By Stephen Ball
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 4, 2009
Dennis Thurman, the defensive backs coach for the New York Jets, had neither a highlight DVD nor an extensive scouting report on Greg Toler, the player he was about to see at Wilson High School on Monday. Thurman had heard only that he was fast.
"I was talking to another scout at the combine, and he told me about this defensive back from a tiny D-II school that ran a 4.37 40," Thurman said before he met Toler, who played college football at Division II Saint Paul's in Lawrenceville, Va. "I'd never seen the kid play, not even on tape."
Network draft experts didn't have Toler rated either because he wasn't invited to the NFL scouting combine, and game footage of the 5-foot-11, 191-pounder was scarce.
In the Internet age of pro football scouting, Toler, 24, and the tales of his blazing speed seemed from another time. The former Northwestern High player was a word-of-mouth find who began burning up the phone lines of NFL general managers.
The Washington Redskins are one of a handful of NFL teams to actually see Toler play in person, which may be why he was one of approximately 50 area pro hopefuls to work out for the team yesterday. And this week's workouts for the Redskins, Jets and Baltimore Ravens are an opportunity for Toler to reclaim a football career that was derailed.
Before he found his way back to the game as a star defensive back at Saint Paul's, the historically black school tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Virginia, Toler exhausted his first chance at football stardom at Northwestern because of poor grades. Once any recruiter from a division I school saw Toler's high school transcripts, he was no longer interested.
Toler's grades were so bad it was a struggle to stay eligible for football season at Northwestern, he said. At the end of his senior year, Toler said he was ineligible to attend any high school all-star games -- games that, for an unheralded prospect, could have led to an athletic scholarship.
"I never took my grades seriously like I should have," Toler said. "My coaches kept telling me that education's first, that you'll never be a student-athlete unless you're a good student."
Toler wound up as a storeroom clerk at JCPenney, stocking shelves and sweeping aisles. Toler, who was living at home with his mother and older brother, knew he had the potential to be a college athlete, but that opportunity, he figured, was gone.
That was until he met Wilson football coach Mark Martin. Martin recruited Toler for his semipro football team, the D.C. Explosion. After a few games with the Explosion, Toler was approached by Kevin Grisby, a defensive coordinator at Saint Paul's. Budget cuts killed the college's football program in 1987, but now it wanted back in, billing itself to recruits as a second chance, a place where players with division I talent could continue to play despite previous off-field problems.
Grisby immediately found a disciple in Toler, whose father had died in Lorton prison while serving time for drug possession. Toler used the one year that St. Paul's competed as a club team to focus on his grades.
"It started off rough, but we worked [his grade-point average] up, meeting once a week just to talk about his academics," said Grisby, a former NFL safety. "He was looking for a father figure. His dad died at a young age. He was just looking for someone to hug him and let him know they love him and then someone to kick him in the rear end at times, and he needed that, too."
Said Toler: "Once I got to college, I got my act straight. I was determined not to make the same mistake twice, especially when the education is free."
Then he began to impress on the field with his speed and aggressive demeanor. When the University of Richmond held a combine last month in front of pro scouts, Toler was asked to attend. Despite the wind and rain that day, his time in the 40-yard dash led directly to Monday's workout at Wilson.
When Toler walked into the Wilson athletic director's office, where Thurman and Ravens defensive assistant Roy Anderson were waiting, he politely introduced himself and sat down for a brief interview. Thurman asked most of the questions because Anderson already knew Toler.
Then came the workout.
"I know you're fast," Thurman said, "but I want to see if you can play."
Toler backpedaled quickly on the Wilson field and began a series of agility drills. The scouts wanted to see how Toler opened his hips going to the left and then to the right. They wanted to see how quickly he changed direction and how he came up on the ball to defend against the run.
After running Toler through a workout that lasted roughly 30 minutes, Thurman seemed pleased. "The kid's good, but he's raw," he said. "He tracks the ball really well and has some good ball skills. The little technique skills that he doesn't have yet can be picked up."
No scout wants to overlook a potential contributor in his team's own region, and the Redskins apparently did their research before just about anyone.
"We went down and saw him play in the fall," Scott Campbell, Washington's director of player personnel, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. "If a region scout is doing their job, they'll find a kid like that, especially if he's in your own backyard."
Campbell declined to comment when asked what the Redskins liked about Toler. But he did say: "He's got the measurables. The biggest question on him will be how he is able to go from being a big fish in a small pond to being a fish in a pond where everyone's as big and fast as he is."
Prior to his workout at Wilson, Thurman asked Toler if he was comfortable working out alone -- an environment sure to emphasize any misstep. After stocking department store shelves four years ago, the relatively unknown prospect wasn't about to complain.
"Nah, coach, I'm used to it," Toler said with a slight smile. "Every workout I've been on I've been alone. I'm a cornerback. I enjoy being on an island, and being from a small school I'm used to having to work harder to stand out."