CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It really has been quite a journey these last 10 years for Mike Tolbert, and it’s the course he followed that makes the destination all the more satisfying this week as the former Coastal Carolina University running back prepares to continue the best year of his football career in the NFL playoff spotlight Sunday.
Sitting in front of his locker Thursday at Bank of America Stadium after the Carolina Panthers’ afternoon practice, he reflected on that while thinking back to his days in Conway and the reality he’s achieved for himself since then – one that maybe only he could have fully envisioned.
“I always look at the route that I came and know that [it’s taken] a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication to get here and to stay here,” he said. “It’s a road that’s less traveled, but I’m stronger for it.”
Tolbert was the unlikely pro prospect playing in college football’s second rung for a startup Coastal program devoid of any legacy or reputation when he arrived in 2004. He was the undrafted free agent, needing to capitalize on any and every opportunity to even earn a chance in the NFL.
And now? Well, now he’s a freshly-minted Pro Bowl selection and The Associated Press’ first-team All-Pro pick at fullback – the first Chanticleer to ever achieve those prestigious designations – as he and the Panthers ready to face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
“You never know when we started football that a guy that just a couple people were recruiting out of Douglasville, Ga., would go on to play in the pros, play in the Pro Bowl and be first-team All-Pro,” former Coastal head coach David Bennett said this week. “I don’t know if Mike ever dreamed of that happening. We’re certainly proud of him.”
Whether his visions for his post-college career were that precise or not, none of this has surprised Tolbert, he insists.
Ask him if there was ever a moment entering the league the way he did when he wondered if it would all come to fruition – there had to be at least some doubt – and he starts shaking his head before the question can be completed.
“I never doubted the fact that I would be able to play,” he said. “All I needed was an opportunity, and there was plenty of teams that were willing to give me an opportunity. I picked the one that I thought fit me best and made the best of my situation.”
To say the least.
As Tolbert was winding down a collegiate career that saw him rush for 1,670 yards and 21 touchdowns with the Chants, Bennett recalls that it was still wide receiver Jerome Simpson (now with the Minnesota Vikings) who the pro scouts were coming to see on that 2007 Coastal team.
“I remember we were getting ready to play, I think, VMI and scouts came down and they were looking at Jerome,” Bennett said. “Everybody was looking at Jerome, and I told Darrell Moody – the Chargers scout – and a scout of the Dallas Cowboys, ‘You all need to look right there at No. 40 [Tolbert].’ And the Chargers scout kind of nodded his head, and I’ll never forget the Cowboys scout said, ‘What? A 5-8, 5-9 running back? I don’t believe so.’ ”
So Bennett had one of his administrative assistants laminate a Dallas Cowboys star, which he put in Tolbert’s locker as a reminder.
“We told Mike, ‘You’ve got something to prove,’ ” Bennett said.
A second-team FCS All-American in 2007, Tolbert would end up going unselected in the seven-round NFL Draft the following spring and signed as a free agent with the San Diego Chargers, with whom he immediately began making an impression – on defenders and coaches.
“My rookie season in San Diego, in training camp, it was the first day in pads, and [then-head coach] Norv [Turner] just kept calling [isolation plays] and I was just going head up against the linebackers there,” Tolbert recalled. “And they were like, ‘If you keep doing that, you can play for a long time in this league.’ ”
After four seasons in San Diego, where he established himself as a red zone force with 21 touchdowns over his last two years, Tolbert signed with the Panthers in 2012.
His agent, Joel Turner, says more than a dozen teams reached out with interest at the time and said Tolbert had “real deal offers” on the table from five teams. He was supposed to start his free agent tour with a visit to the Kansas City Chiefs, and at 7:30 a.m. EST on the first day of free agency then-Panthers general manager Marty Hurney called Turner’s brother and business partner Justin.
“Mike [had] said ‘I’d love to come home, do you think it’s even possible?’ ” Turner recalled. “And considering where both teams [the Panthers and Atlanta Falcons] were at that time with their backfield, we said we’d push for it, but he had to be realistic with their salary cap and the backs they already had. I said, ‘I want you to know up front, it’s going to be real hard.’ And then out of nowhere, 6:30 in the morning central time Marty picks up the phone and calls Justin. …
“It thrilled Mike to death because it was a real blessing and we felt it could be very viable.”
Tolbert followed through with the scheduled visit to Kansas City, and then returned to talk with Carolina.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera had been the defensive coordinator in San Diego during the start of Tolbert’s time with the Chargers and then-Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski had been an offensive assistant in San Diego.
“I know who Mike is and I was there with him,” Rivera said this week. “When he was available, I sat down and talked with Marty Hurney, our former GM, and Rob Chudzinski, the three of us talked about it and felt he was a young man we had to have.”
That familiarity was another plus for Tolbert, who would sign a four-year contract with the Panthers for more than $5 million guaranteed.
After rushing for 183 yards last season, Tolbert has further established his role in the Panthers’ crowded backfield with seven total touchdowns and 361 rushing yards along with 27 catches for 184 yards, not to mention his traditional blocking duties.
He got the call at home from Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman a couple hours before the Pro Bowl selections were publically revealed and was told he couldn’t tell anyone yet. His wife and mother were at the house with him, so he shared the news with them and then waited for the text messages to start pouring in.
He, along with former Presbyterian standout and Arizona Cardinals special teams contributor Justin Bethel, became the first Big South Conference players to ever earn a Pro Bowl invite.
Then came the All-Pro selection – another first for Big South alumni.
“I came in for practice and one of the guys was like, ‘Congratulations,’ ” Tolbert said. “I was like, ‘For what?’ and he said, ‘You made first-team All-Pro.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s a big deal. … To see the hard work actually come to fruition is very gratifying.”
There’s a special appreciation within NFL locker rooms for how hard the job is, a heightened understanding among players who see teammates come and go year by year that it’s an accomplishment not only to make it there in the first place but to survive and last.
“Tolbert is just a real, I would say, role model to guys who didn’t get drafted, came from the bottom and worked his way up to being a Pro Bowler,” said Panthers right guard Nate Chandler, a fellow undrafted free agent signed out of UCLA in 2012. “So when I look at him and how he works, I kind of try to [copy] his play and just try to dominate in what I’m doing like he does. …
“Anybody who’s been undrafted, they know how hard it is to make a team, and when I came in here, he talked to me and would always come up to me and say, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’ ”
Rivera was more than 13 minutes into his post-practice news conference Thursday when he was asked about Tolbert, and a smile creased his lips.
“Mike’s meant a lot to what we do,” Rivera said. “… And there’s also a looseness to who Mike is, being able to keep his teammates loose. He’s got a great sense about him, he’s got a leadership quality about him when it comes to handling his teammates and being around his teammates. He really does, and I think that goes very unnoticed as far as who he is.”
As for the game Sunday, Tolbert – as always – will be hard not to notice as a 5-foot-9, 245-pounder coming out of the backfield, especially if the Panthers find themselves anywhere near the goal line.
Turner commented that Carolina has been “as close to a perfect scenario” for Tolbert as he could have found, and with the biggest game of his professional career on tap this weekend, the former Chanticleer said much of the same.
“It’s exciting,” Tolbert said. “It’s fun. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else, I promise you that.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.