Speed Buys Long Shot A Chance At the NFL
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.