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Forging Success

Posted May 4, 2012



Kevin Tolbert is a strong man and a scholar. After developing a strong interest in the history of weightlifting, Tolbert has enjoyed a career in the athletic strength and conditioning field following his college career at Navy. Since taking a leap in 2009 and joining forces with Jim Harbaugh, Tolbert has been instrumental in preparing his players for the physical side of the game. Click here to watch Tolbert's interview.


WHEN FACED with a dilemma, Kevin Tolbert usually has an easy solution. He goes with his gut feeling and lets the chips fall where they may. Such was the case in the early part of 2009, when Tolbert was approached by Jim Harbaugh with a potential opportunity. Tolbert had just finished his first NFL season with the Detroit Lions as their assistant strength and conditioning coach following seven seasons at the University of Michigan. His daughter was in her senior year of high school and his wife had a steady job, but something told Tolbert to make the leap to Stanford with Harbaugh. After much deliberation, Tolbert went with his trusty instincts and made the move. “I live by my gut a lot,” Tolbert said. “I met him and I thought, ‘This is my kind of guy.’”

No matter that Tolbert had another job offer on the table from the Houston Texans, he wanted to join a coaching staff with Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, whom he now considers a close friend. Jump to 2012 and the trio are on the same coaching staff with the 49ers, waist-deep in the team’s offseason strength program. Led by Tolbert and head strength and conditioning coach Mark Uyeyama, the offseason sessions have been well-attended by young players and veterans alike. Not only is Tolbert enjoying the company of his players, but he’s enjoyed working in concert with Uyeyama during their first full offseason together. “He is very well-known in the field,” Tolbert said. “But more than being well-known in the field, I think the biggest thing I feel so lucky about is that he is a genuine person.”

RUNNING AROUND the New York streets of his childhood, Tolbert was swept up in Jets fever during Broadway Joe’s heyday. Jets quarterback Joe Namath led the team’s rise to stardom in the late 1960s and Tolbert was watching every step of the way. “I just fell in love with the Jets and have been a fan of professional football ever since,” Tolbert said. “I dreamed to play football and at some point be involved in some capacity with professional football.” Tolbert has since checked off both of those items during his football journey.

From New York, Tolbert eventually moved on to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he earned his stripes as a three-year starting fullback. Playing alongside future line officers of the Navy and Marines, Tolbert learned pillars of life he still values today. “I enjoyed every minute of my college football experience,” Tolbert said. “It’s probably one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to get into coaching. It was a grand experience.” The future coach also laid the foundation for his career, learning the skills to help him lead others. “That’s part of what the Naval Academy does – they breed leaders that are competitive in everything they do,” Tolbert said. “What drives me is I like to compete. More accurately, I like to win.”

A FRENCH dictator Tolbert is not, but he admittedly does share some characteristics with Napoleon. “I always had a small-man complex, a little Napoleon complex,” Tolbert said with a laugh. “As a 5-foot-9, 220-pound undersized fullback – a tweener if you will – I was always out to prove everyone wrong, that I could play.” It also helped to be playing at a school like Navy, where the team always felt like something of an underdog.

Once his playing days were over, Tolbert set forth on the next phase of his football life: coaching. Tolbert’s first stop on the strength and conditioning coaching circuit came as a volunteer with the Philadelphia Eagles during the 1996-97 seasons. From there, he latched on with the University of Miami in 1998, working with the men’s and women’s basketball teams. But Tolbert’s big break came in 2001, when joined the Michigan strength and conditioning staff as an assistant for Mike Gittleson. “Just from a time standpoint and bigger than that – he’s a great man, great friend, great mentor – he’s probably had the biggest influence on my career,” Tolbert said.

HE’S A gym rat and he’s proud of it. Since the eighth grade, Tolbert has been fascinated by the science and history behind weightlifting. Judging from his bulky stature, he’s done quite a bit of lifting, too. “The reason I got into it was to play football,” Tolbert said. “That’s where my true passion lies. I’ve always been a gym rat and I say it affectionately. I’m interested in the history of weightlifting and I have books on old kettle bells and bar bells and how the whole thing has developed over the years.”

The days might be long, especially during this time of year, but it’s a challenge that Tolbert embraces every day. As the 49ers put in the extra hours to work towards the Lombardi Trophy, Tolbert enjoys being a piece of the puzzle. Just don’t expect him to stop and smell the roses any time soon. “We can sit around and sing kumbaya, but it this business it’s about winning,” Tolbert said. “If I can help contribute by being a small part or playing a role in forging our success and establishing a beachhead where we have continued success for years to come – then I’m real happy. I’m elated at that point. But the dream is not getting here. The dream is getting here and finishing the mission.”