ODE TO BILLY JOE

It's an NFL truism: You have one Billy Joe on your team, it's a novelty.

You have two, you might as well jump off the Tallahatchie bridge.

New Orleans goes two deep with Billy Joes at quarterback: Hobert and Tolliver. In an attempt to compensate, the Saints have a promising running back in Ricky Williams, but he has been spotted recently wearing a dress.

Nothing out of the ordinary there for people living in New Orleans, but since talent doesn't appear to be a prerequisite to play quarterback for the Saints, Billy Bob Thornton might want to give it a try.

"I don't care what people outside this team think," Tolliver says. "I really don't care."

If he did, he'd be in the pits, trolling for self-esteem. Follow the incomplete passes: Tolliver has bounced from San Diego to Atlanta to Houston to Shreveport (Shreveport? Right, the Shreveport Pirates, then of the Canadian Football League) to Atlanta to Kansas City and now on to New Orleans.

Tolliver is beginning his 11th season in professional football, and if he's so bad, how come he's so good at hanging around?

It helps being on a team featuring the likes of Hobert, Danny Wuerffel and Jake Delhomme at quarterback. But 11 years into his career, Tolliver's contract has been extended through 2002. The good old boy will earn $1.035 million this season.

But here's the thing that matters most about Billy Joe Tolliver. He might not be one of the game's best quarterbacks, but he is one of the NFL's all-time good guys. Hall of Fame stuff.

They don't come any more upright, friendly or resilient, and if women and children are advised to duck for cover whenever he throws the ball, they should be so fortunate to meet him.

By NFL standards, Tolliver lacks starting power, but that belies the considerable athletic talent required to just stick around. He threw 14 no-hitters in high school, finished first and won $75,000 in a Lake Tahoe celebrity golf tournament a few years ago and completed 11 of 16 passes--68.7%--against the 15-1 Vikings last season.

There is one key mistake that can be made in considering Tolliver. His career might not have gone as hoped, but do not feel sorry for him.

"I didn't cry at my mother's funeral," he says. "Things haven't always gone my way, but in the big scheme of things--outside of the blood flowing through your own family--nobody else really cares. . . . JFK's plane goes down and the whole world is in shock; my mother dies [about the same time], and was anybody in shock but us?

"Now you take my mom. For the last 10 years she's been blind from diabetes. She loses a kidney, has a transplant, loses that and goes on dialysis. She's as sick as you can possibly be, and talking to her, you would never know it. No complaints."

Interrupted, and asked for his mother's name, Tolliver says, "Sharon," before catching himself. "Ma, that was her name.

"We were tight, but it came time to make the decision to pull the plug. It wasn't very hard at all--one of the easiest things I've ever had to do in my life because it ended the suffering. As far as her being gone now, that isn't easy, and watching my dad, who had spent 38-39 years with her every day, waking up next to her, not just his wife, but his best friend--now that's tough, but you press on."

That has been kind of a lifelong theme for Tolliver, and in New Orleans he has found a kindred spirit in Mike Ditka, a coach who insists on forging ahead.

"I love the guy's style," Tolliver says. "There's no big secret to it: We're going to be tougher than you and we're going to bully your butt all the way to the goal line. That's the way I grew up in Texas. You step on their throat until it comes out the back of their neck and then you score."

Tough talk from a guy who is adopting his 14-year-old nephew, who was being raised by Tolliver's mother and father; the same pushover who paid for a dozen golf carts for training-camp support personnel who could not afford the hefty bill.

"Don't want the wife knowing about that," Tolliver says. "She's going to kick my butt."

An athlete such as Billy Joe Tolliver sits on the bench with his private thoughts these days, and no one pays all that much attention. The NFL game belongs to its stars, who are given the opportunity to tell their stories over and over again.

Tolliver nods in understanding.

"What are you talking to me for? Shoot, I come from a family that firmly believes the same thing: The world wants results--not excuses," he says. "The rest of the stuff, nobody cares about. People asking you how you're doing are just being polite. They don't really care."

They grow them hard and tough in Boyd, Texas--population 889. Tolliver was driving a '66 Ford pickup in fourth grade. He was working 60 hours a week, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., at an oil re-refinery while going to high school, paying his parents $500 a month in room and board.

"I didn't get to be a kid," he says. "But I only remember it as good times."

His father, working 100 hours a week, watched him play football only once, in the 1983 Class AA Texas high school championship game won by Boyd.

"My mom saw me play once too, a college game [for Texas Tech]," Tolliver says. "The old man drove her to the game and then went back to the hotel. The old man is old school. He doesn't like crowds and he doesn't understand someone yelling obscenities at his son. There would be an incident in the stands.

"And in his defense, the last 10 years, he's been taking care of the old woman. And she had to be there for the old man."

No complaints from Tolliver, who has now been in the NFL for more than a decade without his parents ever seeing him play.

"I only have two regrets in my life: I had two friends who lost their parents and I didn't make it to their funerals. My other regret is that I will live my life and never have the honor to serve my country.

"No regrets in football. Are you kidding? I got to play professional football for more than 10 years and I don't think I'm done. These are great days, bro. Who cares what might have happened the last 10 years. I'm still playing."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°