- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2017

Watching T.T. Toliver glide around an arena football field, showing off his agility avoiding tackles and his speed chasing down deep throws, you’d never know the Washington Valor wide receiver is 40.

“Most people ask me how come I’m playing this game for a long time. This [is a] field day to me,” Toliver said after the Valor’s 62-28 loss to the Cleveland Gladiators Saturday night, a defeat that eliminated them from the Arena Football League playoffs. “It’s all about when you’re a little child, you always want to go out there and run around, and you know, I’m able to continue doing that at the age of 40. I’m blessed, man.”

While the Valor are concluding their first season in the AFL, Toliver has been a part of the league since 2002. Fifteen years later, he now holds the league records for receptions and receiving yards.

And he hasn’t showed any signs of slowing down. Just last week, Toliver was named the AFL Offensive Player of the Week after a 113-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 34-30 win over the Baltimore Brigade.

T.T.’s the ageless wonder,” Valor quarterback Sean Brackett said. “He’s a great receiver. Greatest receiver of all-time in the arena league.”

“He’s been the one really bright, consistent spot for us,” head coach Dean Cokinos echoed. “I coached T.T. back in 2005, he’s always been a game-changer, but he’s just a guy that loves to play. He never quits, he just competes.”

Toliver’s professional football career actually began in 2000, when the then-St. Louis Rams signed him to their practice squad. As with many arena football players, Toliver bounced around several NFL practice squads, but never managed to acquire a long-term roster spot.

However, Toliver’s brief NFL career included one especially noteworthy experience: while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad in 2003, the team won Super Bowl 37 — the “Pirate Bowl” — over the Oakland Raiders.

Toliver didn’t get a championship ring — he hadn’t been on the roster for the minimum 10 games — but he still remembers the experience fondly.

“I mean, just given the opportunity to play for the Bucs motivated me,” he said. “Motivated me to want to come out here and compete each and every day because you never know what this God may have for you. I was always taught to give it my all, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Five months after the Super Bowl, Toliver finally managed to get a championship ring, winning the 2003 AFL title as a part of the Tampa Bay Storm.

“It was just going to a great organization, and surrounding yourself with great people,” he said. “Coach [Tim] Marcum, his organization was great. I guess it was just a lucky thing, [going] from winning a Super Bowl to coming home and winning an ArenaBowl.”

While Toliver’s football career has flourished in the AFL, the league itself has shrunk due to financial struggles, only fielding five teams for the 2017 season.

Toliver says he hasn’t noticed any difference in the level of competition, but the league’s money problems have also caused a significant drop in player compensation.

“The only difference is the money situation. You got guys that have to work a job, they can’t put forth the effort into this and make this league a better league because you got to worry about taking care of your family,” said Toliver, who works construction when he’s not playing for the Valor. “Other than that, I’d say it’s the same league. You just got guys that have to have more than one job.”

Mindful of the league’s difficulties, Toliver has a singular mission when he takes the field: Get fans to care.

“I just try to get the people who are new to the arena game. Once they see it, they like it,” he said. “That’s my thing right now, just getting the people who haven’t seen this game, to when they do see it, they enjoy it. That’s my motivation.”

And on some level, Toliver seems to have been successful. Washington has struggled in its first AFL season, going 2-11 with one game to play.

Despite the record, the Valor boast the league’s highest attendance average — more than 11,000 fans per contest.

Toliver himself said he isn’t sure if he’ll be back for a 16th AFL season, but he expressed optimism about arena football’s prospects in Washington.

“The future is bright for this organization,” he said. “I would love to be back here, and I’m just looking forward to next year. This year I feel like we kind of let you all down, and next year, at least I have something to motivate me.”

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