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. For not being fast enough. 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-go-lucky 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 stiches, 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 1:00 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.”
Which is exactly what you’d expect.
Bills hosting 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.