Billy Joe Tolliver played quarterback like Steve Martin's "Wild and Crazy Guy" on Saturday Night Live would have. Tolliver went for throws no one else dared. He often seemed oblivious to the fact he possessed a journeyman's arm. If there was a crack, a chance at a comeback, Tolliver never hesitated. If Ryan Leaf had Billy Joe Tolliver's guts, he would be headed for Canton.
"I'm playing to win," Tolliver says now, the inexplicable superstar swagger still in his voice. "Down 10 points in the fourth quarter I'm not afraid to try and squeeze the ball in there for a touchdown. If it gets intercepted, at least I fired all the bullets in my gun.
"I was never a big stat guy. Who cares if you lose by 17 or 10? You still lost. I want to take the chance to win. I might end up looking bad. But at least I fired all the bullets in my gun. I took my shot."
You can hear Tolliver's excitement over the fiber-optic phone line. This is a guy who gets pumped just thinking about taking chances. It's why he remains such a huge fan favorite in Louisiana despite the fact his career NFL quarterback numbers (59 touchdowns to 64 interceptions) are pedestrian at best. Five years after he threw his last pass for the New Orleans Saints, Tolliver talks all-guts football on his own radio show.
Recklessness has been very, very good to him.
Except when it comes to Tolliver's new chosen passion: golf.
It turns out being a quarterback willing to butt heads with linebackers does not easily translate to staring down a twisted, wicked par 4.
"I've found my game management on the football field shows up in my course management on the golf course," Tolliver says. "And that's not always a good thing."
Tolliver's been playing golf since 1987, when he picked up the game as an already fearless quarterback at Texas Tech. Since he finally ran out of football chances, he's been playing it virtually full time. Tolliver is a regular on the Celebrity Players Tour, challenging tour standouts Rick Rhoden (baseball) and Dan Quinn (hockey). He even tried his hand at Canadian Tour qualifying school a few years ago.
Billy Joe knows golf. He studies strategy, analyzes the game. He understands when the smart play is to lay up. That doesn't make it is any easier to actually do it.
"It's very difficult for me to lay up with a wedge from 275 yards," Tolliver says. "Very difficult. I want to go for the pin, to squeeze it in there. Every time."
Some people can't drive 55. Billy Joe Tolliver can't swing for the safe spots. Not with that flag there on the green, waving so enticingly.
The aggressive approach has gotten Tolliver in trouble in his attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open. One bad hole is often all it takes to derail an already long-shot chance. Going for the gusto, going for the great shot every time is the surest route to that dooming red-numbered hole. Tolliver knows this and he also knows qualifying for the Open would be the time of his golfing life, a dream he is going to take every shot at making come true.
"To get to play my game against the best in our nation's championship," Tolliver says. "To put it in the words of my kids, that would be, 'Too cool.'"
To ever get there, Tolliver must dial back his natural aggressive instincts. This is the kind of guy who pushes all his chips into the center of the poker table when he's holding a pair of twos. To fight that, Tolliver's started studying the modern NFL quarterbacks, the guys often mistaken as robotic extensions of control-freak coaches, the kind of quarterback Tolliver himself could never be comfortable being.
"I find in golf you have to be more like those new age quarterbacks, all about managing the game and trying to limit your mistakes," Tolliver says.
You can tell the thought still pains Tolliver. This is begrudging admission. But hey, Trent Dilfer did win a Super Bowl a few years ago.
When Phil Mickelson reined in his game and walked away with the green jacket at Augusta, Tolliver found some solace. Lefty had always been one of his favorites. And Mickelson sure didn't look any wimpier when he took that vertically challenged leap on the 18th green.
Tolliver views the game with a little different eye now.
"When I'm watching the PGA and I see David Toms hit a wedge to 12 feet, well that's brass balls too," Tolliver says.
This appreciation for discretion over valor is showing up in Tolliver's own game. He finished fourth at the American Century Championship in Lake Tahoe in mid July despite battling an erratic putter and a wayward driver the entire final round. Mr. Reckless just buckled down and grinded it out, safe play after safe play. That left him ahead of such sports immortals as John Elway (ninth), Michael Jordan (T18th), Jerry Rice (T20th), Mark McGwire (24th) and Pete Sampras (T32th). And it left him lapping reality TV's instant yesterday 15-minute fame man (last year's Apprentice winner and current Trump employee Bill Rancic, who finished next to last).
"Yeah, but I'd trade bank accounts with any one of them," Tolliver joked.
The 38-year-old gun-slinging journeyman is good at playing the clown, entertaining the crowd. This was always part of Tolliver's gift, one of the reasons so many Saints fans still hold him so dear. But it also often disguises the brain for the game.
"Don't let Tolliver fool you,'' says Dan Quinn, the hockey center turned golfer. "He's a real student of the game of golf."
Tolliver brushes such talk off, notes that with five kids to chase around he doesn't have much time for his new game of choice. Of course as Tolliver says this he is on tee at the Southern Trace Country Club, one his regular haunts near the family home in Shreveport.
Before he hangs up his cell, Tolliver wants to make one thing clear. Playing smart does not mean you have to give up the swagger. Of that he's sure. For as far as Tolliver's concerned it does not matter if it's golf or football, greatness looks and acts the same.
"Watching Tiger (Woods) play golf is watching Dan Marino play quarterback when he had (wide receivers Mark) Duper and (Mark) Clayton and he was throwing it all over the lot," Tolliver says. "Dan would walk up to the huddle, swaggering with a limp, winking at cornerbacks across the line, like 'Guess what? It's your birthday. This time it's coming right at you.' Tiger's like that. 'It's your birthday. You're next to get it.'
"They are all brass balls. Tiger and Marino."
Tolliver laughs. He might never have the greatness, but that doesn't mean he cannot share the attitude. Some of Tolliver's brief shinning moments live on (his fist-pumping, go-for-it heaves that rallied the Saints to a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback over the Vikings in 1998 is a favorite repeat of the new NFL Network.) But he's already locked on a new improbable mission.
Maybe by next year or the year after, his smart swagger can break through U.S. Open qualifying. And if he ever does crack the field?
"I'm sure I'd throw up all over myself on the first tee, go out there and shoot my 82-82 and go home the happiest man in the world," he says.
Who'd bet on that? Only someone with as much guts at Billy Joe Tolliver.
Bayou Billy's big game ways
NFL Stats: 10,760 yards, 59 TDs, 64 INTs over 12 years.
NFL Highlight: Threw for 350 yards and two TDs against Redskins as Chargers rookie.
USGA Handicap: 0
Career Round: 63
Golf Highlight: Nine top 10s in 11 starts during 2002 Celebrity Players Tour season.
December 1, 2004
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