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INDIANAPOLIS — Two boards, a hammer and a nail.
This is construction at its simplest form. This is the basis of buildings, big and small. This is the beginning.
Dave Tollefson was a 20-year-old carpenter's apprentice in Northern California. Drilling screws into sheet metal. Squeezing into crawl spaces to repair concrete. Operating a chop saw.
He liked the basics best. Framing houses. Two boards, a hammer and a nail.
"If you get real good at it," he said, "you can get the nail through the two-by-four with two hits."
About the time Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl, Tollefson was spending 10-hour days with a tool belt around his waist. Spending nights pushing dumbbells off his chest.
One night at the gym, Tollefson and a friend were doing pull-ups when he started boasting. I'm gonna play in the NFL someday, he said. His buddy had heard it all before.
And yet Ryan Garrett knew the facts: Tollefson hadn't played football anywhere in more than a year — and that was junior college. He'd blown his chance to walk on at Fresno State. His shoulder was hurt. He was weak. He was slow. Tollefson couldn't be any further from Tom Brady if he lived on Pluto.
So the friend made a proposition. A bet. Five hundred bucks says you don't make it.
Garrett saw two boards, a hammer and a nail. Tollefson saw the beginning.
He took the bet.
Finding a day job
Four days from Super Bowl XLVI, reporters from all over the world are circling No. 71, whose shaved head stands out above the crowd.
Omaha resident Dave Tollefson isn't one of the stars of the NFL's best defensive line. He doesn't even start for New York. But he's a locker-room leader and a good talker.
So reporters come to him to learn about these underdog Giants. How does a team that endured so many injuries and lost four straight games rebound to win the division, then upset the NFC's two best teams on the road in January?
"You gotta have a test to have a testimony," says Tollefson, now 29.
Nobody asks about the hammer and nails.
About his dad leaving before he was born. About legs so crooked as a kid he wore braces — like Forrest Gump.
Tollefson didn't go to the elite private high school across the street in Concord, Calif., because he didn't have the money. He didn't graduate with his friends because he didn't have the grades. He spent the second semester of his senior year at a "continuation" high school, riding the bus with gang-bangers.
Last day of school, he finished an English paper, walked into the administration office, got his diploma out of a drawer and drove home. No cap and gown. No party.
And yet this isn't what you expect, Tollefson says. He had a loving family. He didn't get in trouble. He was smart — his ACT score was in the high 20s. He just hated the schoolwork.
"I felt l knew everything they were teaching me. I didn't need to show them."
As Tom Brady was cutting his teeth at Michigan, Tollefson was playing linebacker at Los Medanos College in California. He never drew much interest from Division I schools. Fresno State asked him to walk on, but his shoulder still bothered him. And he still dreaded the classroom.
He hung up his cleats and went to work.
Inventory at Best Buy. The garden center at Home Depot. When a man is exposed to those products every day, he learns to appreciate them.
"Obviously, I have a really nice lawn mower and weed wacker at home in Omaha. Only the best."
An unlikely home
In 2003, a former teammate from junior college called Tollefson about a potential playing opportunity. A Division II school in the Midwest.
Northwest Missouri State.
Tollefson had never heard of it. But he was intrigued.
Surgery had repaired his shoulder. He was conditioning again, working with a trainer who helped college players prepare for the NFL combine.
Scott Bostwick, Northwest Missouri State's defensive coordinator, called during a workday. Tollefson was at a job site, helping build the foundation of a California restaurant.
"Get off the phone, get back to work," his boss told him.
Tollefson kept talking. Over the next few weeks, he recruited Northwest Missouri State as much as the school recruited him. He wanted a shot.
"There's so many times you kinda go through life thinking woulda, shoulda, coulda," Tollefson said. "I was damned if that was gonna be me."
He flew to Missouri for a workout. Coaches liked what they saw and invited him to walk on.
His first year in Maryville, Tollefson broke his foot and missed his third straight football season. But he stuck around. He got bigger and stronger. He thrived around teammates and coaches who pushed him.
He started in 2004 and earned first-team All-MIAA honors. His senior year, Tollefson had 12˝ sacks and was the league's defensive player of the year. He was a bona fide NFL prospect.
His last football lifeline had paid off, and Tollefson didn't forget.
"Once you've been inducted into that family, you bleed green the rest of your life," Tollefson said. "Most of the guys (in New York) get sick of me talking about Bearcat football."
He still brags about keeping a 660 area code. That's Maryville, he says. That's where he met Megan Stalder, a softball player from Omaha. And that's where he returned for a few days last spring to volunteer coach.
At the time, Bearcat boosters were trying to raise money for new football uniforms. According to an assistant coach, the athletic director walked into the film room one day and delivered bad news. It wasn't gonna happen. They didn't have enough money.
Yeah, you do, Tollefson said. I'll take care of it.
'Who is this guy?'
As the 2006 NFL draft approached, coaches and GMs wanted to know one thing from Dave Tollefson:
How do you explain this three-year gap on your football résumé? Were you in jail or something?
He explained the shoulder injury, the bad grades, Best Buy and Home Depot.
Two boards, a hammer and a nail.
On draft day, Tollefson didn't want to sit in front of the TV and hope. He and a friend entered a bass fishing competition in California.
They were en route to weigh their fish when Tollefson's phone rang. It was Ted Thompson, Green Bay Packers general manager. The Packers were going to draft him with the 253rd pick.
Tollefson didn't win a penny in the bass contest, but he did call Ryan Garrett, his old friend from the gym.
Remember that bet?
The frame was complete, but Tollefson's work was just starting.
In Green Bay, he dropped to the bottom of the roster. One of his practice duties was to break in Brett Favre's shoe insoles — their cleats were the same size. The insoles hurt Tollefson's feet, but he played well enough to make the practice squad.
For a season anyway.
He got cut and wound up in NFL Europe. In Germany, he performed well enough to make the Raiders' practice squad. That was 2007. In October, the Giants saw something more.
They signed him to the active roster. Four months later, Tollefson was rushing Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. The Giants won.
Tollefson didn't go away. He signed a one-year deal, then another, then another. In 2011, Tollefson had the best year of his career, compiling five sacks.
"When I was in Dallas, I had an opportunity to watch this defensive line from afar," said Chris Canty, now a Giants defensive tackle.
"He's one of the guys that showed up on tape a lot, whether it was on special teams or defense. It was like, 'Who is this guy? Who is this guy? They got Osi, they got Tuck, they got Strahan, but who is this 71 guy?'"
Canty joked that he's going to start a campaign to bring Tollefson back — Pay the man!
Tollefson isn't losing sleep.
"Would I love to sign a four-year deal and feel like a team kinda wants me around for a while? Of course. But the way my story's been, that wouldn't really make any sense."
Each Super Bowl player is allotted 15 tickets. Somehow Dave Tollefson scored 16.
He reserved one ticket for his mom, with whom he shares a unique pregame tradition. He finds a quiet spot in the Giants' locker room and calls her on the phone. She delivers a profanity-laced pep talk that would make Vince Lombardi shudder.
He reserved one ticket for Ryan Garrett, who flew in from California. Almost 10 years after the bet, Garrett still hasn't paid the $500 — "There might be some interest later on," Tollefson says.
He reserved one ticket for Megan, whom he married in Omaha during a three-week break between NFL Europe and Raiders training camp. They honeymooned en route to Oakland in 2007.
The last two tickets are for 3˝-year-old Tucker and 7-month-old Cade. Megan says having two sons necessitates two Super Bowl rings.
The boys are growing up fast, which is why Dave and Megan started looking around last year. They didn't want to leave Omaha, where they had spent every offseason since college. They didn't want extravagance.
They did want a bigger backyard and another bedroom. A basement with a bar and a workout area. A covered deck where they can sit back — someday — and reminisce.
They found just the place. A house west of town, already under construction.
All they had to do was finish it.
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