Running back Mike Tolbert #35 of the San Diego Chargers rushes with the ball as cornerback Shawntae Spencer #36 of the San Francisco 49ers trys to tackle him at Qualcomm Stadium on December 16, 2010 in San Diego, California.
After a summer spent hooking and jabbing, crossing and uppercutting, one thumbs up last week said it all.
In his first training camp practice Thursday, between position drills, Chargers running back Mike Tolbert raised his right hand toward boxing trainer Dale Soliven and gave him the gesture of approval.
“Just letting him know I feel good,” Tolbert said. “I was appreciative of him coming out and everything that he's done for me.”
Because of his boxing training at the Community Youth Athletic Center in National City, Tolbert says he is in the best shape of his NFL career and “can't wait” to show it this season.
Speed-wise, he feels more explosive than last year, and — for as difficult to tackle as the powerful, stocky veteran has proven to be — pivoting exericses at CYAC have improved his balance.
“I've had a couple runs already this training camp that usually I would have went down,” Tolbert said. “I put my hand down, shifting my weight, and I think that's all due to my boxing training.”
On Tuesday, Soliven was present at practice to see Tolbert again. He expects that along with the added burst and balance, the fourth-year converted fullback will show improved endurance, too.
“If he busts a 60-yarder, he won't have to come out for air,” Soliven said. “He can just go back to that huddle because he knows how to breathe correctly now. He's breathing like a boxer.
“In boxing, you breathe for three long minutes, and there's no breaks. You grab and the referee says 'break,' and you're right back at it. But in football, he gets 45 seconds to catch his breath again. That's nothing for him. He's good to go.”
Their usual routine, which began in March, featured a two-hour morning session Monday through Thursday with a fifth workout on Saturdays.
In July, they moved to two-a-days, incorporating football drills with boxing at Otay Ranch High School in Chula Vista. New Orleans Saints safety and former Charger Paul Oliver also participated in the workouts.
Wearing boxing gloves, the two took turns sprinting across the width of the football field and back.
As one sprinted, the other punched at Soliven's open mitts at maximum interval, an exercise called “machine guns.” When the runner returned, he and the boxer switched roles for the second half of the set.
“We did eight of those in a row,” Soliven said. “There were some high school football players out there, and even they were like, 'Oh my gosh. I'm glad we don't have to do those.'”
Soliven said Tolbert wasn't complaining; he didn't once in their months of training.
And by the end, Soliven walked away impressed with the Charger's work ethic, punctuality and down-to-earth personality, as he pleasantly spoke with disadvantaged youth, who called him "Iron Mike," and signed autographs.
None of those qualities surprise Ollie Wilson.
The Chargers running back coach says Tolbert, a former undrafted rookie free agent from Coastal Carolina, is “self-made” and has progressed each year as a runner.
“Mike will find a way to get himself better,” Wilson said. “He probably researched it and thought, 'Boxing is something that can help,' and did it. Plus he's so damn tough. He's not worried about people hitting him. Now he works on all the things that make him a great boxer, which also helps make him a great runner. I think he's smart to do that.”
To let Soliven know the offseason boxing program worked, Tolbert gave a simple thumbs up.
This season, Tolbert is capable of a more forceful gesture.
He can channel the offseason's physicality into football, a sport known to have to have its occasional chippy moments.
“I'm a physical guy, so I'm always in little fights," Tolbert said with a laugh. "I might even start a couple just to have fun ... I've got a great left hook. Somebody will see it if they try me.”