday – he remains indelibly linked to the Chants football program he helped launch more than a decade ago.
“It’s amazing, to be a guy that came from a small school, undrafted and to show people that it can be done,” he said during a Super Bowl 50 media session this week. “If you’re willing to put in the hard work, if you’re willing to sacrifice your time and your blood, sweat and tears, it can be done. I’m not saying it was easy by any means. I’m not saying it was easy, but it can be done.”
Joel Turner, Tolbert’s longtime agent, says he still has the newspaper somewhere in his office and he means to get it framed at some point.
It was a story about Coastal Carolina’s Pro Day in 2008 with Tolbert on the cover, the day he formally began the process of forcing his way into the NFL.
“I still remember him showing up at that Pro Day with that mohawk. Everybody came to see [former Coastal Carolina wide receiver] Jerome Simpson, but everybody left talking about Mike Tolbert,” Turner said. “Even though he had a phenomenal day, he still didn’t get drafted because he plays fullback.”
Tolbert would have to wait to sign as an undrafted free agent, earn his roster spot every day while getting a chance with the San Diego Chargers and keep proving that the 5-foot-9 bowling ball that at least one scout told Bennett was too small to even consider for his team did indeed belong in the NFL.
“The chip that he’s played with, you can’t even quantify or qualify what he’s had to do to survive in this game, much less to flourish in it,” Turner said. “No one understands it but him. I can think I do, but I’m not the one that went out and killed myself every day.
“You’re talking about a guy who literally started with nothing. He started with nothing, and for him to be where he is, to play in the Super Bowl in the same year he is named first-team All-Pro again, that he is named to the Pro Bowl again ... the fact that he’s elevated his game to the highest point that it’s ever been at in his career is just incredible.”
Tolbert played for Coastal Carolina from 2004-07 during the formative years of the program, when the Chants went from being a built-from-scratch start-up team during their inaugural 2003 season to an immediate factor at the NCAA FCS level thanks to Bennett and an incredible collection of talent in those first recruiting classes.
That early group would produce five future NFL players in quarterback Tyler Thigpen, safety Quinton Teal, Simpson, Tolbert and linebacker Maurice Simpkins.
Tolbert now ranks sixth on the Chants’ career rushing list with 1,670 career yards and fourth with 21 rushing touchdowns while having helped the program to three straight Big South championships and its first playoff appearance in 2006.
It’s amazing, to be a guy that came from a small school, undrafted and to show people that it can be done.
Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert
The scouts weren’t necessarily knocking down his door, though, and in some cases it was actually the complete opposite.
Bennett has told the story plenty of times before, but was reminded of it again this week while thinking about watching Tolbert play in the Super Bowl.
“The Dallas Cowboys scout laughed at him and told me, ‘We’d never look at a 5-8 fullback,’” he recalled. “We put that Dallas star in his locker and he rushed for 240 yards at VMI.”
It was actually 244 yards in just 13 carries, with that 2007 performance remaining the Chants’ single-game rushing record to this day.
Tolbert didn’t get invited to any of the postseason senior All-Star games, though. He didn’t get invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, or have any teams bring him in for individual workouts.
But as is often said, it only takes one person to believe in somebody, and Darrell Moody, a San Diego Chargers scout at the time, was that person for Tolbert.
Moody and Turner had worked together on the football staff at Clemson in 1996, when Moody was the offensive coordinator and Turner a graduate assistant for the defense.
Leading into that Coastal Carolina Pro Day in 2008, Turner and Bennett had tried to attract as many NFL talent evaluators as possible to look at their prospects.
Simpson, who would go on to be a second-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, was the big draw, but he had already impressed scouts at the NFL Combine and Turner wasn’t sure how much he was going to do at the Pro Day.
“I got on the phone and literally called every scout that I had a cell phone number to and emailed,” Turner recalled. “We did everything we could to coordinate a good Pro Day.”
Moody, the Chargers scout, was part of the turnout and made his interest in Tolbert clear.
“Darrell comes up to me and goes, ‘Don’t worry, he’s got a spot. We’ll take him right now. He can play for us today. I’m going to make sure we get him,’” Turner said. “That doesn’t happen much. It just doesn’t happen.”
Added Bennett: “Darrell Moody went to me and said, ‘Don’t tell nobody else about him – we want him.’ I said, ‘Are you going to draft him?’ He said, ‘We won’t have to. If no one else takes him, we’ll take him as a free agent.’”
Former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden let Tolbert come work out at the Tigers’ Pro Day as well, and those would remain his only showcases for the pro scouts.
“Those two Pro Days are what put Mike on the map, no doubt,” Turner said.
Then came the NFL Draft.
Tolbert says now he wasn’t nervous.
“I had a great backup plan. I’ve got my degree. Obviously I wanted to play, but if it wasn’t in my plans then I would make do,” he said. “But I knew that all I needed was an opportunity. All I needed was for somebody to say, ‘We’ll bring this guy in for a workout.’ And I’ll make it happen.”
He had the encouraging words of Moody, but no true assurances that he would get that opportunity. He’d just have to wait and find out.
“I remember draft weekend, we were all at the house just chilling, having a good time, and I got a phone call from the Chargers, ‘We’re thinking about drafting you.’ Then they draft Jacob Hester,” Tolbert recalled. “Okay, cool. I got a phone call from Detroit, ‘We’re thinking about drafting you.’ They draft Jerome Felton. I get a phone call from, who was it, Cleveland or somebody like that. They get ... I forget the cat’s name, but it’s all about getting an opportunity.”
After going undrafted, Turner said Tolbert had offers from the Chargers and the Tennessee Titans.
Said Turner: “It shows you just how badly 30 other teams scouted him and missed. We see it all the time. I get frustrated. These scouts are not really good at their job a lot of the time. We see it. ...
“I remember Jacob Hester’s name got called out and five seconds later the phone rang and it was Mike, [saying] ‘What does that mean for me?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re good.’ I said if we can go [to San Diego], this is where we still want to go because we evaluated what they had done with the offense. I told him, ‘They need you.’”
Tolbert followed through on his part and earned his way onto the roster, becoming a versatile weapon for the Chargers, scoring 26 touchdowns over four seasons before heading into free agency.
“Obviously, as they say, the rest is history,” Turner said.
Returning to the Carolinas
As much as Tolbert wanted to stay in San Diego at that time, Turner says the franchise was making a number of changes and it didn’t look like the best situation for him moving forward.
He says Tolbert drew interest from the New York Jets, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs and, of course, the Carolina Panthers.
And he actually reached a deal with the 49ers first, Turner said.
“We agreed in principle to a deal with San Francisco and they backed out of it, which turned out to be great,” he said. “At the end of the day, I told him, ‘Look at Carolina.’”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera had come from being San Diego’s defensive coordinator and had an appreciation for Tolbert’s abilities, and the offensive coordinator at the time, Rob Chudzinski, was another familiar face from his Chargers days.
“Coming here was probably the best decision I made other than getting married,” Tolbert said, reflecting back on that pivotal career move.
Indeed, having been named to the Pro Bowl and honored as a first-team All-Pro in two of the last three seasons, Tolbert’s career has reached new heights with the Panthers.
And it’s at least somewhat interesting that he’ll now be playing the biggest game of his life in the stadium of the same San Francisco team that could have had him signed four years ago.
Tolbert says he hasn’t spent much time thinking about that, though.
“The deal with San Francisco was going to make me a running back, and at the time I felt like I could have done it, I still feel like I could do it, but now I’m very, very happy with the decision we made,” he said this week. “And look at me now.”
Finding his place with the Panthers
Tolbert tells an amusing story from his first year in Carolina and a conversation he had with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson after a game.
“I caught a ball across the middle and I got tackled by one guy, and he was like, ‘Hey, Butterball, I didn’t bring you here for [just] one guy to tackle you,’” he recalled. “I was like, ‘OK.’ He was like, ‘OK?’ I was like, ‘Yes sir.’”
Tolbert, in turn, has spent the last four seasons shedding or bowling over his fair share of tacklers. He’s piled up 18 combined touchdowns in that time while helping key a physical rushing attack that ranked second in the NFL with 142.6 rushing yards per game this season.
There aren’t many recognizable fullbacks in the game anymore, but Tolbert is certainly one of them with his production, his entertaining touchdown dances and his growing collection of accolades.
“He is more of a put-together player than I could ask for. At that position what more can you ask for than that?” Panthers offensive lineman Trai Turner said. “He can be a running back, he can be a wide receiver, he can be an offensive lineman. You can’t ask for better than that, simply put. A phenomenal guy, a phenomenal presence in the locker room and also on the field.”
Turner says Tolbert is still a running back at heart and has never been utilized to his full potential, but at the same time he notes his appreciation for the way the Panthers have treated his client.
Starting with signing him to that four-year, $10 million contract in 2012 that made him the second-highest paid fullback in the NFL, according to Turner.
The chip that he’s played with, you can’t even quantify or qualify what he’s had to do to survive in this game, much less to flourish in it. No one understands it but him. I can think I do, but I’m not the one that went out and killed myself every day.
Tolbert’s agent Joel Turner
For his part, Tolbert has fully embraced the role and took to the defensive this week when a reporter mentioned that there is talk of eliminating the fullback position from the Pro Bowl roster.
“That’s ridiculous. That’s ridiculous. You look at guys like myself, Patrick DiMarco, John Kuhn, a lot of guys that can play good football. The guys I named, we do more than just play fullback,” he said. “We play fullback, we play running back, we pass protect, we block, we catch the ball, we run the ball, we play all special teams. To say you won’t include a guy because he does too much is a little bit asinine.”
Tolbert was also asked this week about his impending free agency once this season ends.
“We’ll take care of all the business aspects of my contract after the season. I’d love to stay, but you never know what will happen,” he said. “We’ll see. These guys are my brothers, I don’t want to leave any more than the next guy.”
Tolbert is originally from Georgia, but his roots are now deeply entrenched in the Carolinas, from the bonds formed at Coastal Carolina to what he’s now carved out with the Panthers.
As for his alma mater, Tolbert said it has been difficult to make it back while spending his offseasons training in San Diego. But he’s proud that his playing in the Super Bowl has been received as a big deal back on campus, and as he reiterated, that connection remains strong.
“I loved going to Coastal Carolina, and I’m going to bleed teal until the day I die,” he said.
In the meantime, his story reaches its most significant chapter this Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., where the once unheralded prospect from far off the radar in Conway, S.C., just keeps pushing forward.
Tolbert was dealing with a sore knee after the NFC Championship game, but dismissed any physical concerns this week while at the same time summing up the payoff of all the persistence that has got him to this point.
“Look at me baby. I’m in the Super Bowl,” he said with a big smile. “I feel great. I’m ready to ride.”