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Small-School Toler Gets a Big Reward

By Stephen Ball
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 27, 2009

Greg Toler looked tired. The physical and emotional stress of working out for NFL teams for the last six weeks seemed to have taken its toll. Now all he could do was wait.

Like many young athletes, Toler has yearned to play in the NFL. At times, he thought any chance of that happening had passed. Now sitting in the basement of his parents' home in Temple Hills, surrounded by friends and family and closer than ever to realizing that dream, Toler was forced to wait longer than he expected as the NFL draft unfolded.

The former Northwestern High player didn't figure to be drafted in the first two rounds on Saturday, but Toler watched every pick just in case. As the third round came and went yesterday and cornerbacks began to come off the draft board at a brisk pace, Toler couldn't help but get antsy. Occasionally he would text or call to congratulate a workout partner or roommate he had met on one of his 19 team workouts over the last three weeks. His friends and family tried to help keep his mind off the process, resulting in a heated Kobe vs. LeBron debate.

Entering predraft workouts, Toler hoped simply to be picked after finishing his college career at Division II Saint Paul's in Lawrenceville, Va. But with each workout came assurances from teams he was high on their wish lists. Draft experts chronicled his rising stock in mock drafts, and most recruiting services rated him among the best small school players.

With each passing pick in the third round came text messages and phone calls from NFL team personnel saying he was their guy or that he remained prominent on their draft boards. After Washington selected Maryland cornerback Kevin Barnes, Toler received a text message from a Redskins scout that read, "The draft room is crazy right now. I wanted to take you, you're already better than three of the DBs on our roster."

At the 90th pick, the Arizona Cardinals called and said six cornerbacks had been taken whom they had graded lower than Toler and if he were still there at 94, he had a good chance of being their pick. As Toler and his friends and family geared up for a celebration, the Cardinals drafted Alabama safety Rashad Johnson. In all, 20 cornerbacks were drafted before Toler.

Eventually, Toler couldn't take it any more. His mind and body both exhausted, he left the group to take a nap. As he left the room, his mom reminded him to keep his faith.

"I just had to take my mind off it," Toler said later. "My mom told me that [God] knows your path before you even walk it, so I just had to trust that it would work out for me."

Then Toler was awakened by his phone; it was the Cardinals calling again. This time, defensive backs coach Teryl Austin was on the phone. "Man, we were on pins and needles the last few picks, just hoping you'd make it to us," Austin said. "How would you like to be an Arizona Cardinal?"

Toler calmly thanked Austin, Coach Ken Whisenhunt, and General Manager Rod Graves for the opportunity moments before Arizona made Toler the 31st pick of the fourth round (131st overall). As the celebration began throughout the house, Toler and his mother, Joyce, embraced while tears of joy flowed from her eyes.

"I'm so proud of you. I know how hard you've worked for this," she whispered in his ear. "I told you He had a plan for you."

Just four years ago, Toler was a storeroom clerk at JC Penney. Straight out of high school, Toler spent his days stocking shelves and making sure aisles were clean, all the while reflecting on what could have been.

A standout defensive back and wide receiver at Northwestern, Toler was recruited lightly by several area schools -- until they saw his academic transcripts. Toler knew he had the potential to be a college athlete, but that opportunity, he thought, was gone.

At Saint Paul's, Toler got the chance to play football immediately. As a Division II school, Saint Paul's is able to recruit high school athletes ineligible for Division I football, and the coaching staff focused on recruiting Division I-level athletes in need of a second chance. Toler took advantage, developing into a playmaker with blazing speed and fluid hips. In his junior and senior years, Toler was named a Division II all-American.

Reminded that he will be competing against Pro Bowl wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in practice, Toler smiled.

"It's still football, pigskin ball, played on green grass, same as it's been since I was six," he said. "I'm sure they'll get me a few times, but I'll learn as much as I can from them. Playing against them every day won't do anything but help me on Sunday."

As for the Cardinals, Austin thinks they may have picked up a mid-round gem in Toler.

"It takes a special guy to play corner in this league, because you're going to go against guys like Fitzgerald and Boldin all the time," Austin said in an e-mail. "Sometimes you're going to hit or miss on those guys, and I think the more guys you give an opportunity to, the better you are as a team. We think he's got an opportunity to be a good player."

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