Greg Toler sensed something special brewing when he visited the Indianapolis Colts during his time as a free agent.
They talked championships, as teams recruiting players tend to do, but the talk and excitement seemed genuine. The money matched the words, and Toler became a Colt. So far, Toler's hunch and the Colts' belief in his role both look justified.
Colts fans caught a glimpse of his talent Sunday against the New York Giants, when he picked off an Eli Manning pass. After suffering a concussion early in training camp, Toler is back healthy and the type of big-play cornerback the Colts can use.
“I'm a down-to-earth guy trying to make the plays that come my way,” Toler in an interview during camp at Anderson University. “With the other 10 guys around me, I want to be accountable.”
Toler knows better than most how difficult success, whether as a team or an individual, can be. His route to the NFL – long before he switched from the Arizona Cardinals to the Colts – was a major uphill climb.
Toler grew up in Hyattsville, Md., near Washington, D.C., and established his skills as a wide receiver, defensive back and kick returner.
“My father wasn't a too-tall guy and I was a 6-foot wide receiver not getting any bigger,” Toler said. “Once I realized I wasn't going to be 6-4 or 6-5 I knew I was going to be a DB.”
While he was good enough to play NCAA Division I college football, Toler made what he readily admits was the mistake of not caring enough about academics. He didn't have a strong enough school resume for college, so he began to play semi-pro football for the D.C. Explosion.
“I always heard that quote, 'They'll find you if you're good,' but I was a critic of that,” Toler said. “I was 17 or 18 years old playing with 30-year-olds, playing with guys who were holding on to the game. One of the coaches said, 'You need to be in school.' “
Toler put the work in and ended up at Saint Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va., an NCAA Division II school. He set all sorts of records and gained the notice of the NFL, going in the fourth round to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2009 draft. He's the only player ever drafted from the school, which has since discontinued its sports programs.
“The lesson was don't take school for granted at all or you won't have this opportunity,” Toler said. “It's a blessing to come to training camp. So many guys would trade places with you. I've learned don't take anything for granted, whether it's learning the playbook or studying film or anything else.”
After four years with the Cardinals – including offseason time continuing his college studies and earning a degree in criminal justice – Toler became an unrestricted free agent. He met with the Colts, who were looking for a cornerback opposite Vontae Davis, and he liked what he saw and heard.
He said he could sense the team's commitment to pursuing a Super Bowl title in everything they did and in the cohesiveness of the returning players. He said the secondary has grown close on and off the field, and the defense has a commitment to trusting each other to get the job done.
“I think it just starts from the leadership, the captains on down, the veteran guys like (Cory) Redding and Robert Mathis telling us it's one unit,” Toler said. “Iron sharpens iron, man sharpens man. Coach (Chuck) Pagano stands by that. We just try to march in his footsteps and help each other.”
That all-for-one spirit has Toler believing this Colts defense can make some good things happen.
“This defense, it's more like a brotherhood,” he said. “I'm not sure if that's because we have a lot of young guys, but we feed off each other and keep each other's spirits up. If one guy makes a play, all of us make a play.”