In 12 games this season, the Carolina Panthers have run 774 offensive plays. For most of us, this one doesn’t stand out.
On Nov. 10, the Panthers trail San Francisco 9-7. It’s the third quarter, third down. The Panthers have the ball on their 16, 5 yards from a first down.
Quarterback Cam Newton takes the snap and beats the rush with a quick shovel pass to fullback Mike Tolbert, who is 5-foot-9, weighs 245 pounds and can move. He’s sprinting when he collides with 213-pound San Francisco safety Eric Reid. Tolbert goes down after a 17-yard gain and immediately stands.
Reid, a rookie first-round pick out of LSU, does not. He’s face down, immobile.
Watching the game at his home outside Baton Rouge, La., is Reid’s father, Eric T. Reid, 48.
He sees members of the 49ers’ medical staff huddle around his son. And he sees Tolbert drop to one knee nearby, presumably to pray.
The younger Reid is down for five minutes before he is able to stand. When he does, Tolbert is still there. “And when Eric got up, he patted him on the top of the head and hugged him,” Reid’s father says.
“He touched me with the compassion he showed. One thing that’s missing in the NFL is compassion. I don’t tear up a lot, but I did.”
The NFL is a violent game, and concussions are a concern. Head injuries in the league have spurred studies of their long-term consequences, contentious debate about the league’s culpability, and lawsuits by former players.
But in that moment, on that play, Eric T. Reid said Tolbert showed him another side – the human side.
Reid wanted Tolbert to understand how touching his compassion had been. A phone call felt insufficient. So he wrote a letter. He sent one copy to Tolbert’s agent, Joel Turner, and the other to Jim Skipper, who coaches Carolina’s running backs.
This is how Reid, who works at LSU and serves as a Baptist minister, concludes the 10-sentence letter: “Actions always speak louder than words. Please let Mike Tolbert know that his actions of compassion towards my son will not be forgotten. Character means a lot and he has shown a lot of character.”
The letter finds its way to Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, and in the margin of the letter Richardson writes: “Butterball, you are a fine young man. We are proud of you.”
Now it’s Tolbert’s turn to be moved.
“It’s gratifying to know that people do appreciate the human being that I am, not just the football player,” Tolbert says. “So it definitely made me feel good.”
Tolbert recalls the play.
“We ran a little shovel pass and I caught the ball, went upfield, made a move on a cornerback and (as Reid approached) I didn’t have time to duck or dart,” Tolbert says. “I just kind of put my shoulder down to protect myself and hit him, and soon as I got up, the other safety was talking trash, and I was talking back to him.
“And that’s when I saw him (Reid) on the ground, and I thought, ‘Man, I’ve been there before.’”
Tolbert, in his sixth season, played the first four for San Diego. He suffered a concussion during his third season, in a game against Cincinnati, and left the field on a cart.
“I went over there and said a prayer for him, stayed on a knee until he got up,” Tolbert says. “When he got up I gave him a hug, told him to get healthy.”
A 245-pound running back does not fashion a career around pretty moves and finesse. Tolbert makes his living by running hard.
Is it tough to make the instant switch from hard-hitting Mike to compassionate Mike?
“No, not at all,” says Tolbert, 28. “I’m a caring guy by nature. Of course on the field I’m a tough, gritty, getting-after-it type guy. But I’ve been in that position, had a concussion, got knocked out. It’s not a fun place to be.”
Tolbert doesn’t know Reid, and certainly didn’t know Reid’s father.
“Obviously, I appreciate the kind words,” Tolbert says. “But the fact that he took the time to write it and seek me out really means a lot.”
San Francisco’s Eric Reid says Tolbert’s act demonstrates what people can forget – football is a job, not a lifestyle.
The players are sons. They are brothers. They are fathers – Reid has a daughter, Tolbert a daughter and a newborn son.
And they are human.
“We’re like everybody else,” Reid says by telephone Friday afternoon. “We have families we love, who love us, and we want to take care of them.”
Reid remembers the collision, remembers Tolbert hugging him and telling him to get healthy. But he wasn’t aware Tolbert knelt next to him and prayed until his father told him.
“That showed a lot of character from Mike,” he says.
The Tolbert-Reid collision is not as memorable as a Cam Newton scramble, a clutch Steve Smith reception, or many of the 774 plays the Panthers have run this season.
Maybe it should be the most memorable.