The memories came flooding back, transporting Mike Tolbert to a time when hometown pride was all that mattered and loyalty to red and black reigned supreme.
The 31-year-old fullback couldn’t help but smile when he considered his childhood ambitions and his path to this very point — standing in the Bills locker room, clad entirely in blue and white — and how his past and present will fittingly collide Sunday at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
At his core, Tolbert’s a Georgia boy (“Born and bred. Through and through,” he said, beaming with pride). He’s also a converted diehard Falcons fan, who attended games as a kid, did the famous “Dirty Bird” dance ad nauseam and religiously rooted for an electrifying quarterback in Michael Vick.
"I remember the days where I grew up wanting to be an Atlanta Falcon,” said Tolbert, who was born in Douglasville, Ga., about 20 miles west of Atlanta. “Now that I can play against them, it’s kind of bittersweet.”
But make no mistake: The fullback isn’t interested in the pomp and circumstance of the Falcons’ new $1.5 billion dollar stadium. All he cares about is leaving Atlanta with a “W.”
“I think my love for the Falcons stopped the day I got in the league,” said Tolbert, whose first season was in 2008 with the Chargers.
Before the Bills (2-1) began their week of preparation for the Falcons (3-0), Tolbert and fellow Georgia boy, left tackle Cordy Glenn, reminisced about their divergent paths to the NFL and their shared love of Atlanta.
Glenn, 28, admitted he wasn’t "a huge" Falcons fan growing up. But his eyes lit up the moment Vick’s name was mentioned. In the midst of all the talk about his lingering foot and ankle injuries — topics he'd rather avoid altogether — Glenn’s demeanor completely changed as he spoke of the former NFL quarterback in an almost reverential tone.
To understand the depth of the city’s longstanding love affair with Vick, one must understand that the former Virginia Tech star will always be seen as a galvanizing force in the community and a hero to many. Including Glenn and Tolbert.
“He was the city,” Glenn said of Vick, who served a 23-month prison sentence for running a dogfighting operation.
“He was like the heart, the magic of the city,” added Glenn, a native of Riverdale, Ga., a city in the Atlanta metropolitan area with nearly 16,000 residents. “He was like the (Michael) Jordan of Atlanta. That’s the best way to put it.”
“Vick was an idol,” Tolbert added of the three-time Pro Bowler, who became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. “He’s a guy that we looked at, as young boys in the Atlanta area, like if he can do it, anybody can do it.”
Tolbert’s obsession with the Falcons, however, was cultivated long before the Falcons selected Vick No. 1 overall in 2001 and the quarterback led them to the NFC title game during the 2004 season. But one of his fondest memories as a teenager was when Falcons running back Jamal Anderson introduced the infectious “Dirty Bird” dance to the masses during Atlanta’s 1998 Super Bowl run.
“It was big for us,” Tolbert said. “Them doing the ‘Dirty Bird’ — it hit home.”
The ticket requests came in rapid succession, sent from family members and friends eager to see the two local boys suit up against the Falcons.
“I usually get like between 40 and 60 tickets for the Atlanta game. It’s a lot,” Tolbert said, laughing. “It’s a lot.”
As a member of the Carolina Panthers, who are in same division as the Falcons, Tolbert would make an annual trip to Atlanta.
“Family, friends already hitting me up — you know how that is,” said Glenn, who unlike Tolbert, has never faced the Falcons in his home state. "They want to see you play. They’re going crazy.”
But the likelihood of the offensive lineman being active on Sunday seems less and less likely with each passing day.
After being inactive for last week’s win over the Broncos, he didn’t practice Wednesday and Thursday. “I would love to play at home,” Glenn said recently. “That would be exciting. But you’ve got to be smart.”
Asked if he was worried he won’t be able to suit up in front of his loved ones, the lineman insisted: “Right now, I can’t think like that. Just keep working and keep approaching my rehab and go from there.
“It’s frustrating because I’ve been hurt for so long. But I don’t want to sit there and get down on myself. Just gotta keep building yourself back up and keep knocking away at the wood. I’m going to eventually get out there and contribute this year at some point.”