Throwback Thursday: A Chat with One of the Most Underrated Players on the Giants' Last Two Championship Teams
New York Giants defensive end Dave Tollefson won two Super Bowls with the team from 2007-2011 by contributing to their elite pass-rushing corps and being a mainstay on special teams.
Before he cracked the rotation of a group that included Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, and Pro Bowlers Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and later Jason Pierre-Paul, Tollefson defied all odds by making it to the league.
The third-to-last selection in the 2006 draft who got his start with the Packers, Tollefson's journey to the NFL wasn’t even enrolled in college after high school due to academic reasons and a shoulder injury, which kept him sidelined for three years.
Instead, Tollefson worked as a carpenter for two years following his high school graduation. After entering junior college, he was, in his words, "an undersized linebacker" who weighed just 170 pounds.
Eyeing a potential stint in the NFL, Tollefson started training with a professional athlete specialist who also trained NFL greats such as Charles Woodson and who helped Tollefson pack on 80 pounds of muscle.
Suddenly, Tollefson was starting to turn heads with his play at the high school level.
“I made All-Conference in my junior and senior years of high school, but I never considered myself the best player on the field at any level I played in," he said by phone.
"Once I bulked up, I started to believe I could make it because I was bigger, stronger, and faster than everyone."
After spending a year at the junior college level, Tollefson got some looks from Northwest Missouri State, where he would become a walk-on in 2004.
His tenure, however, didn't get off on the right foot--literally.
“When I first got there, I hurt my foot, but once I came back and was healthy, I was able to put my hand in the ground full-time in my two seasons there, and everything changed," Tollefson said. "I had a great coaching staff that helped me blossom, as well.”
While Tollefson made a name for himself at Northwest Missouri State, he still didn’t think he’d get picked leading up to the 2006 draft. Nonetheless, the Packers took a chance on him with their 12th and final pick.
Tollefson did not make the 53-man roster that summer but did land on the practice squad, but he suffered a season-ending back injury in Week 7. In the ensuing off-season, the Raiders signed the budding defensive end to a reserve/futures contract.
Tollefson also headed to the European league in the spring to gain some experience at the pro level. Once he returned, Tollefson found himself on the practice squad again to start 2007, but this time with Lane Kiffin and Raiders.
The Giants claimed Tollefson from the Raiders in Week 4, a move initiated by Giants defensive line coach Mike Waufle, who knew about Tollefson from his coaching stint at Cal-Berkeley, whose campus wasn't far from Tollefson's hometown.
As was the case in college, Tollefson arrived at the Giants underweight, which he said raised some concern with the coaching staff, and in particular, head coach Tom Coughlin.
Fearful that he would be sent packing before he had a chance to take a snap, a distraught Tollefson pleaded his case to coach Waufle, promising he was in shape despite being 10 pounds under the Giants' 262-pound expectation for him.
Tollefson would reward the Giants' faith in him. In five seasons, he recorded 81 total tackles, 56 of which were solo efforts, and 13 tackles for a loss. He also logged 22 quarterback hits and 10.0 sacks before finishing his career with the Raiders in 2012.
Always the Underdog
One of the reasons why Tollefson managed to hang around was because he always believed that he was one play away from the street.
In fact, Tollefson was one- play away. He revealed that there were some int he organization that didn't necessarily share the opinions of the coaching staff regarding Tollefson's value to the team
When Tollefson looks back on the personnel decisions made by the Giants after they won the Super Bowl in 2011, he wonders what might have been had they all stayed together.
“If (former general manager Jerry Reese) had kept us all around for two more years--I’m not saying we would’ve won the Super Bowl, but we would’ve been playoff contenders and had a chance,” said Tollefson who felt Reese broke up their championship corps too early.
Tollefson was particularly still bitter about how the team let quarterback Eli Manning down.
“Following Super Bowl XLVI, they wasted some of Eli Manning’s prime years," he said. "It’s so inexcusable, and it tarnishes his legacy. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he was surrounded by a less than serviceable roster. Having one really good player and no supporting cast makes it worse because everyone knows what you’re going to do."
Tollefson, who doesn't doubt that Manning will be in Canton one day, pointed out that Manning would join Len Dawson as the only two quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame to have never played a snap with another Hall of Famer joining him on offense.
A Bright Future
While it might be too late to make amends to Manning, Tollefson believes that the current state of the Giants looks very promising following the hire of Joe Judge as the team's 19th head coach.
“I like the Joe Judge hire a lot,” said Tollefson. “Special teams guys should get more head coaching opportunities because they’re the guy that deals with all 53 players and even the bottom tier level of the roster.
“I was a core special teams guy, and I was always mad they didn’t get better looks as head coaches. They deal with every position and selecting all the guys at the bottom of the roster.”
Tollefson also is encouraged with the job done by general manager Dave Gettleman.
“I think Dave Gettleman has this team headed in the right direction," he said. "He’s drafted some really good players. There’s talent on this roster; they’re just young and need the right coaching.”
Among those players Tolleson cited include cornerback Deandre Baker, in whom Tollefson sees a young player brimming with potential.
“I think he reminds me a lot of (cornerback) Corey Webster from earlier in his career," Tollefson said. "Webster struggled early on, but once he gained confidence, he became our number one guy in the secondary.
“Baker is a really special player, and I know he is going to figure it out. He needs coaching to help him develop. A lot of it I think is confidence at the cornerback position.”
Tollefson also had some high praise for linebacker Ryan Connelly and defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence II.
"Ryan Connelly reminds me a little of my teammates, Jon Goff and Antonio Pierce, who wasn’t a great athlete but could lead a defense and has a high motor. Dexter Lawrence is also going to be good,” he said.
Tollefson pointed out that Gettleman has done a lot of work to restock the Giants cupboard with players via the draft who have replaced those that haven't worked out in past years. The key is to get the right coaches in place and let those players develop.
“Generational guys like Saquon Barkley find a way to be successful early, but the rest of the young guys need time to develop,” said Tollefson.
Once a Giant, Always a Giant
Tollefson is now focused on spending time with his family in Nebraska, with his wife and three boys, doing occasional radio spots. But he has no plans to return to the NFL, even though there have been inquiries about becoming a defensive line coach.
But he'll never forget the memories of his time playing with the Giants nor the lifelong friends he made--Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Jason Pierre-Paul, to name a few--with whom he still keeps in contact via a group chat.
Tollefson recalled one particular moment in which Strahan, in his final NFL season, gave him a confidence boost that meant the world to him.
"In 2007, he hurt his groin, and I came in and made a play against the Cowboys," Tollefson recalled. "They tried to put Mike back in, but he said, 'Stay in there Dave you’re doing great.'”
It's memories like those that Tollefson, who tries to get back to East Rutherford where his NFL career began, as often as possible. And it's also way keeps him interested in the current roster in hopes that they too might one day share in the spoils of victory as the 2007 and 2011 championship teams did.