Tending to the game
Before the Tennessee Titans drafted Taylor Lewan – a 6-foot-7, 309-pound offensive lineman out of Michigan – 11th overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, months of scouting and hours of research had to be utilized.
Same goes for their five other selections in the draft.
And hundreds of other college prospects who were vying for a spot in the NFL.
“We need to have medical grades for up to 500 potential players,” said Todd Toriscelli, a Steubenville native who is the Titans’ director of sports medicine. “We need to know them inside and out.
“You don’t want to draft a guy who is going to have injury problems. It’s all about trying to predict their durability.”
Toriscelli is a seasoned veteran of football scouting and injury treatment. The 1979 Catholic Central graduate is entering his 18th year in the NFL. This is his first with Tennessee after spending nearly two decades with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He began as the head athletic trainer for 13 years and held the Director of sports medicine title for four seasons.
“Not one day have I ever taken working in the NFL for granted,” Toriscelli said. “It’s a privilege to do what I do.”
Toriscelli was born in 1961 at the former St. John Hospital in Steubenville. At Central, he played offensive guard and linebacker for the Crusaders.
“I grew up just dreaming about playing football for Central,” he said. “I was fortunate to start there for three years.”
And beat Big Red for two.
“That was a great experience,” Toriscelli said. “Everybody in town came together when Central played Big Red. We beat them my junior and senior seasons and we were on top of the world.”
He started college at the University of Akron and walked on to the football team for spring practice midway through his freshman year. That summer, he came back to Steubenville and worked in the steel mills.
Toriscelli actually planned on staying there for a while.
“I was thinking about quitting school at that time,” he said. “My good friend, Greg Campbell, said, ‘You don’t want to do that.’ He talked a lot about what he was going to school for and that was athletic training.
“He showed me a book about it and it was something I was really interested in.”
So, Toriscelli wouldn’t go back to Akron. He wouldn’t stay in the mills, either. He enrolled at Ohio University in the athletic training program that fall. He earned his bachelor’s degree at OU and a master’s at the University of North Carolina.
“It all just took off from there,” Toriscelli said.
CLIMBING THE COLLEGE RANKS
A devout college football fan, Toriscelli had a vision of working for a program in a power conference.
“My goal was to be the head trainer at a major college,” he said. “I never really thought much about the NFL back then.”
His initial dream job quickly became a reality when he was named the head trainer at Kansas State in 1990. At 28, he was the youngest leader of a medical staff for a major college team.
Current Youngstown State head football coach Eric Wolford was a player for the Wildcats when Toriscelli was there. Toriscelli spent three years in Manhattan, Kan., before assuming the same role at the University of Miami.
“There were some great players there,” Toriscelli said.
He was on the move again after two years with the Hurricanes. Toriscelli became the head trainer for Stanford in 1994.
“Which was also awesome,” he said.
In 1997, though, he received a phone call from an assistant coach he worked with in Miami. He was told of an opening with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“He told Coach (Tony) Dungy, who was with the Bucs at the time, that I’d be the perfect fit for what they were trying to do there,” Toriscelli said.
The Buccaneers interviewed 11 people and “fortunately, I got it,” Toriscelli said.
SUPER BOWL CHAMP
Dungy was fired from Tampa Bay before the 2002 season. Jon Gruden was hired and he led the Bucs to a 12-4 regular season and their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
“We were close a few times before that, but Gruden came in and everybody bought into his philosophies,” Toriscelli said.
In Super Bowl XXXVII, Tampa Bay faced the Oakland Raiders – Gruden’s former team – and won 48-21 in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of great players,’ Toriscelli said. “Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks all come to mind.
“Those guys were all the same type of guy -physically and mentally committed to football. They were intense players and focused men. We won a Super Bowl because of them.”
Toriscelli received a Super Bowl ring, too.
“I keep it in a safe,” he said. “I look at it a lot, but i don’t wear it. It has 64 diamonds; just a beautiful piece. It’s so awesome for the players to get that.”
He wore the ring for the second time just last month, at Ronde Barber’s retirement party.
Throughout his career, Toriscelli has worked closely with thousands of collegiate and professional players.
“Ronde’s the guy who really stands out above the rest,” Toriscelli said.
Maybe more known for being the twin brother of Tiki Barber, Ronde spent all 16 years of his NFL career with the Buccaneers.
The cornerback recorded 1,172 total tackles, 47 interceptions (a Tampa Bay record) and 28 sacks. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection, three-time All-Pro honoree and member of the 2000s all-decade team.
“The guy was literally super-human,” Toriscelli said. “He is the toughest guy I’ve ever been around. He fought through injuries and never missed practice; never missed a game. He was only 178 pounds, most people don’t realize how small he is.”
Barber announced his retirement in May 2013 and recently had a party with former players and colleagues.
“He told everybody about all I had done for him,” Toriscelli said. “I really appreciated that, even though he was so fit and strong that he pretty much could take care of himself.”
ON THE JOB
While millions around the world will tune in for NFL coverage on autumn Sundays, it’s not necessarily the busiest day of the week for Toriscelli and his staff.
“The biggest day is Wednesday,” he said. “You have guys get hurt in a game on Sunday, then you evaluate them on Monday. There’s always a number of players who you won’t be sure if they will be ready for the next week or not.
“You then have to prepare the back ups. There’s only so many reps in practice and the gameplans change from game to game.
“If I tell the coaches that somebody is going to be ready for the game and they end up taking all the practice reps and, maybe, they can’t play – the guy who will actually play won’t have any practice down at all. That’s alarming.”
In the offseason, Toriscelli manages free agents like he does for prospects in the draft.
While still with the Bucs, Toriscelli had to evaluate Darrelle Revis as he was traded from the New York Jets to Tampa Bay for draft picks. Revis negotiated one of the biggest contracts in the NFL with a six-year, $96 million deal.
It made him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history.
“We invested $96 million in Revis,” Toriscelli said. “But he wasn’t quite halfway through an ACL reconstruction. It was on me to make sure he was ready for the season.”
He was. Revis went on to start in all 16 games with a sack, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and 50 tackles. He was also named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
“If he, or any other high-profile player, misses one game, it’s a multi-million dollar check going to a guy who didn’t even play,” Toriscelli said.
Revis was released by the Buccaneers on March 12. He signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots that same day.
FOOTBALL IS FOOTBALL
Sometimes, players can stay with the same NFL team for many years. In college, players participate for four, maybe five years.
“That’s a major difference between the two levels,” said Toriscelli, who has ample experience in the NCAA and NFL. “You also have to learn how to manage older players. In college, you work with teenagers and guys in their early 20s.”
The field is still 100 yards long, though.
“And a sprained ankle is still a sprained ankle,” Toriscelli said. “Medically, the game is the same.”
While football is a major moneymaker for colleges, the players still are not directly paid.
“We have a $133 million payroll,” Toriscelli said. “You don’t want to invest in guys who have injury issues, whether it’s through the draft or free agency or trades.
“That’s obviously something that doesn’t exist at the college level.”
And even though the regular season in college football is deemed the most important in all of sports, it still doesn’t quite compare to the legacy of victories in the NFL.
“At this level, the pressure to win enormous,” Toriscelli said. “It’s big in college, yes, but it’s bigger and unlike anything else week by week in the NFL. It’s all there is. Winning is what it’s all about.
“That’s the nature of the business. If that’s not for you, you can’t be part of it.”
REMEMBER THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Toriscelli is thankful for his career and never really wonders “what could have been.” In Tennessee, he’s working with professional football veterans like Brian Robiske, Jake Locker and Alterraun Verner.
He left the steel mills behind as a teenager in the early ’80s, but he may have been just as happy working alongside the gritty, blue-collar laborers of the Ohio Valley.
“I still have a lot of pride and love for the people back home,” Toriscelli said.
His parents, Ossie and Frances, along with brother, Gregg, still live in Steubenville.
In his heart, Toriscelli does, as well.
“I’ve been across the country,” he said, “but Steubenville will always be home.”