In late February, Tim Collins spoke with Carolina Panthers fullback, and Douglas County High School Alumni, Mike Tolbert, along with his mother Secelia. It was an inspiring conversation as we discussed the amazing success that he has enjoyed through hard work, and his mother’s sacrifice. Today Mike Tolbert is at the pinnacle of his position in the NFL and has been named All-Pro twice, yet, one gets the sense when speaking with him that he is very well grounded. And one must also admire the loving mother’s determination that has shaped him into the person, and the player that he is today.
Tim: How old were you when you started playing football competitively?
Mike: I was four years old when I first started.
Tim: Do you remember what first made you interested in football as a sport?
Mike: I remember the day. When I was about three or four years old, I was watching football on TV. There was a Cincinnati Bengals game on, and I thought, “Man that’s cool!” So I told my mom I wanted to play and she said, “Alright”.
Tim: Have you always played running back?
Mike: I have played different positions throughout my life. I started off playing offensive line because I was bigger than everybody. I have played offensive line, defensive line. I played running back throughout that time too. In middle and high school I primarily played primarily linebacker. I played a little bit of fullback and running back, but didn’t really get a lot of that until my junior and senior year. College was strictly running back though.
Tim: Once you got to college did you ever play any defense?
Mike: I did. I played the emergency backer, just in case someone got hurt or they needed help. I was strictly an offensive player most of the time.
Tim: You grew up in Douglas County. What schools did you attend?
Mike: I went to Eastside Elementary for kindergarten through second grade. Then I went across the street to Burnett Elementary for third grade through fifth grade. I went to Stewart Middle and Douglas County High School, and then headed to Coastal Carolina from there.
Tim: How was Douglas County High School team the years you played on it?
Mike: We were dominant. My sophomore year in high school we went 9- 2, and my junior year we were 11- 0 and went to the state playoffs. My senior year we went 9- 2 again and also went to the state playoffs. We had a really dominant team when I was there in school.
Tim: Did Coach Phil Williams have a big influence on you in terms of your playing and character?
Mike: I would say more character-wise. He preached hard work and stuff that I am about today. He’s not the only person that I credit for that, but he preached hard work and doing things the right way, and that’s something I hold true to today.
Tim: You went to Coastal Carolina, but were there other colleges that were interested in recruiting you?
Mike: Yes. I had a bunch of small school offers, like Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, stuff like that. I had one big school offer that I really wanted - Georgia Tech. They offered and were going to give me a scholarship but then called a couple of days before signings and said they gave it to someone else because I was not a proven fullback and they wanted to go in a different direction. So we went to Coastal on the weekend of signing day, and we had a great time and I ended up signing.
Tim: What made you pick Coastal Carolina over the other schools?
Mike: I think the coaches and everyone around there seemed really genuine. I recognized that they were real people, not just in it because they knew I could play football, but in it to help me become a better man. And I liked the fact that they cared enough to talk to my mom and my sister to see how they felt about the school. Some of the other schools we went to were more business-like and didn’t really have a family atmosphere. I’m used to having family around so that atmosphere really helped me out.
Tim: I can tell, by reading about you, that family is really important to you. Secelia, have you been to every single game Mike has played in?
Secelia: Up until he went pro, I had only missed two games. One was because I worked for a catering company and had already agreed to cater my boss’s wedding reception, not realizing there was going to be a game that night. That was a rec game. I missed one other game, when he was in college, because I had a funeral to attend.
Tim: Mike, I know you’re married with kids. How many kids do you have?
Mike: I have two kids. A four-year-old Daughter named Mikaela and a two-year-old son named Major.
Tim: Do they come to the games now, or are they still too young?
Secelia: They come to all the games.
Mike: They don’t have a choice (laughs)
Tim: Even during the season it sounds like you’re able to still spend a lot of time with the family
Mike: Oh yes. Especially playing in Carolina, a lot of my family can come visit. My wife and kids come with me so I see them every day. We try to get a lot of family time. During the season it is hectic and when I get home I’m tired, but I try to get “daddy” time going.
Tim: At what point in your career did you think that you would like to play in the NFL?
Secelia: When he was eight-years old
Mike: I have always had a dream of playing in the NFL, but I didn’t realize the potential I had until I got into high school. That’s what really drove me a little bit further.
Tim: I know after college you went undrafted and then went out to the Chargers and made the team. Did you try out for any other teams?
Mike: No this is the only team I tried out for. I have always prided myself in saying “I have made every team I have tried out for, even in the Pros.” As soon as the drafting was over, they called and said they wanted me, and I signed and was out here by the next week.
Tim: Did they offer you the contract before you tried out for the team or after?
Mike: They offered the contract beforehand. They had already seen films of me playing in college and high school. As soon as the draft was over they called my agent and said they wanted me for a two-year contract. They emailed it over, he printed it out, I signed it, and we overnight shipped it back to them.
Tim: Do you remember what you were thinking when you signed it?
Mike: Honestly, I wasn’t satisfied. I felt more like, “Okay now it’s really time to go.” Everyone knows that undrafted guys and sixth and seventh round picks can get cut just as well as anybody. You haven’t made it yet. My thought process was “I got my opportunity, now let’s make the most of it.”
Tim: Who has been your biggest influence as a football player and as a person?
Mike: I mean, you are talking to her. My mom has been my biggest influence my entire life. I just look at her lifetime of work and raising two kids. I have four basic principles that I live by that get me through anything and everything. They are respect, loyalty, determination, and dedication. The determination is that you cannot ever give up. You always have to keep going, regardless of the situation. Whether it was when we were moving house to house, or her having to work two or three jobs to put food on the table for me and my sister, it was all about having that drive and motivation. I appreciate that. I love her for it. She has always been my biggest inspiration because it makes life much easier knowing after what she went through, then I can grind through anything by working hard at every aspect of life.
Tim: After you turned Pro and you were able to help her out, how did that feel for you?
Mike: I have always said that when I make it I would buy her a house and a car, and it took me a while but I did it. To be at a point that she can call and ask for something and it not be an issue is definitely such a blessing.
Tim: How do the pros differ from some of the other levels you have played at?
Mike: The crowds are a lot bigger, but not necessarily louder. Some of the stadiums in college were loud and rocking. (Secelia mentions Appalachian State). I’d say the main difference between college and pro, is that college is a lot more structured when it comes to practice time, and study halls, and things of that nature. In the pros you have to be a “pro”. You have to be able to manage your time just like work. Your true character comes out.
Tim: You’ve always been able to stay out of trouble really well. I’m sure that makes your mom proud too.
Secelia: He does not have a choice!
Mike: You know what they say, “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground.” You’ve got to keep busy doing something.
Secelia: That’s why he was a 4-sport student in high school. (Baseball, Basketball, Track were the other 3).
Tim: How fast are you in the 40 yard dash or 100 year dash?
Mike: I didn’t run the 100. When I did the 100 we did what I call the “Fat man relay”. That was at the end of the meet. I was the fast fat man. But I ran my 40 in 4.52 seconds.
Tim: Wow – that is really fast. I know you’re a free agent this year. Are you wanting to go back to the Panthers?
Mike: I would like to go back to Carolina. It isn’t a certainty right now because we are still in negotiations. I need to do what is best for my family right now because this is my last big money contract. I would like to do a four-year deal and then retire because I would like to go out on top. I feel like I could play another 4, 5 or 6 years at the Pro Bowl level that I am playing at right now. If I play four more, I will be set, and my family will be set, and I will be healthy. I don’t want to retire and hurt when I wake up in the morning.
Tim: Have you been able to avoid injury in the pros?
Mike: Yes. God has blessed me a lot. I have never been really majorly hurt. I broke my leg in the 2014 season but that’s not something that you could prevent. It was a freak accident.
Tim: How has faith played a role in your life, and in your mom’s life too?
Mike: I think that is one of the things at the core of who we are, our faith and believing in a higher power and just knowing that God has our back. If you come to a game, you will see me praying on the field five or six times. I pray when I go to warm-ups, I pray when we go into the locker room, I pray when I finish my warm-up, I pray for a healthy game and then I go out and play the game I love. My family does a lot of praying and believing.
Secelia: It took a lot of praying to get him there too.
Tim: How much time do you spend in the weight room training?
Mike: During the off-season I don’t do a lot of weight lifting, but more pro fighting and boxing workouts, to work on my hand speed and my bounce, with a pro trainer. It is great for cardio. I get enough football and weight training during the season to last, so I’m just trying to maintain and be as fluid as possible.
Tim: What are you still hoping to accomplish as a player? Do you have some specific goals that you want to accomplish?
Mike: Absolutely. I look at fullbacks as a dying breed so I want to bring that back. We are one of the few teams that still use a fullback and use it effectively. I also want to make it to the Hall of Fame someday. If I can put together a string of four or five Pro-Bowls in a row, then I think I have a good case for it.
Tim: I think so too. How many times have you been named to the Pro-Bowl?
Mike: I’ve been named twice. Two Pro Bowls, two All Pros.
Tim: Have you thought about what you would like to do after you retire?
Mike: I know there will be a lot of golf. Other than that, workwise, I think I’m going to end up coaching high school or rec football and give back to the community a little bit.
Tim: How often do you come to Douglas County?
Mike: Whenever I come to Georgia. Which is not often because out of season I am in California, but when I do come back to Georgia to see the family, I always come back to Douglas County.
Tim: When you come back, are there certain things you try to work in your visit?
Mike: Not really. Usually coming out there is to see my mom and sister, and my nieces so we may go out to eat or stop by the school to visit. For the most part, we just play it by ear.
Tim: Any chance of playing for the Falcons?
Mike: Not at this moment. It’s a business thing. You never know what is going to happen.
Tim: Secelia, I’ve heard you are kind of like the “team mom” for Carolina. Would that be a good description?
Secelia: Mike says so. I do love everybody. I love all the players and try to get to know their families. When we played against the Falcons, that was the first game my older brother came to, and got to see the life Mike has made for himself. People were bringing me gifts and taking pictures with me and he was like, “Does everybody know you?” I do know all the players though and they call me mom or Momma T.
Tim: I know you are really an advocate for Mike if he takes any abuse from opposing fans or the media. I read something about ESPN…
Secelia: They called my baby a “fat boy”. Yeah, I wasn’t too happy with that. I gave him a piece of my mind, then I got Panther nation after him. I actually got an official apology from ESPN.
Tim: How long have you been driving a bus for the school system?
Secelia: I have been driving since 2010. I was a District Manager for Krystal’s, after working there for 29 years, and then Mike told me, “Momma you don’t have to work anymore” so I left. Mike opened a restaurant for me when I first left but my health wouldn’t let me keep up, and it was in the wrong location. I needed to do something though, and I heard this position was open and got the job, and actually love it. I have a no nonsense personality, but I have a good route and I like my kids. I drive for Eastside and Douglas County, and I do a lot of field trips as well.
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