Jeff Pearlman

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Dave Tollefson

#412
The two-time Super Bowl champion went from Home Depot and Division II football to twice toppling Ton Brady on the NFL's biggest stage. He also was teammates with Omar Gaither—and they can't take that away from him. POSTED June 26, 2019

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I love guys like Dave Tollefson.

What I mean by “guys like Dave Tollefson” is guys who have experienced tremendous success in professional sports, then fade away and integrate into society. They were here, down with us, then they rose to the highest of heights. They drank the bubbly, they sacked Tom Brady, they won the jewelry. Then, when that ended, they returned to be with us. Happy, content and overflowing with amazing stories.

Dave’s story, in particular, is otherworldly. He was a kid from Northern California who jumped from junior college to Fresno State to working at a Home Depot to Division II ball to being plucked by the Green Bay Packers with the 253rd pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. That he wound up playing on two Super Bowl champions is a testament to doggedness, to hard work, to believing in oneself.

And while those rings are valuable, they’re no match for Dave Tollefson‘s latest honor: The 412th Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Dave, I’m gonna throw a big one at you. Having covered sports for a long time, and having gotten to know many retired NFL players, I sometimes wonder whether it was truly worth it. And what I mean is this: You played six NFL seasons. Six years—which fly by. And then you’re done. I’m speaking generally here, but your body is often beaten. Your mind is often beaten. You’re done doing the thing you absolutely love by 30, maybe 31. And then you’re left with the rest of your life, forever knowing what it is to have 60,000 fans cheer, but never getting that buzz again. And it just seems like a REALLY hard adjustment to life after. Am I exaggerating? And is it worth it?

DAVE TOLLEFSON: First off, thanks a ton for thinking of me for the world-famous Quaz!

It definitely is an exhilarating feeling having a packed stadium cheer you on. The job is tough, maybe that’s an understatement. I think most people equate the toughness to the physical part of the NFL, but I think the mental part is by far much tougher. Imagine someone filming you doing your job, the whole day. Then after work you sit and watch this film with your boss and other employees. While watching this film, 90 percent of what they tell is what you did wrong. The next day you do the same thing, also the day after that and so on. They also are trying to actively replace you this entire time. The actual playing of football is a sanctuary, the physical part of it for me was a time to take out all these frustrations of the mental stress. Ronnie Lott once said, “You get paid to practice and the games you play for free.” I totally agree with the Hall of Famer. I always knew that I was playing a kid’s game for a king’s ransom.

Retiring is not easy by any means. I think, considering how I got to the NFL, it was easier for me than most of the others who go through it. I always knew that my career had an end point. I took what NFL stands for (Not For Long) seriously. Being married to the right person is a tremendous help. My wife Megan is an unbelievable person, she has been very patient with anything that I have dealt with when it comes to retirement. I think the most important thing for me was finding an outlet. I love waterfowl hunting! The comradery is amazing and the work you have to put in to get results is most of the fun.

Would I play football again? Hell yeah and twice on Sunday if I could. Have me for another Quaz in 15 years and we will see if that answer changes …

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J.P.: You played in two Super Bowls with the Giants. A solid 99.99999 percent of people reading this will have never played in any Super Bowls. This is a broad question, but what is it like? Literally, what is it like, participating in a Super Bowl?

D.T.: It was surreal, crazy, fun, anxiety filled, amazing, scary, and—most of all—unbelievable. All of those things, not in that specific order and maybe all at once. I was on the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad in 2007 when the Giants picked me up Week 5. This is when Lane Kiffin was the head coach, the best thing I can say is he was not ready to be a head coach. The Giants were 2-2 at the time, so it wasn’t like I knew I was going to a Super Bowl contender. So that being said, the first one was an out-of-body experience almost. I really couldn’t believe I was there, playing, in the frickin’ Super Bowl!

The second was much different. I brought all my family and friends. I don’t think I actually made any money because I paid for everyone’s hotel, tickets and everything else. I didn’t care, either. It was one of the best experiences of my life and to be able to share it with the people I care about most meant so much to me.

J.P.: Your coming-up saga is pretty astounding: Played outside linebacker at Los Medanos College in 1999 and 2000; then went to Fresno State, but missed three years with injuries, worked at Home Depot in 2002 before going to Northwest Missouri and starring. Maybe this is overly simplistic, but why didn’t you give up? Quit? Move on?

D.T.: That’s always an interesting question. Honestly its tough to answer because I never really wanted to give up. One of my favorite stories that pertains to that mindset was when I was sitting on Tosh Lupoi’s couch on Walnut Ave in Walnut Creek California. He’s now the defensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns, and at the time he was playing defensive end for the California Golden Bears and I was a earpenter. We were watching an NFL game on a Sunday afternoon. I spoke up and said, “I think I can play in the NFL.”

Tosh’s response: “What the fuck! You think it’s a sign-up sheet?”

Tosh and I are still great friends and any chance I get I tell him that he missed the sign-up sheet.

There were definitely tough times when I thought I could make it and life was telling me a different story. I never thought about quitting, though, and the less likely it seemed that I would make it, the harder I would work. Don’t get me wrong, there were a number of blessings along the way that put me in position to get to where I got but hard work was always there.

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J.P.: You were the 253rd pick of the 2006 NFL Draft. Where were you? Did you think you’d get selected? What was your reaction? Emotion?

D.T.: I was in a 1985 17.5 foot Astroglass bass boat on the California Delta. My buddy Tosh entered us in a bass tournament on the second day of the draft. It actually was a brilliant idea to keep my mind off of everything.

I seriously thought I would not be drafted and that was fine with me. I was told by a scout my senior year at Northwest Missouri State University that I would definitely be a free agent signee. For me that was more than enough. I summoned my Lloyd Christmas and said, “So you’re saying there’s a chance!”

I could not believe that I got drafted. I was a carpenter just 2 1/2 years prior. I was a marginal junior college player and I couldn’t keep my grades right for the life of me and that cost me my chance at Fresno State and now I was drafted to play in the NFL. It was a dream come true. I cried, my mom cried, my girlfriend (who’s now my wife) cried. Again, it wasn’t just about me, it was about all the people who believed in me and loved me along the way.

J.P.: I don’t think most of us know what it’s like to get hit. Like, REALLY hit. So … what’s the story of the worst hit you ever took? And what did it feel like?

D.T.: Not trying to sound like a total meathead, but I rarely was the proverbial nail (be the hammer not the nail). One time Everson Griffin hit me from the side on Punt team, it was pretty hard. He actually got a late hit penalty on the play. It just hurt, I think my ego was more battered than my body to be honest with you. I always tried to be the last guy to flinch, typically that makes you the hammer.

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J.P.: You played with the Berlin Thunder in NFL Europe. And I’ve just gotta think—you’re 26, living in Berlin, playing football and getting solid money. Amazing, no? What was that experience like?

D.T.: Solid money? I made 500 bucks a week in NFL Europe. They paid for room and board but they didn’t pay for Internet and it cost like $350 a month. I actually loved the experience over there. I tell anyone who will listen to get out and see the world. It’s amazing how different parts of the world are. One thing that left an indelible impression on me was the visit to Dachau Concentration Camp. Its very difficult to describe. It’s a life-altering experience.

A lot of guys went out. I didn’t. I would tell the guys there that they didn’t send us here because we were good. I took it very seriously and I think it paid off. Playing with some high-level players and being out of a Division II college, my confidence skyrocketed. It definitley was a springboard for my career. I can’t leave out either, went to a Xzibit concert. It was interesting to say the least.

J.P.: I’m a New Yorker. I come from a family of Giant fans. That said, like most people I gave the Giants a 0.00% chance of winning Super Bowl XLII. Am I wondering—what did you think, heading into the game? Were you sure you’d win? Were you sorta sure? Not sure?

D.T.: As you know we played the Patriots the last game of that regular season. After watching the film of that game, we felt that if we had the opportunity to play them again, we would beat them. Well, we got to play them again and our confidence was sky high. We not only thought that we were going to beat them, we knew we were. It was honestly a kind of a weird feeling. They were undefeated and one of the best teams to ever take a field in NFL history, but we had Eli Manning.

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Dave with the family at a Mets game.

J.P.: Is hate a thing in pro football? Like, if you’re a Giant do you hate the Redskins or Cowboys the way fans do? Are there opposing offensive linemen or quarterbacks you hate, in a visceral way? Or is it more, “I have a job to do, no beef with anyone”?

D.T.: I wouldn’t say that the players take the rivalries nearly as seriously as fans do. With that being said, I absolutely hate the Philadelphia Eagles. That has more to do with them beating us in the playoffs in 2008 and The Miracle at the Meadowlands II. As far as individual beefs, those can be very real. I never had one myself but there were definitely guys who did not like each other. Some guys didn’t like their own teammates.

J.P.: How much do you worry about the long-term impact football has on your brain? And are you 100 percent comfortable with football, as we sit here in 2019? Can your kids play? Is it safe?

D.T.: I’m not to concerned at this juncture of my life. Worrying doesn’t get you anywhere in life. Could my brain be a problem for me down the road? Maybe. I try to take really good care of my body in the meantime and I will cross that bridge when I get there.

I’m comfortable with the changes the NFL has made. I think you’re seeing it trickle down also into lower levels of the sport, too. We can still be better though. I love football and it changed my life forever. There a lot of valuable lessons you learn in this sport and quite honestly there really isn’t a ton on the line. You can lose a game. I will repeat this, you can lose a game. I tell people all the time—don’t forget that this is a game.

All my boys play flag football. My wife and I won’t let them play tackle until they are at least 12. Most importantly though, it is their decision if they even want to play. I’m not some psycho dad who is worried about his legacy. I would be just as happy if any of my kids were artists, welders, or maybe even a writer.

Ultimately if it is coached properly I think it is safe. The game has came a long way and when my boys are old enough and if they so choose, I have no problem with them suiting up.

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J.P.: On Memorial Day you Tweeted this gem: (What an amazing day!!! I think about my brother, who did make it back from Iraq, twice. He made it back because other guys didn’t. I get too barbecue and drink beers because of those men and woman that aren’t with us today. Thank you, my children will not forget you.). So I wanna ask—your brother. What is he like? Why did he enlist? What does that mean to you?

D.T.: My brother is my hero. He’s by far the toughest SOB I’ve ever known and he’s grown into and amazing Father and husband. The U.S. Marine Corp was lucky to have a man like him wear that uniform.

I believe he enlisted basically because his options were limited out of high school and he knew they would pay for school afterwards. If he was going to enlist it was going to be with the most fierce force of fighters that this planet has ever known! I’m glad to say that today he’s about to graduate with a double major in economy and finance and a minor in computer science from University of San Francisco. Semper Fidelis!

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVE TOLLEFSON:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Pam Oliver, “The Karate Kid,” Jordin Sparks, Mr. Potato Head, “Get Out,” Jackie Stiles, Jeremy Shockey, date bread, Cuonzo Martin: 1. “The Karate Kid,” 2. Potato Head, 3. Pam Oliver, 4. Jeremy Shockey, 5. Jordin Sparks, 6. Jackie Stiles, 7. Cuonzo Martin, 8. Date bread, 9. “Get Out” (I absolutely refuse to watch scary movies. Call me what you want)

• If you’re the Democrats, and you wanna beat Donald Trump in 2020, what should the ticket be?: President: Joe Biden VP: Barack Obama

• The world needs to know: What was it like playing with Omar Gaither?: It was great! We only played one year in Oakland together, but we played in the Hula Bowl in Hawaii also. It was a senior all-star game.

• Five greatest NFL players from your time in the league?: Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Michael Strahan, Walter Jones, Eli Manning.

• How did you meet your wife?: In our college training room. I spit some game, she dug it and the rest is history.

• Did you ever think you were about to die in a plane crash? If you, what do you recall?: I am not a huge fan of flying in general. The worst time was when I was going to Justin Tuck’s wedding. It felt like we were flying through a tornado. I was absolutely terrified.

• My son thinks, with proper opportunity, Ahmad Bradshaw could have been Walter Payton II. I think he’s on crack. What says you?: Ahmad was an incredible talent. Walter Payton might be a little bit of a reach and I’m sure Ahmad would say the same thing.

• You help coach football at your nearby junior college. What gives you the greatest joy?: Seeing the young men I coach be successful. I try to keep in contact with as many guys I can after they leave. Football is just a footnote in all our lives and I just want to build real relationships.

• Right now, we give you four months to train, then you have to play for the University of Delaware Blue Hens this season. Twelve games, what are your sack, tackle totals?: No. Never. It hurts to think about it. I could give them maybe 10 plays a game and I wouldn’t practice. So I would get about 120 snaps, so if I do the math right, I should get at least one sack …

• What’s the best advice you ever received?: “Everything has a cost and I’m not talking about money necessarily”

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life