At 40, To­liver shows no signs of slow­ing down

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY JOSHUA LUCKENBAUGH

Watch­ing T.T. To­liver glide around an arena foot­ball field, show­ing off his agility avoid­ing tack­les and his speed chas­ing down deep throws, you’d never know the Wash­ing­ton Valor wide re­ceiver is 40.

“Most peo­ple ask me how come I’m play­ing this game for a long time. This [is a] field day to me,” To­liver said af­ter the Valor’s 62-28 loss to the Cleve­land Gla­di­a­tors Satur­day night, a de­feat that elim­i­nated them from the Arena Foot­ball League play­offs. “It’s all about when you’re a lit­tle child, you al­ways want to go out there and run around, and you know, I’m able to con­tinue do­ing that at the age of 40. I’m blessed, man.”

While the Valor are con­clud­ing their first sea­son in the AFL, To­liver has been a part of the league since 2002. Fifteen years later, he now holds the league records for re­cep­tions and re­ceiv­ing yards.

And he hasn’t showed any signs of slow­ing down. Just last week, To­liver was named the AFL Of­fen­sive Player of the Week af­ter a 113-yard, three-touch­down per­for­mance in a 34-30 win over the Bal­ti­more Brigade.

“T.T.’s the age­less won­der,” Valor quar­ter­back Sean Brack­ett said. “He’s a great re­ceiver. Great­est re­ceiver of all-time in the arena league.”

“He’s been the one re­ally bright, con­sis­tent spot for us,” head coach Dean Coki­nos echoed. “I coached T.T. back in 2005, he’s al­ways been a game-changer, but he’s just a guy that loves to play. He never quits, he just com­petes.”

To­liver’s pro­fes­sional foot­ball ca­reer ac­tu­ally be­gan in 2000, when the then-St. Louis Rams signed him to their prac­tice squad. As with many arena foot­ball play­ers, To­liver bounced around sev­eral NFL prac­tice squads, but never man­aged to ac­quire a long-term ros­ter spot.

How­ever, To­liver’s brief NFL ca­reer

in­cluded one es­pe­cially note­wor­thy ex­pe­ri­ence: while with the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers’ prac­tice squad in 2003, the team won Su­per Bowl 37 — the “Pi­rate Bowl” — over the Oak­land Raiders.

To­liver didn’t get a cham­pi­onship ring — he hadn’t been on the ros­ter for the min­i­mum 10 games — but he still re­mem­bers the ex­pe­ri­ence fondly.

“I mean, just given the op­por­tu­nity to play for the Bucs mo­ti­vated me,” he said. “Mo­ti­vated me to want to come out here and com­pete each and every day be­cause you never know what this God may have for you. I was al­ways taught to give it my all, and that’s what I’m do­ing.”

Five months af­ter the Su­per Bowl, To­liver fi­nally man­aged to get a cham­pi­onship ring, win­ning the 2003 AFL ti­tle as a part of the Tampa Bay Storm.

“It was just go­ing to a great or­ga­ni­za­tion, and sur­round­ing your­self with great peo­ple,” he said. “Coach [Tim] Mar­cum, his or­ga­ni­za­tion was great. I guess it was just a lucky thing, [go­ing] from win­ning a Su­per Bowl to com­ing home and win­ning an Are­naBowl.”

While To­liver’s foot­ball ca­reer has flour­ished in the AFL, the league it­self has shrunk due to fi­nan­cial strug­gles, only field­ing five teams for the 2017 sea­son.

To­liver says he hasn’t no­ticed any dif­fer­ence in the level of com­pe­ti­tion, but the league’s money prob­lems have also caused a sig­nif­i­cant drop in player com­pen­sa­tion.

“The only dif­fer­ence is the money sit­u­a­tion. You got guys that have to work a job, they can’t put forth the ef­fort into this and make this league a bet­ter league be­cause you got to worry about tak­ing care of your fam­ily,” said To­liver, who works con­struc­tion when he’s not play­ing for the Valor. “Other than that, I’d say it’s the same league. You just got guys that have to have more than one job.”

Mindful of the league’s dif­fi­cul­ties, To­liver has a sin­gu­lar mis­sion when he takes the field: Get fans to care.

“I just try to get the peo­ple who are new to the arena game. Once they see it, they like it,” he said. “That’s my thing right now, just get­ting the peo­ple who haven’t seen this game, to when they do see it, they en­joy it. That’s my mo­ti­va­tion.”

And on some level, To­liver seems to have been suc­cess­ful. Wash­ing­ton has strug­gled in its first AFL sea­son, go­ing 2-11 with one game to play.

De­spite the record, the Valor boast the league’s high­est at­ten­dance av­er­age — more than 11,000 fans per con­test.

To­liver him­self said he isn’t sure if he’ll be back for a 16th AFL sea­son, but he ex­pressed op­ti­mism about arena foot­ball’s prospects in Wash­ing­ton.

“The fu­ture is bright for this or­ga­ni­za­tion,” he said. “I would love to be back here, and I’m just look­ing for­ward to next year. This year I feel like we kind of let you all down, and next year, at least I have some­thing to mo­ti­vate me.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wash­ing­ton Valor wide re­ceiver T.T. To­liver, who played for the Tampa Bay Storm last sea­son, holds the Arena Foot­ball League records for re­cep­tions and re­ceiv­ing.

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