Fullback Mike Tolbert finished working out Tuesday morning at Bank of America Stadium and was kicking back with a protein shake.
That it was not a Budweiser tall boy or a vanilla shake might surprise some Carolina Panthers fans who’ve snickered at Tolbert’s beer-league body and wondered how he has lasted nine NFL seasons and gone to three Pro Bowls, including last month’s game in Orlando.
But Tolbert’s paunch and big backside belie an athlete who at his best would bounce off tacklers on his way to the end zone, where an impromptu “Dancing with the Stars” episode would break out.
Tolbert also was that rare athlete who earned the respect of the locker room and the front office.
When it was time for Tolbert to be summoned to said front office Tuesday, general manager Dave Gettleman did not send a grunt to go do the dirty work.
And when Panthers coach Ron Rivera found Tolbert at his locker, Tolbert knew what was coming. And though he didn’t like the news of his release, he respected the way it was delivered.
“Normally it’s one of the guys lower on the pole that come get the guys that get cut. But this time it was Coach Rivera who brought me upstairs, which I really appreciated,” Tolbert said during a phone interview. “Because that showed the type of respect that he has for me, the type of respect that Mr. Gettleman has for me. They didn’t send an intern to come get me. They sent the head guy in charge to come talk to me.”
Other veteran players have had similar conversations with Gettleman in recent years, and did not take the news nearly as well as Tolbert.
Steve Smith promised “blood and guts” when he faced the Panthers as a Baltimore Raven, and DeAngelo Williams still occasionally uses social media to jab Gettleman and the organization.
Different personalities, says Tolbert.
“Steve is a stone-cold animal. He’s going to do things his way and you like it, you love it or you hate it,” Tolbert said. “I’m optimistic, the optimist. I’m always looking for the positive side of things. Yeah, I got cut here but who knows where my next venture may take me?”
Shortly after his sit-down with Gettleman, Tolbert’s phone started blowing up.
Joel Turner, his agent, was none too happy. Tolbert’s mother called nearly in tears.
And his wife was “ready to go off on everybody.”
Make no mistake: Tolbert wasn’t thrilled with the development. He loves Charlotte, has known Rivera since his first day in the NFL when both were in San Diego and referred to teammates Thomas Davis, Greg Olsen, Luke Kuechly and Ted Ginn as brothers.
And yet ...
“I feel like I’m a high school kid going off to college,” he said. “I’ve got to leave my family, but I’m going on to bigger and better things.”
Tolbert, 31, is coming off a season in which he rushed for 114 yards – a career low for a full season – and finished with 72 receiving yards – a career low, period.
Tolbert didn’t seem to have the same burst he had in his first four seasons in Carolina, and he wasn’t on the field as much.
But he says he’s satisfied with how he worked each offseason. And though he plays a position many consider a dying breed, Tolbert is excited – he used that word several times during an 8-minute interview – to show a fullback-needy team he can still block, run, catch ... and dance.
“If a team wants me, come get me because I’m ready to play ball,” said Tolbert, who does not have to wait until the start of free agency next month to sign with another team.
Releasing Tolbert, who signed a two-year, $3.3 million deal last offseason, cleared $1.73 million in cap space for the Panthers.
And though this was the first time Tolbert has been cut, he long ago learned the business side of the game. When Tolbert was in San Diego, he saw the Chargers cut running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who made the Hall of Fame this month in his first year on the ballot.
Rivera, the former Chargers defensive coordinator, said the Panthers targeted Tolbert in free agency in 2012 because they thought he could help the offense – and the vibe.
And when it was time for Tolbert to turn in his Tablet containing the Panthers’ playbook, Rivera went and found him.
“There’s no other person in the NFL that I have more respect for than Ron Rivera. So for him to be the man to come get me and for it to end this way in Carolina, I really appreciate that,” Tolbert said.
“A lot of guys get phone call or text messages saying, ‘You’re going to get released.’ But for the head guy in the building to come grab me by the hand and walk we upstairs ... you can’t show anything but respect to that.”