Five years ago, Greg Toler's football dreams appeared to have reached an abrupt end.
His high school grades were so bad that they scared away Division I schools. With the door to college apparently closed, Toler got a job stocking shelves at a JC Penney store near his home in Washington, D.C., and started playing for the D.C. Explosion, a semipro team, in April 2004.
That set off an unlikely chain of events that has the athletic cornerback coming to Green Bay later this week.
Division II Saint Paul's College — a school located in Lawrenceville, Va., with an enrollment of about 650 students — was looking to restart its football program more than 15 years after it was killed by budget cuts. Saint Paul's first season would be played as a club team, so there were no NCAA academic guidelines to follow. A player on the team knew Toler and recommended him to the coaching staff. A few months later, Toler was enrolled at Saint Paul's.
"When we were club football that first year, a lot of the guys were able to get into school that had academic problems no problem and still be able to participate that club year," said Saint Paul's College defensive coordinator Kevin Grisby, who played safety for the Philadelphia Eagles. "So, he was able to fine-tune his football skills and also it allowed him to get his academics in good order before we became part of the NCAA."
The athletic Toler blossomed into a star. He earned an invite to Richmond University's pro day, and with a Packers scout in attendance, he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds. Now, NFL teams are racing to learn about the 5-foot-11 Toler, who had 14 career interceptions, including six as a senior. Toler will be in Green Bay to visit the Packers this week and has soared from a draft secret to possibly a third-round prospect.
"It is kind of surreal that I'm about to capture my dream as far as playing in the NFL," Toler told Packer Report from an airport on Monday evening. "My mom (Joyce), she's my backbone, my support. Her and my brother kept me on track. My coaches, once I got away from them and went to school, pushed me and kept me focused."
Mark Martin, the CEO and director of the D.C. Explosion, looks back with pride at what Toler has accomplished.
"He's a great kid," Martin said. "Like I tell everybody, the only thing I did was when the college coach had asked me if I had any players that wanted to go to college, what I did was I started touting Greg. I asked Greg, ‘Greg, do you want to play football in college?' He said yes, and I said, ‘Are you serious about this?' So, I got some film and sent it to the coach, the coach came to see him play, and once Greg got to school, he did everything else on his own. He did the work on the field, the work in the classroom, the work in the weight room."
Not only did Saint Paul's resuscitate Toler's football career, but it changed him as a man. As a child, Toler's father was in prison on drug charges and eventually died there. Grisby became the mentor that Toler needed to turn his life around.
"Here's a kid that academics were a problem in high school, mainly because he didn't have that structure in his life, a male role model," Grisby said. "Once he came to Saint Paul's, I was kind of thrust into position to be that person."
During weekly meetings, Grisby preached the importance of putting school before football and stressed that Toler needed to take advantage of the free education that the game made possible. Toler listened. He's three credits shorts of earning his degree in criminal justice. While many prospects drop out of school to improve their 40 times this time of year, Toler is on pace to graduate on May 10.
"That's what I get out of all of this," Grisby said. "I once played in the league, too. My not being able to play anymore and taking this role of becoming a college coach, it's one of the main things I get out of it is seeing the guys doing some of the things that I had the opportunity to do. The success that I had on the football field and also getting that degree, if I can see those guys do some of the same things, it makes me real proud and makes me feel like I've done my job. That's what I think the Lord has put me on this earth to do."
Scouts love Toler's combination of height and speed. They also appreciate his hunger to succeed and his potential to improve once placed in a professional setting.
"Coming from where I'm coming from, I haven't played in the best facilities. I haven't had 16 pair of cleats," Toler said. "I'm coming from a small school, so I'm working a lot harder. Not taking anything from the D-I boys, but they got pampered a little bit more. I'm coming from a small school, played on a rocky field where we had rocks and dirt. It was just tough. I'm never looking for no handouts. I love that thirst to get on the field and where it's the best vs. the best so I can show them what I can do."
Toler, who played mostly man coverage in college, downplays the questions of whether he can handle the tremendous jump in competition that awaits. Once he reaches the NFL, even the receivers who won't be good enough to survive training camp will be better than the ones he faced at Saint Paul's.
"Football is football. Grass is green and football is played on grass," Toler said. "I would love to test my skills against the best. Mano e mano. I always tell (scouts), ‘Give me the opportunity and I'll show that I'll work hard and learn and be coachable. I'm going to give it all I have.' I always work hard. I'm a leader. On the field, I play with intensity and I love the game. I bring 180 percent to the game."
While coaching at Division II Virginia Union, Grisby helped cornerback Pete Hunter be a fifth-round draft pick in 2002. Hunter played five seasons in the NFL and spent last year with the Toronto Argonauts.
"Pete couldn't wear Greg's jockstrap," Grisby said. "He's just exceptionally athletic. He has the tools. I was just here to try to fine-tune him. If he had gone to a Division I school, he would be a No. 1 draft pick."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport