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Jalen Tolliver Catches Up To Big Brother

WR Jalen Tolliver during offseason work.
WR Jalen Tolliver during offseason work.

Chris Tolliver had the life his little brother, Jalen, always wanted.

Chris was a star receiver in their hometown of Rayville, Louisiana, developing into a hotshot recruit who chose LSU over fellow collegiate powerhouses Alabama and Florida.

He played for the Tigers from 2008-11 -- the same period as Cardinals All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson and former Cardinals All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu -- in a receiving corps with Jarvis Landry, Reuben Randle, Russell Shepard and a precocious freshman with an appetite for flair.

“I remember the day Odell Beckham started catching them with one hand,” Chris Tolliver said. “I was there. He was like, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ I was like, ‘It’s risky, but if you can catch every pass with one hand, you’ll do something no one else is really doing.’”

Jalen is six years younger than Chris, the type of age gap which makes an older brother more of a superhero than a sibling. When Jalen went to games, his jaw would drop watching Chris’ athletic feats. Every time Chris uttered advice, Jalen would hang on every word.

“He was my idol,” Jalen said.

Chris certainly seemed like the Tolliver who would get the NFL chance, but in the lead-up to his junior year at LSU, he suffered multiple concussions. The daily migraines were the first hint of substantial issues, and LSU doctors did not want to risk his long-term health, so they broke the news that his career was over.

“You play something all your life and it’s basically all you know, and your life changes dramatically,” Chris said. “It hurt me for some years, man. I didn’t know what to do. I was lost. I didn’t watch football for like three years. I didn’t go to any football games. I was just in my room in the dark.”

Chris, 29, has come to grips with how it all ended, and now he’s transitioned into a different role: a mentor to Jalen, who, despite a much slower start to his journey, has received an NFL opportunity. Jalen signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent out of Division II Arkansas-Monticello after the draft and will aim to make the team in training camp.

“There were people thinking I couldn’t compete at the next level,” Jalen said. “There are still some thinking, ‘How can he make it out there?’ I’m going out there every day to show I do belong. I’m never scared of the moment.”

Unlike Chris, no major programs were interested in Jalen out of high school. Delta State and Grambling State offered him scholarships to play safety in college, but Jalen wanted to play receiver like his brother. Arkansas-Monticello was the only team willing to offer him at the position, and Jalen reluctantly accepted. Playing for crowds of 3,000 people wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.

“My brother went to LSU,” Jalen said. “One of my best friends signed to Alabama. Another signed to Tulane. I wanted to be like them and play big-time D-I like my brother. Things didn’t work out, but I didn’t let it get the best of me.”

Despite the lack of fanfare, Tolliver always believed if he played well enough, NFL scouts would find him, which is exactly what happened. Tolliver earned the Great American Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2017, accumulating 67 receptions for 1,109 yards and a Division-II-leading 16 touchdowns. He finished as an all-conference selection three times and wrapped up his career with 192 catches for 3,168 yards and 39 touchdowns in 42 games.

Despite the low-caliber competition, Cardinals wide receivers coach Kevin Garver was intrigued.

“What I try to look at when I am evaluating guys is not to focus so much on the logo on their helmet and try to look more at what they are doing and their skillset,” Garver said.

Tolliver admits he was star-struck upon his NFL arrival, as he sat in a meeting room with Larry Fitzgerald and practiced opposite LSU legend Peterson. But the 6-foot-3, 210-pound pass-catcher brushed aside those thoughts when it was time to work.

“It’s not too big for him,” coach Steve Wilks said. “That’s one of the things I liked about him.”

It won’t be easy for Tolliver to crack the roster, but Wilks has said multiple times throughout the offseason that every player will get a fair shot. Chris will be Jalen’s sounding board every step of the way.

“I tell him all the time, you can be good or you can be great,” Chris said. “And in order to be great, you have to put yourself in situations and do things nobody else is doing. You’ve got to go further and beyond. Just when you think you’ve hit your breaking point of being tired, you’ve got to go further.”

It seems appropriate Jalen will get his chance here in the shadow of Phoenix -- Arizona’s capital city that shares a name with the mythological bird that rises from the ashes. Chris’s dream of playing professionally died in 2011. Seven years, Jalen’s opportunity is born.

“He knows what kind of player I was,” Chris said. “He used to come to some of my games. After the game, I would look at him and you could just see it in his face like, ‘Wow, how are you able to do these things?’

“And now, that’s how I’m looking at him.”

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