A Texas Tech Legend|
Oct. 12, 2001
By JT Leeson, Texas Tech Media Relations
"He throws the ball harder, and with more velocity, than anyone I've ever seen." -Red Raider coach David McWilliams, 1986
In his cartoons in the late 80's, Dirk West characterized Billy Joe Tolliver as a big, rickety cannon that Raider Red drug around. On it's side the cannon read: "Big Opie."
The Opie-Billy Joe comparison was somewhat accurate. Both donned freckle-faced grins and both had blazing-red hair. Both clean-cut boys said "yes, sir" and "no, ma'am." Both came from sleepy little towns in the backcountry--Mayberry, more industrial than Boyd (pop. 889), had Pyle's automotive shop.
However, the comparison of Tolliver being a cannon is the most accurate. Cannons blast bombs and go "BOOM!" The 6-foot,1-inch, 220-pound rickety cannon boomed for the Red Raiders and blasted bombs over the Southwest conference for four years. Today, 17 years later, he still booms in the NFL.
Opie never left Mayberry, Billy Joe went to the pros.
In the spring of 1984, Tolliver was flown into Lubbock for a recruiting trip by, then coach, Jerry Moore. At the airport Donny Anderson, the former Tech legend, awaited him. As taken aback as he was by the presence of Anderson, Tolliver still had some reservations about committing to Tech. But that would change on the ride to the university.
"I still remember that ride to campus. Donny would wave at folks and everyone would wave back. I was so impressed with the people," Tolliver said. "It was just like home. I knew that was where I wanted to be."
And if Lubbock was just like home, Raider fans were in for a treat.
At home, Tolliver dazzled 888 Boyd residents throughout his sports career at Boyd High School, especially his senior year. In football, Tolliver's 15-0-1 Yellow Jackets won the 1983 2-A state championship, en route he amassed 1,314 yards passing, 1,011 yards rushing and was named Player of the Year by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In basketball, Tolliver average 15 points per game and 17 rebounds. In baseball, he threw 14 no-hitters with the aid of a 92 mph fastball.
And luckily, Lubbock was just like home.
At Tech, after his redshirt season in 1984, Tolliver was phenomenal as the four-year starting quarterback in the 1985-88 seasons. He crushed school records: career passing yards (6,756), career total offensive yards (6,475), career pass attempts (1,008), career pass completions (493), career touchdown passes (38), season passing yards (2,869 in 1988), season total offensive yards (2,687 in 1988), season pass completions (190 in 1988), season pass attempts (354 in 1988), season touchdowns (20 in 1988), single game passing yards (446 vs. Oklahoma State in 1988), single game total offensive yards (446 vs. OSU in 1988) single game attempts (45 vs. New Mexico in 1985), single game completions (28 vs. OSU in 1988) and single game touchdowns passes (5 vs. TCU in 1985). Tolliver, the cartoon cannon, made an impact immediately.
Now, since Billy Joe Tolliver strapped on a helmet for Boyd High, 21 years and 179 contests have passed. So, citing one memorable game is somewhat difficult for him. After a couple of minutes he'll tell you his most memorable are the '88 Texas game where the Raiders came back and won 33-21 or the '88 Baylor game where Tech's offense rolled over the nation's No. 1 defense.
But most folks disagree. Most will say the Texas Christian game in 1985 is their most memorable game of Tolliver, because it was one of the finest games by any player ever that wore a Double T.
Against Texas Christian, he put up 422 passing yards and five touchdowns in a 63-7 win. On that Nov. 9 afternoon, a freshman from a tiny East Texas town broke every existing passing record in Southwest Conference history, a conference that housed titans like Arkansas' Joe Ferguson, Rice's Tommy Kramer, SMU's Don Meredith and TCU's Sammy Baugh. Most folks remember that game, because that Nov. 9 afternoon Billy Joe Tolliver became a household name in Texas.
In the beginning, naysayers doubted that the Boyd-product could produce in the tough Southwest Conference, maybe in 2-A Boyd but not in the SWC. However, Tolliver silenced the critics with his explosive arm, re-writing school and SWC records.
However, the most daunting feat of Tolliver's collegiate career was his perseverance through a devastating coaching-turnover period at Tech.
Tolliver arrived at Tech in 1984 under the recruitment of Jerry Moore, who would leave after the '85 season-Tolliver's freshman season. Then in '86, the burnt-orange David McWilliams would arrive at Tech and leave Tech in the same year for his Longhorn roots. In Tolliver's junior season, consistency would be found in the hiring of Spike Dykes to the Raider helm in 1987.
"I played with some really great players at Tech, and I mean great. But the class I came to Tech with played in four or five offensive systems," Tolliver said. "It would be interesting to see the results of what would have happened if we would have played in the same system for four of those years."
With Dykes came consistency and offensive coordinator Dick Winder. Winder tended to the offense, and Tolliver, while the defense-minded Dykes tended the defense.
"I loved playing for Dick because he knew more about the game than anyone I'd ever been around, and to this day I still believe that," Tolliver said. "He'd yell at you and he'd teach you, and you respected him. Letting down Dick was like letting down your dad, you just didn't want it to happen."
"I came to Tech with the mind set that I was going to the NFL. I didn't think I started playing well enough to get into the NFL until coach Dykes and Dick came to Tech," Tolliver said. "When I left, I knew I was ready."
As senior year, he threw for 2,869 yards. In three previous years, he averaged 1295 yards. Tech struggled in 1988 at 5-6, but he shined and pro scouts noticed. Tolliver would leave Tech just like he began his career--with a boom.
Dykes remembers that final boom.
"The Oklahoma State game in Tokyo was probably Billy Joe's finest. He was always such a tremendous competitor, especially in that game," Dykes said. "OSU had the Heisman winner, Barry Sanders, that year and we came up a bit short (42-45). But Billy Joe played great."
Tolliver passed for 446 yards, went for 28-of-41 passing and threw for two touchdowns against the Cowboys. Fittingly enough, in his final game, Tolliver surpassed his 422-yard mark he had established four years earlier-in his first game as a the starting quarterback for the Raiders.
After the completion of his final season in 1988, Tolliver was second in SWC career passing yards (6,756), second in career total offensive yards (6,475) third in career pass attempts (1,008), third in single game passing yards (446 vs. Oklahoma State in 1988) and second in single game total offensive yards (446 vs. OSU in 1988). Tolliver was named the 1988 Consensus All-SWC first-team quarterback and was picked the All-SWC first-team quarterback by the Associated Press and the Dallas Times-Herald in 1987.
Now, Tolliver was ready for the NFL, and the NFL was ready for him.
Chosen 51st overall in the second round of the 1989 NFL draft, Tolliver went to the San Diego Chargers. Now the self-proclaimed "country boy" from Wise County was headed off to a thriving metropolis. No Deputy Fifes, no Floyd the Barbers, just the big time.
Tolliver, as is constant in his career, made an impact immediately. As the starter for the Chargers in 1990, he threw for 2,574 yards on 216-of-410 passing in 14 games, throwing 14 touchdowns. This was his most productive year to date.
On July, 7, 2001, Tolliver signed a one-year free agent deal with the Green Bay Packers. The Packers deal marks his seventh stop in his 13-year professional career. After being traded by the Chargers to Atlanta in 1991, he spent 1991-93 with the Falcons, 1994 with the then-Houston Oilers, 1995 with the Canadian Football League's Shreveport Pirates, 1996-97 back with the Falcons, 1997 with the Kansas City Chiefs and 1998-2000 with the New Orleans Saints.
The former Tech star can't find people in the NFL like the folks he adored in West Texas, and the ethics oppose his small-town raising.
"The NFL has the greatest game in the world played by the greatest athletes in the world," Tolliver said. "But the business end of this game is ruthless and with free agency there is no loyalty."
Over his professional career, the now-veteran Tolliver has played in 79 games while starting in 47. He is 891-of-1,707 on pass attempts and has amassed 10,760 yards. He has thrown 59 touchdowns and 64 interceptions.
However, Tolliver is well pleased with his career, especially signing with the Packers. "After 13 years, it's gonna be great to finally be on a good team," the good-humored Tolliver said.
Asked whether he misses Tech, Tolliver quickly quipped, "Oh man, who doesn't miss the Goin' Band from Raiderland? The Saddle Tramps? I really miss all of that great tradition at Tech-it's part of the reason I went there. But... I don't know about that tortilla thing."
He now chases his kids and golf balls around. Tolliver is a scratch golfer (he won the "Isuzu Celebrity Golf Challenge" in 1996) and the father of five, so he must be good at both. Growing more and more aware of his age, the 35-year-old is looking at the real possibility of hanging up his cleats.
"I've been offered a couple of (NFL) quarterback coaching jobs. You know you're getting old when they start offering you coaching jobs," said a chuckling Tolliver. "But I turned them down... I've got a goal."
When asked about his goal, Tolliver replied, "If coach Leach decided to take off in another direction-pros or whatever-and the timing was right, I'd like to be the coach at Tech."
Time will tell that story.
Occasionally the questions and what-ifs about his collegiate career pester him. What if McWilliams would've never shown up in the Hub? What if Dykes and Winder would've shown up in 1984 rather than '87?
But Tolliver never questions his decision to go to Tech.
"There are a lot of what-ifs, but I don't regret any of it. I just remember how good those people out there are and I miss that. I had great times out there. If I had it to do all over again, knowing what I know now, I'd do it over again in Raiderland."
Tolliver and his wife, Sheila, live in Green Bay and have five children - Charles, 16, Austin, 12, Mackenzie, 10, Bryce, 4, and Brody, 10 months.