HONOLULU Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil said everyone in the stadium knew what was coming.
Deion Sanders’ team still couldn’t stop fullback Mike Tolbert, the Panthers’ Round Mound of Touchdown, from bulling his way into the end zone.
Tolbert’s successful two-point conversion run with 41 seconds left lifted Jerry Rice’s squad to a 22-21 win and capped an impressive day for the Panthers’ short-statured, big-bellied fullback.
In addition to the winning conversion, Tolbert ran down Kansas City defensive tackle Dontari Poe to save a touchdown on a long interception return. Tolbert also ran three times for 14 yards, including a 7-yard gain in the second quarter on which he knocked Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly back a couple of yards.
The only way Tolbert’s day could have been more complete would have been if he’d managed to squeeze in a visit to Pearl Harbor or a snorkeling trip to Hanauma Bay.
“I think I played a pretty good game all-around – blocking and tackling (after) interceptions,” Tolbert said in the Aloha Stadium locker room.
Tolbert was one of seven Panthers players in Hawaii, and his designation as a fullback raised some eyebrows in the small media contingent that covered the week’s proceedings. A couple of reporters saw Tolbert’s regular-season stats – 361 rushing yards, 184 receiving yards and seven combined touchdowns – and argued he wasn’t a bona fide, blocking fullback.
Tolbert, 5-foot-9 and 245 pounds, has never fit nicely into any category. He was a high school fullback and linebacker in the Atlanta area who went to Coastal Carolina outside Myrtle Beach when the big schools showed little interest.
Tolbert never rushed for more than 800 yards in a season at Coastal Carolina before signing as an undrafted free agent with San Diego in 2008.
He has never looked the part of a chiseled professional athlete, but his soft exterior belies a hardened work ethic.
“I’m the type of football player that goes (hard) every play. It’s just how I’m built, my makeup,” Tolbert said. “I’ve always been short or I’ve always been fat or I’ve always been slower. So I’ve got to ball out.”
While most of the country was watching the Grammys, the drafted players in the reconstituted Pro Bowl put on a pretty good show themselves.
It will never be confused with real football, and a steady rain and steady stream of turnovers made for a sloppy game through the first three quarters, but at least they got the ending right.
Dallas running back DeMarco Murray’s 20-yard touchdown catch pulled Team Rice within a point in the final minute. Overtime – and missed flights off the island – loomed.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, however, having received the go-ahead from “alumni captain” Rice the day before, never wavered. The man who became “Riverboat Ron” for his calculated risk-taking – his words – during the regular season kept his offense on the field.
In two goal-to-go situations during the Panthers’ playoff game against San Francisco on Jan. 12, Tolbert and quarterback Cam Newton failed to gain a yard on two carries apiece. With Newton across the field on the Team Sanders sideline, he wasn’t an option.
Rivera had a pretty good fallback in his fullback.
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula initially called for a running play, with Tolbert serving as the lead blocker. After prodding from a handful of players on the sideline, Shula went with the “fullback belly.”
“You’re at the 2-yard line, and you’d like to believe you can get 2 yards if you need it,” Rivera said. “It’s a play that we have in our playbook, and the fullback being Mike Tolbert, it was an obvious play for us.”
Tolbert took the handoff from Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and barreled in for the two points that sent players from Rice’s side back to the mainland with the winner’s share of $53,000 (members of the losing team banked $26,000).
Tolbert mimicked Newton’s Superman pose in the end zone, and Newton said it was weird seeing his Panthers teammates celebrating.
Tolbert is the least expensive piece of the Panthers’ pricey, three-member running back committee. Signed through 2015 with a cap figure of $3.3 million in 2014, he is a bargain compared to Jonathan Stewart, who carries a cap number of $5.5 million this year, and DeAngelo Williams ($6 million).
Tolbert has never complained publicly about playing time or asked for more carries. He keeps things loose in the locker room with his impersonations of general manager Dave Gettleman and his self-deprecating humor.
Based on how his first game in Hawaii turned out, the player known as the Human Bowling Ball wants to go Pro Bowling again.
“This was a great experience,” he said. “So it means I need to work that much harder so I can make it back.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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