Call him ‘A Rolling Ball of Butcher Knives’

The Buffalo News - - NFL SUNDAY - By Jay Skurski

Mike Tol­bert has never been short of chips for his broad shoul­ders. The Buf­falo Bills’ run­ning back has been doubted his en­tire NFL ca­reer. For be­ing too short. For be­ing too slow. Even for be­ing “too fat.”

All those slights have been the mo­ti­va­tional fuel that has pow­ered a 10-year ca­reer.

“You see so many guys with the tal­ent and the abil­ity to do it, but they don’t put the work in,” Tol­bert said. “I put the work in. To be able to con­tinue to live a dream and be a guy that’s counted on in the locker room and on the field is some­thing spe­cial. So I’m go­ing to con­tinue to work. They’re go­ing to have to kick me out of this league kick­ing and scream­ing.”

There was some of that back in Fe­bru­ary. That’s when Tol­bert learned he was be­ing cut by the Carolina Pan­thers. For­mer Gen­eral Man­ager Dave Get­tle­man opined that Tol­bert’s play had “de­te­ri­o­rated,” an assess­ment the run­ning back ag­gres­sively pushed back against.

“To me, that was a shot be­low the belt,” Tol­bert said Thurs­day at his locker in­side the ADPRO Sports Train­ing Cen­ter. “We had a heated dis­cus­sion about it. Ten years later, it’s still giv­ing me another rea­son to prove some­body wrong.

“When you say that I’ve de­te­ri­o­rated, I’ll prove to you that I’m not. At that time, I was 263, 264 pounds. I’m 247 now. I’m ready to run. I’m ready to play. I’m ob­vi­ously do­ing a good job here. They like it. I’m go­ing to show you and the rest of the league I haven’t de­te­ri­o­rated.”

Tol­bert ad­mit­ted to crack­ing a smile when he found out that Get­tle­man had been fired by the Pan­thers just a week be­fore train­ing camp started.

“I was kind of like, ‘Damn, karma is a (ex­ple­tive),’ you know what I mean?” he said. “But you know what, at the end of the day, I wasn’t wanted there. I’m happy to be here in Buf­falo – a place that I’m wanted.”

Tol­bert re­united with coach Sean McDer­mott in Buf­falo, and a cou­ple months later was joined by Bran­don Beane, the Pan­thers’ for­mer as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager who was hired in May as the Bills’ new GM.

“I’m happy to have Bran­don Beane, a guy that wanted me from the jump – didn’t want me to leave,” Tol­bert said. “I’m go­ing to con­tinue to be the guy that I am. If you think I’m de­te­ri­o­rated, I’m go­ing to turn your de­te­ri­o­ra­tion into de­ter­mi­na­tion.”

With the Bills pre­par­ing to head to Carolina on Sun­day, much has been made about the home­com­ing for Beane, McDer­mott and the for­mer Pan­thers on the Bills’ ros­ter – Tol­bert, Joe Webb, Kaelin Clay and Leonard John­son. The com­pany line from all of them is that it’s busi­ness as usual.

“My emo­tions over this game is not go­ing to be stupid high or stupid low,” Tol­bert said. “I’m not go­ing to be mad when I go back, try­ing to kill any­body. I’m go­ing to go play foot­ball and have a good time.”

That’s con­sis­tent with the way Tol­bert ap­proaches ev­ery­thing in his life. When he signed with the Bills in March, as much was made about what he would bring to the locker room as he would to the field.

“I don’t like neg­a­tiv­ity,” he said. “Re­gard­less of how stuff is go­ing, I’m go­ing to al­ways be laugh­ing and jok­ing, cut­ting up. Yeah, there’s a time to be se­ri­ous, but it’s like 12 per­cent of my time. The other 88, I’m hav­ing fun.”

That men­tal­ity was passed down from his mother, Se­celia, who raised two chil­dren on her own in Dou­glasville, Ga., about 20 min­utes east of At­lanta.

“She was that out­go­ing, happy-golucky per­son, too,” Tol­bert said. “The light of the room.”

That’s de­spite the chal­lenges the fam­ily faced. “Sece,” as she’s known, worked two and some­times three jobs to make ends meet.

She wrote a book about the ob­sta­cles she over­came to suc­cess­fully raise her two chil­dren. “The Smile That Hides the Pain Within,” was re­leased July 25 and is avail­able on­line at ama­zon.com. In the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Sece re­veals that she is a vic­tim of rape and stalking. She also de­tails how she went through a di­vorce with Mike’s fa­ther when their son was 5 months old.

“I ac­tu­ally started writ­ing a book prob­a­bly about 10 years ago,” Sece told her home­town news­pa­per, the Dou­glas County Sen­tinel. “But it took me this long be­cause when I first started, I re­al­ized that I had a lot of anger built up about stuff that hap­pened to me in life.”

That anger was never pro­jected on Mike and his older sis­ter, April, who works as the hu­man re­sources man­ager for the city of Dou­glasville.

“She was never the pes­simist, al­ways op­ti­mistic,” Tol­bert said of his mom, who works part-time as a bus driver for the Dou­glas County School Sys­tem and will be in at­ten­dance Sun­day. “She taught me to look at the pos­i­tive side of ev­ery sit­u­a­tion. When I broke my leg in 2014, I was like, ‘Yeah, but I’ll be back in eight weeks!’ That’s just how I ap­proach things.”

McDer­mott knew that, which is part of the rea­son he wanted Tol­bert with the Bills.

“The char­ac­ter, the lead­er­ship, the loose­ness with his danc­ing,” McDer­mott said. “He’s just got that ‘it’ and that’s im­por­tant.”

“He works ex­tremely hard, he’s car­ing, he’s al­ways try­ing to help out the younger guys,” run­ning back LeSean McCoy said. “He gives me ad­vice. As a vet­eran in the game, he knows a lot. On the field, he runs hard; he brings that phys­i­cal type of pres­ence that we need. From full­back to run­ning back, you know, he’ll do what­ever it takes to win games and help the team out. In my book, he’s an A-plus char­ac­ter guy, A-plus team­mate.”

Spend just 10 min­utes around Tol­bert and his in­fec­tious per­son­al­ity shines through. He quickly be­came a fan fa­vorite dur­ing his five sea­sons in Carolina for his style of play – and the way he would cel­e­brate in the end zone, with dance moves that be­lie a man of his size.

The Toldozer. Patty May­on­naise. Tub of Goo. Touch­down Vul­ture. Big Boy. Sugar Bear. Fat Boy. Rolling Ball of Butcher Knives. Those are just some of the nick­names Tol­bert has been called over the years, ei­ther by team­mates or fans. His fa­vorite was the last one, given to him by the late Bruce DeHaven, the spe­cial teams coach for the Bills dur­ing their glory years and later the Pan­thers.

“The Toldozer! The thing about Mike is he’s got great feet,” Pan­thers safety Kurt Cole­man said. “You look at Mike and think he might not be able to dance. He’s a great dancer.”

Tol­bert is more than just a fu­ture can­di­date for “Danc­ing With the Stars,” though. He’s also play­ing an im­por­tant role for the Bills. Af­ter the team cut Jonathan Williams be­fore Week One, McDer­mott said a “com­mit­tee” ap­proach would be used be­hind McCoy. In the Week One win over the Jets, how­ever, it was all Tol­bert. He car­ried the ball 12 times for 42 yards and a touch­down, and added one catch for another 12 yards. The fol­low­ing day, of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Rick Den­ni­son said the plan for now is to use Tol­bert as McCoy’s pri­mary backup.

“It feels good be­cause it lets me know that all the work that I put in up un­til this point is val­i­dated,” Tol­bert said. “Ob­vi­ously I’m not go­ing to beat Shady out for the No. 1 spot, nor am I try­ing to. I’m just try­ing to help the team win.

“I’m ready to go when­ever. They don’t even tell us ‘OK, Mike, you go now. It’s Shady you go. You run off, I run on.’ I’m 10 years in, he’s nine. So we know how to take care of each other.”

In the event McCoy were to get hurt – now is a good time to find the clos­est piece of wood to knock on – Tol­bert would split du­ties with Joe Ban­yard and Tai­wan Jones.

“The run­ning game starts up front,” Tol­bert said. “The of­fen­sive line across the board are big, tal­ented, fast, ath­letic guys, so as long as they’re good, our run­ning game will be great. I’m got so much con­fi­dence in our guys up front that if Shady was to go down – God for­bid – that I can pick up the load, and Joe Ban­yard and Tai­wan Jones. We all can do it and get the job done.”

At 5-foot-9 and, as he says, 246 pounds, Tol­bert has a low cen­ter of grav­ity that makes tack­ling him like stop­ping, well, a rolling ball of butcher knives.

“You’re not al­ways look­ing to just take a shot at his legs,” Cole­man said. “Some­times he’s able to jump cut. You’ve got to be able to step to him and make a nice solid tackle.

“He packs a punch, but so do I. I love Mike and his fam­ily, but if you’re wear­ing a blue-col­ored jer­sey, I’m com­ing af­ter you.”

The feel­ing is mu­tual on Tol­bert’s end. He gave the early leader for quote of the sea­son Wed­nes­day when he said “There’s a rule out there that snitches get stitches, but I’m go­ing to get a lot of stitches this week.”

“My friends are still my friends re­gard­less of who we play­ing now,” he said. “Sun­day at 1 un­til prob­a­bly 4:30, I don’t want to hear any­thing from you, but at 4:31 we’ll be hug­ging and hav­ing a good time again.”

Bills host blood drive

The Bills will hold a blood drive in con­junc­tion with UNYTS from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tues­day in the Paul Maguire Club at New Era Field. Donors should en­ter through Gate 2. New Era Field tours will be given, while line­backer Pre­ston Brown will sign au­to­graphs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. For­mer Bills re­ceiver/spe­cial-teams ace Steve Tasker will sign au­to­graphs from 4 to 5 p.m. Each per­son who do­nates will be en­tered to win a pair of tick­ets to the game against the Den­ver Bron­cos on Sept. 24.

Harry Scull Jr./Buf­falo News

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