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Fennelly: No quit in T.T. Toliver, AFL's oldest player

TAMPA — Yes, it's Arena Football.

Yes, it's 1-13 Arena Football.

But then there's T.T. Toliver.

"He's inspiring," Tampa Bay Storm president and Bucs great Derrick Brooks said. "No, the season hasn't gone as planned, but we have something special here."

That kid at receiver.

You know, the 39-year-old kid.

The Storm is nearing the end of its 25th season, the worst in the history of the five-time Arena Football League champion. The final regular-season home game is today.

Of course, in the fickle (and shrinking) AFL, down to eight teams, everyone makes the postseason this year. Man, the Bucs would kill for that deal.

"Playoff-bound," Storm coach Lawrence Samuels said with a smile.

"Anything can happen," Toliver said.

He's proof.

Antoine "T.T." Toliver is the oldest player in the AFL. In fact, he's 10 years older than the league itself. And he's unstoppable.

This season, Toliver set league records for career receptions (1,194), career receiving yards (15,647) and career all-purpose yards (21,298).

Yes, he's but a 6-foot tree in our sports forest. Bucs training camp is around the corner.

But leave a little room for Toliver.

Toliver, a 14-year league veteran, earns $600 per game. Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson will earn $9.78 million this season, roughly $611,000 per game.

"I feel like I could play five, six more years," Toliver said. "Serious. I run every day. I work out. When it's 12 o'clock at night, 1 o'clock at night, when everybody's sleeping, I'm at the gym. I feel younger than I am."

"He's everything to us," said Samuels, an AFL Hall of Famer and the first man in league history to reach 1,000 career catches. He and Toliver were Storm teammates on a 2003 Arena Bowl championship team. "To play so long, it's got to be the love."

"He's like nothing I've never seen," said Storm defensive back Nick Addison, 23, the team's youngest player. "He's our Jerry Rice."

Their Jerry Rice points to his pint-sized son, 5-year-old Nyliek, who scoots around the edges of the artificial turf, always a football in his arm, during Storm practices.

"One reason I keep playing is to show my son to respect the game," Toliver said. "Nothing is given. And for younger guys in the league, to show them this is how you do it."

Toliver still thinks about the NFL. Just the other night, he had a dream about playing.

"It doesn't go away," he said.

One time, he got close. As close as he ever would.

In 2002, Toliver joined the Buccaneers' practice squad for a handful of weeks during the team's Super Bowl season. He didn't work long enough to meet the team's stingy criteria for receiving a ring, still a sore point for him, but he has memories. He watched the Super Bowl from the sideline, in street clothes. And there was practice that week, leading to the game with the Oakland Raiders.

"In practice, they had me pretend to be Tim Brown for the defense," Toliver said. "Coach Gruden was the quarterback sometimes, pretending to be Rich Gannon. I caught some passes from Gruden."

He has had three stints with the Storm. Brooks brought Toliver back to Tampa in 2014.

And the rest is, well, T.T.

Toliver, who grew up in Daytona Beach and attended Bethune-Cookman, lives in Ocoee in the offseason. He works part time for FedEx in Orlando. Graveyard shift in the dead of night, he dreams of the NFL, or catching AFL passes when he's 45.

"If it wasn't for the Tampa Bay Storm, I'd be on the streets somewhere," Toliver said. "I'm scared sometimes, man. I don't know what I'd do without the football."

Toliver and his teammates stayed after practice one day this week for an Amalie Arena staff party. Good food, open bar, people from marketing and accounting trying to kick field goals. Toliver chased his son up and down the field. They tumbled into an end zone and laughed as they wrestled for the football.

Kids can be like that. Both of them.

Today: Storm vs. Portland

5, Amalie Arena (final regular-season home game)

TV/radio: CBSSN; 1250-AM

Records: Storm 1-13, Portland 2-12

On the Web: With Storm quarterback Jason Boltus out with a back injury, Adam Kennedy gets a chance to start today, tampabay.com/sports.

Fennelly: No quit in T.T. Toliver, AFL's oldest player 07/22/16 [Last modified: Friday, July 22, 2016 10:35pm]
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