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T.T. Toliver's road to greatness

Adam Markowitz
Saturday June 11, 2016

TAMPA -- 1,160 receptions. 15,232 yards. 294 touchdowns. Not bad numbers for a man who was a quarterback in high school and in JuCo, was arguably the best player on a state championship basketball team and was recruited to the Arena Football League as a defensive specialist.

The story of how TT Toliver went from a corner to the greatest statistical wide receiver in the history of the AFL begins in Daytona Beach, where he did a little bit of everything. He was Mr. Football in the state of Florida while playing for Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, yet he was also a point guard and one of the top basketball players on the state title Buccaneers in 1995. Toliver was the point guard for Mainland, and without him dishing the rock time and time again, we may never have learned the name of his high school teammate, Vince Carter.

Always the consummate athlete, Toliver played quarterback in Junior College before transferring to Bethune-Cookman, bringing him back home to Daytona Beach. Toliver though, didn't play football with the Wildcats, opting instead to stick with basketball.

That didn't stop Toliver from trying to live out his NFL dream. His incredible athleticism gave him a chance to latch on with the St. Louis Rams for a while before getting released from their practice squad in 2001.

In 2002, the Tampa Bay Storm found themselves in a bind. They were in the midst of a frustrating season in which they started at 1-5, and they had lost John Williams to injury in the middle of the campaign. The late Tim Marcum dialed up Toliver, the local boy from 140 miles up I-4 to come in play defensive specialist for him. Except there was one problem. Toliver had never played defense in his life.

Not only did Toliver ultimately lead the team in interceptions in the regular season in spite of the fact that he played just four games, but he also averaged 27.1 yards per kick return and took two all the way back for touchdowns.

After another cup of tea in the NFL, including some time on the practice squads of the San Francisco 49ers and the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Toliver returned to the Storm and helped them win their fifth ArenaBowl in franchise history.

In was in that 2003 season that Toliver proved his worth in all facets of the game. In the semifinal against Orlando, a game which was won 60-50, Toliver scored two touchdowns as a receiver, had three kick returns for 81 yards and picked off Jay Gruden in the final minute of the game and returned it for a touchdown.

T.T. Toliver had arrived, and he immediately became one of the best two-way players in this league.

Toliver was named to the All-Ironman team in 2004, showcasing the full skillset of a man who could do it all. He had 64 catches, 749 yards and 14 TDs as a receiver, posted 1,296 yards and four scores as a kick returner, tied for the team lead in picks with three and was behind just the two defensive specialists on the club, Tramain Jones and Jonathan Ordway for the most tackles.

It was in 2005 that Toliver had his first divorce with the Storm, getting traded to the Nashville Kats. That's where Pat Sperduto decided that his newly acquired weapon was more valuable on the offensive side of the ball than on defense. For the most part, Toliver was used as an offensive specialist in Nashville, and in his one full campaign with the Kats in '06, he roared to 78 catches, 1,273 yards and 28 TDs, all team-highs.

Once Ironman football was abolished prior to the start of the 2007 season, Toliver had to go from the jack of all trades to the master of one, and that's when he truly became a threat as a wide receiver once and for all. Since then, he's posted seven seasons with at least 100 receptions, at least 1,200 yards and at least 20 touchdowns, the one exception coming in 2014, a year in which he only played in 12 regular season games.

If you just look at that period of time from 2007 through the present, few could argue with the numbers Toliver has put up on a per game basis. He's averaged 7.2 receptions, 93.1 yards and 1.76 touchdowns per game in that span. Of his 132 regular season games played in that stretch, 114 featured him getting into the end zone at least once as a receiver, and 54 saw him top the 100-yard mark.

In 2013 with the Predators, Toliver had 1,659 receiving yards – in 14 games. His first seven games of that season arguably made for the greatest stretch in league history. 78 receptions, 1,008 yards and 15 TDs. Included in that mix was one of the best games a receiver has ever had in this great league, an 18-catch, 251-yard, 6-TD performance against Spokane.

Did I mention the fact that Toliver was 36-years old at the time?

And did I mention that since that point, Toliver has amassed 252 catches, 3,389 yards and 68 TDs?

It's a sin that Toliver will never be remembered as the greatest at his position at any point in his career. He'll never be spoken of in the same light as Tiger Jones or Rod Windsor or even Reggie Gray or Donovan Morgan from the AFL v2.0 era, and though he was always a fantastic Ironman, he was never even the best two-way player on his own team; that distinction went to the man who is now coaching him, Lawrence Samuels.

History probably won't be so kind to Toliver either in that he probably won't hold any of these all-time records for all that long, even if he does continue to play. If Toliver does retire at the end of this season, we'll probably be talking about Jones breaking all of these marks around this time next year. If Toliver continues to play, there's a chance he won't even retire as the league's top statistical receiver.

That doesn't mean this isn't a mark worth celebrating.

Sure, it took Toliver 14 AFL seasons to accomplish what Harrell did in 12. But Harrell basically never played defense and never returned kicks. In fact, neither did Jones, nor Chris Jackson, nor Eddie Brown, nor Donovan Morgan. Only the great Barry Wagner spent time playing both sides of the ball in his career amongst the seven men with at least 12,000 receiving yards in AFL history.

Imagine if Toliver had been recruited as a wide receiver and had the benefit of being an offensive specialist in 2002 through 2005. We'd probably be talking about a man with close to 20,000 yards and well over 350 touchdowns.

As it is, Toliver has amassed 20,958 all-purpose yards, a mark that no active player is even remotely close to and only the great Wagner has exceeded. Even that mark will fall at some point in the next week or two. Toliver is the only player in league history to have over 400 receptions with two different teams and the only one with over 5,000 receiving yards with multiple franchises. Toliver also has 100+ touchdowns with both the Storm and Predators, making him one of the two to pull off the feat of the century mark of scores for two different franchises. If he sticks around for one more season, there's a chance Toliver could finish his career with over 10,000 all-purpose yards on both sides of the War on I-4.

Every now and again, we see generational talents come along in sports. Toliver was only named to the All-Arena team once in his career. It's hard to consider him a generational talent. But what Toliver has done is transcend the generational gap in the AFL. He's really the last of the true throwback guys, men who are legitimately able to line up at both wide receiver and defensive back and be equally effective on both sides of the ball. Toliver has had to adapt from a defensive specialist to an Ironman to an offensive specialist in a league where just one receiver could be specialized to a full-blown wide receiver in a league where players only have to perfect one craft.

That, in and of itself, is commendable.

You see athletes all the time who played multiple sports and excelled at both, and football players transfer their game from high school or college quarterbacks to wide receivers in the NFL with regularity. But what you don't see are players who have to switch mentalities completely, changing the side of the ball they play on and doing so with great success.

T.T. Toliver doesn't have to be known as the greatest wide receiver there ever was in the AFL. But what his new standing with the most receiving yards in the league history should come the designation of one of the best all-around arena football players we've ever seen.

Adam Markowitz is an accountant and a freelance sports writer living in Orlando. As a Florida State graduate with degrees in music and history, the garnet and gold will forever be a part of him, but he bleeds the black and red of the Orlando Predators like none other. Adam has been following the AFL since 1991 and has been at well over 200 games, including 16 ArenaBowls. You can follow Adam on Twitter @AFLGuru.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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