They would meet at 5:15 in the morning – at least an hour before the sun or the rest of the Eastern Time Zone had risen – in the parking lot of a Winter Garden grocery store.
Quarterback and wide receiver
Jason Boltus and T.T. Toliver
Both living in the Orlando area
Riding the 87-mile commute to Tampa’s Amalie Arena together
A partnership born out of proximity and convenience
Those early-morning commutes were mostly silent.
“He would usually be sleeping,” Boltus remembered.
It was on the return ride following practice when they would learn about one another.
They’d talk about practice, adjustments that could be made, ways to disguise certain plays, things they did well, things they did poorly, how they could improve.
They’d talk about their off-the-football-field life too: family, kids, houses, car payments, bills.
“There’s a lot to talk about when you’ve got an hour and a half drive every day,” Boltus said.
The friendship Boltus and Toliver developed last season over the course of their four-days-a-week, three-hour round trip commute from Orlando to Tampa and back led to a familiarity on the football field. Boltus threw for over 5,000 yards for the Tampa Bay Storm in 2015 and, with 98 touchdowns, came two scores away from reaching triple digits. Toliver was his No. 1 target, the Arena Football League veteran reeling in 112 passes for over 1,500 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Boltus led the AFL in total offense in 2015. Toliver was eighth in the league for receiving yards and touchdowns.
With Boltus returning to the Storm midway through the 2016 season, the pair has picked up where they left off last year. Boltus has thrown 25 touchdowns through five games. Toliver has caught 10 of them, including a last-second bomb against Arizona to produce the only victory for Tampa Bay through the first nine games of the season.
“I felt like during our car rides together, he got to know me a little better as a person instead of a football player,” Toliver said. “That’s what made the relationship on the football field between the two of us easier. Some people just know someone by football. He knew me as a person because as we were driving back and forth we would talk and talk. We got to know each other on a more personal level.”
Toliver, playing his 13th AFL season, has reached a few milestones this year backed by Boltus. The Daytona Beach native became just the second AFL receiver to hit the 5,000 yard and 400 reception marks with two different teams in Week 7 versus Orlando.
In the win against Arizona, Toliver notched his 100th career touchdown catch with the Storm and became just the second player to reach 100 touchdowns with two separate teams.
On Saturday against the Jacksonville Sharks at Amalie Arena, Toliver can further solidify his elite status in the AFL. The 39 year old needs just 27 yards to pass Damian Harrell and become the league’s all-time leader for receiving yards. Toliver has logged 15,108 yards over his career entering the Jacksonville game. Harrell, for now, holds the record at 15,134.
Toliver can also pass Harrell for most receptions in League history with 13 more catches. Harrell owns 1,164 receptions to Toliver’s 1,152.
“He deserves everything that’s coming to him,” Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels said. “He works hard. He’s prepared himself mentally and physically to achieve those records.”
Toliver, though, said there’s only one record he’s worried about Saturday.
“We’re 1-8. I’m just trying to get us a win,” he said. “When you’re trying to do everything to help an organization win, I get lost in the records.”
Boltus said Toliver never once brought up an upcoming record or asked the quarterback to throw him a certain number of passes so he could hit a new milestone.
For his part, Boltus never reminder Toliver he was on pace for a new record either.
“I think he’s one of those guys that just loves to play the game,” Boltus said. “Whether he’s got 100 touchdowns or one touchdown, I think he just loves to play the game, loves to be a kid out there. This is an opportunity for us to go and play a kids’ game and leave all of life’s problems like the bills, the mortgage payment, everything behind. You can just come out here and be free and run around for three hours.”
Toliver has a hard time believing he’s in is 13th year in the league.
“I still feel young because I’m still learning,” he said. “Every time I step out there, there’s something different happening. It’s a situation where I feel like I’m brand new at the position because I’m still learning.”
Boltus and Toliver no longer share car rides like they did a season ago. Boltus didn’t start the year with the Storm, which necessitated Toliver making other arrangements.
But should the veteran receiver want some more one-on-one time to pick the brain of his quarterback, figure out how much depth to get on a certain route, work on hand checks or just talk some more about life, Boltus will surely accommodate.
“I’ve always got an open spot in my car for him,” Boltus said, smiling.