T.T. Toliver is the Arena Football League’s all-time leader in receptions (1,258) and receiving yards (16,488). He is only the fifth player in league history to score 2,000 points. And he doesn’t give a damn about any of that.
“Stats are for cowards,” said the 41-year-old Washington Valor wide receiver, the AFL’s oldest player. “I don’t think about none of that. I go out there and compete, and if I surpass a record or do something like that, [I] give a thumbs-up at them, but at the end of the day you’ve still got to keep chopping wood.”
Now in his 16th season, Toliver could be nearing the end: His fourth-seeded Washington Valor visits the top-seeded Albany Empire at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the second leg of a playoff home-and-home series. A Valor victory by two points or more would send Toliver to his first ArenaBowl since 2003. A loss would end his season, and Toliver is undecided about whether to return for a 17th or instead pursue a job in coaching. If his decision doesn’t prompt headlines, that’s probably fitting for a player whose remarkable athletic career so often left him just on the fringes of mainstream recognition.
A three-sport athlete at Mainland High in Daytona Beach, Fla., Toliver played baseball, was the football team’s star quarterback and was Vince Carter’s point guard on a state championship-winning basketball team. After Carter left for North Carolina, Toliver won another state title as Mainland’s leading scorer.
Toliver committed to play football at Clemson but was academically ineligible and instead played football and basketball at Hinds Community College just outside of Jackson, Miss., where he was named a 1997 first-team National Junior College Athletic Association all-American as a quarterback. (He’ll be inducted into the school’s sports Hall of Fame in October.)
When his three semesters at Hinds were up, Toliver signed with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts after meeting with the team’s general manager. A discussion with his mother steered him away from the CFL and back to college, but his CFL flirtation cost him his college football eligibility, so he instead played two seasons of basketball at Bethune-Cookman.
“I remember sitting at home crying to myself because I couldn’t play football no more,” Toliver said.
A tryout at Mainland High led to a brief practice-squad stint with the St. Louis Rams in 2000 and an offseason stint with the team in 2001, which preceded his first AFL tryout with the Tampa Bay Storm.
Valor offensive coordinator Shane Stafford, then a young quarterback with the Storm, remembers that tryout like it was yesterday.
“This guy comes off the street, and we’re like, ‘Who is this guy?’ He’s so smooth,” Stafford said. “We asked him, ‘What position do you play?’ He said, in typical T.T. style, ‘Whatever you want.’ So he comes out, runs a couple routes, and he’s open on all of them. So then [Storm Coach Tim] Marcum says, ‘Let’s see what you can do on defense.’ [We] put him on defense. He’s clueless on what to do, how to cover the motion and everything, but he picks us off. He picked off every quarterback.”
Toliver enjoyed a solid first AFL season as a defensive back and return specialist and landed with the San Francisco 49ers in the summer of 2002. He was released and brought back to the practice squad for a few more weeks but was cut midseason. He joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad later that year, and he stayed on long enough to help the Bucs win Super Bowl XXXVII but not long enough to earn a ring. (Players needed to be on the team for 10 weeks for that.) As a scout-team receiver, Toliver played the role of Oakland Raiders wide receiver Tim Brown in practice leading up to the Super Bowl.
But his NFL dreams were derailed by a series of off-field incidents, including multiple failed drug tests, and Tampa Bay cut him that spring, ending his last sniff of the NFL.
“I just look back and regret that I blew my chance,” Toliver said.
Instead, he became an all-time great in the indoor game. Marcum brought Toliver back to the Storm, and five months after the Bucs won their first championship, Toliver became the first player to win a Super Bowl and ArenaBowl in the same year. And he couldn’t have entered the AFL at a better time. At its zenith in the mid-2000s, the league was riding high with nationally televised games on NBC, ABC and ESPN; video games; preview magazines; trading cards; and players with six-figure salaries.
At his peak, Toliver earned a salary in the high five figures, even signing a $100,000 deal before the league canceled its 2009 season. Now the league is down to four teams, and tenured players, including Toliver, make a veteran maximum of $1,455 per game.
Yet neither the modest money nor his lock on the league’s record book has diminished Toliver’s combination of paranoia and motivation. He still anxiously asks coaches if he’s going to get cut, imploring that he wants more practice reps.
“I think he makes stuff look so easy that you expect everybody to do it, but they just can’t. He’s just a different guy. I love that dude. He’s competitive as crap,” Valor interim coach Benji McDowell said.
“Right now he’s getting a little older,” McDowell said, “but he still moves a lot better than some of the 20-some-year-old guys we have.”
With the AFL trying to regain footing with fickle fan bases, Toliver said he feels a responsibility to bring the game back to where it used to be.
“To be honest with you, that’s why I’m still here,” he said. “I want this league to survive. I feel like if a couple of older guys stay around that the fans are invested in and like, maybe we can draw more fans in. I want to draw people to this game and let people know that this is a good sport.”
Toliver’s pay-it-forward attitude extends to his teammates as well.
“We’ve had conversations, and I’m picking his brain, and he’s still a student of the game,” Valor wide receiver Reggie Gray said. “He’s still trying to learn different things. He’s asked me how I do some things. It’s like, ‘Wow, he’s still trying to elevate his game even though he’s been here longer than all of us.’ ”
Redskins Coach Jay Gruden knows Toliver well; he played against him in the AFL and coached him in both the NFL and AFL. Toliver said the interception of Gruden that he returned for a touchdown in the final seconds of the 2003 AFL semifinals stands out as the most memorable play of his career.
“My receiver fell down, for God’s sake,” Gruden half-jokingly recalled. “It’s not like [T.T.] did anything. Lamont Moore ran a hitch and fell down. I threw it right to him.”
Joking aside, Gruden considers Toliver one of the best two-way players to ever play arena football.
Toliver credits Gruden with developing him into one of the greatest receivers the indoor game has ever seen.
“He taught me how to get open,” Toliver said. “He taught me how to run back-side routes. He taught me how to run the Y. He taught pretty much me all the receiver points of this game.”
When the arena season is over, the man teammate Tracy Belton compares to a crash-test dummy spends his offseason training himself and his sons, Antoine Jr. (18) and Nyliek (7), and working out even more, making sure he can compete with the younger players who remind him of the T.T. of 16 years ago. Whenever he does retire, he plans to join the football staff at Mainland High and work his way up to head coach.
“He’s a guy that I think he can honestly play three more years,” McDowell said, “and still be productive or still be a guy that can make a difference in the game.”
“Time is ticking for me,” Toliver said. “I try to enjoy every minute I can while it lasts.”
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