Ask someone who knows Mike Tolbert what he’s like, and the response always is the same.
Tolbert, whose Panthers will host New England Monday night in the team’s most significant home game since the 2008 season, leads Carolina in touchdowns and nicknames. He also leads them in the category of “Guy Most Likely To Make Another Panther Smile.” Every time you ask someone about Tolbert, that person starts to grin before he says anything.
The Panthers running back is a blocky 5-foot-9 and 250 pounds. His shoulders, waist and thighs all seem to be the same thickness. He weighed 120 pounds as a 7-year-old growing up in Georgia, when because of his weight he said he had to play in a Pop Warner league with 11- and 12-year-olds. “And I started for that team, too,” Tolbert said.
Having the build of a human bowling ball – another one of his nicknames – coupled with the fact he thoroughly enjoys back-and-forth teasing makes Tolbert the butt of one good-natured joke after another. Of his more than half-a-dozen nicknames (see the chart accompanying this story for a full list), I ask him what he’s called most often in the locker room.
“Fat boy,” Tolbert said, laughing. “Cam Newton calls me ‘Tub of Goo.’ But it’s all in fun. I am a little plump guy. And I can give back the jokes just as fast as they come.”
Make no mistake – this isn’t a case of bullying. This is the way grown men on equal footing like to bust each other’s chops, especially when they are on a team that has won five games in a row and everyone is feeling good. And Tolbert is feeling especially good these days – he has scored a team-high six touchdowns in 2013. Better yet, and he and his wife had their second child, a healthy boy named Major, on Thursday in Charlotte.
In a stunning development, baby Major weighed a modest 7 pounds, 7 ounces. Tolbert’s teammates, of course, were expecting a 15-pound baby.
The last Carolina player I remember evoking the exact same response in teammates as Tolbert does was the late Sam Mills on the first three Panthers teams. The linebacker was an easy target. He wasn’t fat, but he was short, old, balding and couldn’t see very well.
But much like Tolbert – who accidentally gave San Francisco safety Eric Reid a concussion last week on one collision – Mills could hit like nobody’s business. And no Panther ever ultimately was afforded more respect inside the locker room than Mills.
A million on the table
In a backfield more crowded than ever now that Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are both healthy, Tolbert has simply been playing too well to be benched. Since he plays both running back positions and is Carolina’s best short-yardage back, Tolbert actually got the most offensive snaps of any running back in Carolina’s 10-9 win against San Francisco Sunday (Tolbert had 36, Stewart 22 and Williams 19).
Said Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula: “Mike is a lot of fun to be around. He’s got a great football mind. He’s got a great attitude every day. He’s real positive. Energetic. It’s been easy as a coordinator because he’s so versatile. He can play fullback and halfback. He can be basically a third tight end. He can be your third-down back. He can run guys over. He can make you miss more so than you think – or at least that defenses think. And he’s got real good hands.”
All of that comes from a player who was modestly recruited in high school and undrafted out of college. Tolbert was raised just outside of Atlanta in Douglasville, Ga. “My father was never around,” Tolbert said. “So I’ve always wanted to be the dad that I didn’t have.”
Tolbert loved growing up in the South, though. When he became a free agent following the 2011 season in San Diego, the Chargers wanted him back. But he wanted to get back to the South and proved it by taking a contract worth $1 million less to come to Carolina rather than stay in San Diego.
“After being in San Diego four seasons, I had seen the culture, the fast pace, the California lifestyle,” Tolbert said. “I didn’t mind it, but I also didn’t want to raise my kids in that atmosphere (Tolbert and his wife also have a 2-year-old daughter). So that was the main reason I took less money to come here.”
‘Vulture’ and ‘Big Meezy’
In high school, Tolbert was mostly a linebacker. He said Georgia Tech offered him a full scholarship, Georgia offered him a partial one and some other ACC schools showed interest but ultimately didn’t pull the trigger. He ended up at Coastal Carolina, playing four years in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with respectable but not eye-popping statistics. They called him “The Big Meezy” there, and he was no fun to tackle back then, either.
Said Tolbert: “My college coach at Coastal, every time I’d do something crazy, he’d say, ‘There goes Meezy again, running through people.”
But playing for such a small school usually doesn’t lead to getting drafted, and it didn’t for Tolbert. Instead, he made the Chargers as a free agent.
Rivera, the Chargers’ defensive coordinator for most of Tolbert’s time in San Diego, watched with approval on the other side of the ball as Tolbert worked himself after a couple of years into one of the Chargers’ primary backs. Tolbert scored 25 touchdowns his final three years at San Diego and earned the fantasy-football moniker “The Vulture,” because he was always swooping in at the last minute to score from the 1 after somebody else had gotten the ball close to the goal line.
In San Diego, Tolbert sustained the first two of the three concussions he said he has had in his NFL career - the third came in Carolina last season. Tolbert’s bruising style of play lends itself to vicious collisions. That was one reason he went over to check on Reid after the 49ers defensive back got hurt last week.
“I was like, man, I’ve been on the other side of a hit like that, too,” Tolbert said. “I went over, said a prayer for him and tried to make sure he was all right. Then I gave him a hug and told him to get healthy.”
Tolbert’s first year at Carolina was decent, but some in the locker room felt he was under-utilized by then-offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. His best game in 2012 was his last, when he scored three touchdowns – all from a yard out – against New Orleans in the Panthers’ season-ending win.
Tolbert said during the Panthers’ 2013 training camp in Spartanburg that “last year was a lot of broken promises.”
That theory was expanded on by wide receiver Steve Smith in a conference call with Seattle-area reporters before Week 1 this season. Smith said the Panthers occasionally had been hurt by Chudzinski trying to call creative plays because Chudzinski “really was positioning himself to just apply for that head coaching job.”
“At times, we got cute,” Smith said on that call. “We did things that weren’t necessarily us, like the under-utilizing of Mike Tolbert.”
Last week I asked Tolbert to expand on the “broken promises” comment.
“I’m not a selfish guy by any means,” Tolbert said. “When I said ‘broken promises,’ I meant the team as a whole, not myself. I could care less about running the ball. If I run the ball twice and DeAngelo runs it 25 times and we rush for 150 yards, I’m happy.
“But it was broken promises in the fact that I thought we last year, at times, we tried to do too much. Instead of making the simple play, we wanted to get cute.... And we talked about that with our offensive coordinator. And DeAngelo talked about it with him. And some of the wide receivers talked about it with him. But things happen and you have to move on.”
Chudzinski was hired as the Cleveland Browns head coach after the season. Shula was promoted to offensive coordinator and installed a more traditional offense, one in which Newton runs the ball less and the running backs carry it more.
‘I’m going to dance’
Tolbert is always doing something in the locker room. He does impersonations. He teases. He preens.
“He’s hilarious,” offensive tackle Jordan Gross said.
Said Rivera: “There’s no nonsense to who he is on the football field. The nonsense comes in off the field. He is really good in the locker room.... The thing I like about him too, he can sense when guys are getting tight. He’s been around successful football teams, and when guys get tight, he has a way of making everybody laugh and kind of relax for a little bit. He really is a good teammate.”
Tolbert began his career as a special-teamer and said he probably will end it that way, too. For now, though, he is 27 years old and in the prime of his career. The Panthers picked up his option in the offseason - he will make $2.3million in 2014 and $2.4million in 2015. His spontaneous touchdown dances will be around awhile (my favorite was the time he pretended to bowl in the end zone in homage to his “human bowling ball” nickname).
Tolbert went on the field on a kickoff earlier this year and, while awaiting it, started dancing again. Like Jake Delhomme and Newton, you always know when he is having a good time on the field.
“You have to have fun,” Tolbert said. “Embrace the moment. Every time I step on the field on Sunday, it’s like, ‘You never know. This could be the last one.’ You can’t take it too seriously, you know. You get serious, you stress up. You stress up, you mess up. You mess up, you get cut. I don’t want to get cut.
“So while I’m out there, I’m going to go ahead and enjoy it. I’m going to laugh. I’m going to talk trash.
“And when the music comes on, I’m going to dance.”