HONOLULU, Hawaii – Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert thoroughly enjoyed his week at the Pro Bowl, but his idea of paradise isn't white sand between his toes.
It's white lines beneath them.
"I've been taking it all in, having a great time, wearing my Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops," Tolbert said. "But when I'm on the field, between the white lines, the only thing for me is 100 percent."
Tolbert's extra effort in a game not always known for extra effort made all the difference as Team Rice, led by the Panthers' coaching staff, rallied to a dramatic 22-21 victory over Team Sanders at Aloha Stadium.
A hard-nosed play on offense that took Panthers teammate/Team Sanders standout Luke Kuechly by surprise, a hustle play after an interception and a trick play on special teams served to set the stage for Tolbert's biggest contribution.
With 41 seconds left, after Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray turned a short pass into a 20-yard touchdown, Tolbert barreled in for the two-point conversion to give head coach Ron Rivera's team its first lead of the game.
"I knew there would be a gap there, and I just had to beat the safety," Tolbert said. "The safety was a little bit late, and I was able to make the play. I feel so blessed and humbled right now."
Fittingly in a season in which Rivera gained a reputation for taking calculated risks that helped the Panthers go 12-4, "Riverboat Ron" called for the two-point play in conjunction with honorary coach Jerry Rice.
"We had talked about it yesterday, that we were going for two no matter what," Rivera said. "So when we got down to that situation, I said, 'Jerry, you know we're going for it.'
"He said, 'Absolutely.' We went for the win."
Tolbert made a key play to help get Team Rice's initial score of the day – at the expense of Kuechly. On a third-and-1 at the 15-yard line early in the second quarter, Tolbert got the ball and burst through the middle for the first down, only to find Kuechly standing between him and more yardage. Tolbert lowered his shoulder and drove through Kuechly, gaining seven yards to help set up New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees' touchdown pass to tight end teammate Jimmy Graham to even the score at 7.
"We kind of came to an agreement before the game that he would take a side and we would go peacefully in the night. But he squared up on me, so I was like, 'OK, let's go,'" Tolbert said. "He told me later his shoulder was hurt. I said, 'Please don't tell Coach.' "
Kuechly was fine, and he had a fine game as well, posting a game-high 12 tackles. Team Sanders teammate Greg Hardy had one of the game's nine sacks, and quarterback Cam Newton – playing the virtually the entire second and third quarters – threw for 95 yards and had a rushing touchdown for Team Sanders.
Newton was sacked four times by Rivera's rushers in the second quarter.
"I wasn't happy about that," Rivera said. "But the best news about this game is that nobody got hurt."
The Tolbert-Kuechly collision was one of three notable teammate-on-teammate hits that the new format made possible, with defensive MVP Derrick Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs rocking running back Jamaal Charles and T.J. Ward of the Cleveland Browns flipping wide receiver Josh Gordon, who later scored a touchdown.
"We had fun with it," Kuechly said. "Mike deserves this. He doesn't get enough credit. He plays fullback, running back, special teams – he does it all. This is great for him."
Shortly after the Panther-on-Panther play, Tolbert temporarily kept Team Sanders from retaking the lead with a hustle play. When 346-pound defensive tackle Dontari Poe picked off a Philip Rivers pass and built up a full head of steam, Tolbert tracked him down at the 7-yard line, though Newton did power in from the 1 on fourth down to give Team Sanders a 14-7 lead.
"The big guy can move, can't he?" Tolbert said of Poe. "I was like, 'OK, I'm going to get him. I'm going to get him. I'm not getting him.' I had to turn it on a little bit, and I got him."
Late in the game, after Team Sanders took a 21-14 lead on a 12-yard touchdown pass from offensive MVP Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles to Cleveland tight end Jordan Cameron, Tolbert picked up 4 yards on a fake punt to keep a drive alive.
That march didn't produce points, but the next one did – capped by Tolbert's game-winner.
"The game was good for the fans, good for the players. I'm excited that we won," Tolbert said. "We fight to the end, and that's what we're going to keep doing for the Carolina Panthers."