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Tarpon resident now NFL center

You know how some babies sleep with their teddy bears? Robbie Tobeck slept with a football.

You know how some children want to be firefighters or astronauts when they grow up? At 4 years old, Robbie Tobeck told his father he wanted to be a football player.

You know how some people say they are going to get in shape but always find an excuse not to? Robbie Tobeck began working out at age 6.

"He has worked and strived," said Tobeck's father, August. "He has made himself into an exceptional athlete."

But not everything has worked out exactly as the 28-year-old from Tarpon Springs planned. August said his son always wanted to play for the Cowboys, a condition fostered during the eight years the family lived in Arlington, Texas.

Instead, Tobeck is the starting center for the Atlanta Falcons.

That's the 14-2 Atlanta Falcons. The Atlanta Falcons who won the NFC West divisional crown and are just two playoff victories from their first Super Bowl.

"Everything," Robbie Tobeck said, "is going pretty good."

Charmed is a better word. Where else can someone so neatly combine two of his passions: pro football and pro wrestling.

Bill Goldberg is one of WCW's most popular wrestlers. But in 1993, he and Tobeck were Falcons rookies.

"I was blocking him, and we ended up punching each other," Tobeck said. "That wasn't doing anything, so I backed up and gave him a good kick. He started laughing."

Even so, Tobeck maintained, "I can take him down."

His abilities on the football field are more clear cut. The 6-foot-4, 295-pounder has started 63 of the Falcons 64 games since 1995.

Falcons offensive line coach Art Shell said Tobeck is good at leveraging his blocks to keep larger opponents at bay.

Like all centers, Tobeck must be able to instantly read defenses and call the appropriate blocking assignments. But his most important job is keeping Atlanta quarterback Chris Chandler safe.

"He is the apex of the pocket, so it's important that apex is strong," Shell said. "He does pretty good. It's tough to snap a ball and block a 320-pounder whose hitting you on top of the nose, but he holds his own."

Quite an accomplishment for someone who attended a high school, New Port Richey Christian, that didn't offer the sport until his senior season, when it put together a four-game schedule.

For someone with football on his mind, the school, which is now closed, seems an odd fit, especially with football powerhouse Tarpon Springs in the neighborhood. But August said, "We didn't want our kids in the public school system."

Instead, Tobeck, who played youth football in Texas, where the family lived until he was 14, excelled at basketball.

Tobeck was dressed for a pick-up game when he stopped to watch a charity event at Ridgewood High. When a team made up of former Tampa Bay Bucs was a man short, Jack Thompson, who was quarterback for the Bucs from 1983-84, asked if he wanted to fill in.

"He dominated the game," Thompson said.

Thompson, now president of a Seattle coffee company, was so impressed he offered to help Tobeck in any athletic endeavors. Tobeck told him he wanted to play football.

"As a practical matter, basketball is the barometer for all athletics," Thompson said. "It wasn't much of a stretch for me to see him as a football player."

A call from Thompson helped Tobeck get into Kilgore Junior College in Texas, where he played linebacker and defensive end. Though a knee injury his sophomore season diminished Tobeck's prospects, Thompson's call to Washington State, where he starred, helped get him a scholarship.

"Great explosion, great feet and real smart," Washington State offensive line coach John McDonell said. "And he understands the game."

Which is why Tobeck was moved to guard and later to center, where he started all 12 games as senior in 1992 and was named second-team all-Pac 10, snapping to Drew Bledsoe, now with New England. The Falcons signed Tobeck as a free agent in 1993.

"One thing I can say is the Lord opened doors for me, and I jumped through every door that I had a chance to," Tobeck said. "I've worked as hard as I possibly can to get here. It's been a blessing, and every day I'm thankful that I have been able to live out my dream."

The dream has gotten sweeter. The Falcons, 46-50 since Tobeck signed on, face either Dallas, Green Bay or San Francisco in a playoff game Jan. 9 in Atlanta.

"I've been in this league six years and have never been in this position," Tobeck said. "I'm enjoying this year so much, I don't want it to end."