No one is ever going to call Mike Tolbert skinny, but the Carolina Panthers' fireplug fullback is feeling good about his weight these days as well as just about everything else.
“Normally I'm about 265 pounds when I come back in the offseason,” said Tolbert, who is 5-foot-9 and has made a career out of running through people. “But I've been training my tail off, and right now I'm at 255, maybe 253. I'm feeling great. I'm ahead of schedule."
Tolbert said he has been particularly motivated to work out in the offseason because of a left leg and knee injury last season that cost him eight games in 2014. It was the first major injury of his career. After scoring 40 regular-season touchdowns in his first six NFL seasons, he didn't score any in 2014. His spontaneous touchdown dances – my favorite was when he pretended to bowl in the end zone in a nod to his “Human Bowling Ball” nickname – were notably absent.
Even when Tolbert returned late in the year, he wasn't the powerful back Panthers fans were used to seeing (his one TD of the season came in the playoff win over Arizona). So used to being the hammer, too often he was the nail, averaging a career-low 2.1 yards on a modest 37 carries.
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“I didn't feel like myself,” Tolbert said. “I didn't feel like I had the power. I didn't fully trust my knee or my leg. I didn't know if it was going to break again or not. I definitely wasn't confident in my body at that point. But I didn't want to let my team down by not practicing or not playing.”
Now, though, Tolbert said he is “100 percent healthy” and sure that he will return to play as well in 2015 as he did in 2013, when he made his first Pro Bowl ever for Carolina.
“Now I've got more than enough confidence for you and me both,” Tolbert said. “I'm ready to go.”
Tolbert's injury came Sept. 21 against Pittsburgh, late in a game that was already lost. “I caught a pass from DA (Derek Anderson) and I got tackled and spun around,” Tolbert said. “My leg just jammed in the ground and I broke it.”
The official diagnosis was a hairline fracture in his left leg, just below the knee. Tolbert, the team's leader in touchdowns in 2013, wouldn't play again until Nov. 30.
“I couldn't be at the games,” Tolbert said, “because I was supposed to keep weight off my leg and doctors didn't want me on the sideline. Watching on TV was hard. But at the same time, it was a learning experience. It has made me strive for more.”
Once an undrafted free agent out of Coastal Carolina, Tolbert has been one of the funniest players in the Panthers’ locker room since joining the team in 2012 after four years in San Diego. He remains a boisterous presence. But you can also feel his seriousness, even in the June minicamp.
“I've never been through anything like that injury,” Tolbert said. “So I wanted to make sure my body was A-1 healthy and so I could come back and be as dominant as I have been in the past. I wanted to leave no doubts in everybody's mind that I'm back. I want to prove to everybody, including myself, that I'm a long way from done.”
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Fullback Mike Tolbert has been a productive scorer for almost his entire career in the NFL, but that changed in 2014 when the 2013 Pro Bowler missed half the season with a broken leg. Here's a look at Tolbert's touches each season (rushes plus receptions) and his TDs each regular season.