HONOLULU — Funny how things work out sometimes.
When Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert walked into the makeshift locker room at the luxurious island resort serving as Pro Bowl headquarters this week, he noticed the room was organized by jersey numbers.
Tolbert found his gear laid out under a No. 35 placard, right next to that of the other No. 35 on the Ron Rivera-coached team – San Francisco rookie safety Eric Reid.
Fans might remember the violent collision between Tolbert and Reid during the teams’ Nov. 10 game at San Francisco, and the acts of compassion that followed the hit.
After realizing Reid was hurt, Tolbert kneeled and prayed with the 49ers’ players, a gesture that moved Reid’s father to write to Tolbert’s agent, Joel Turner, and Panthers running backs coach Jim Skipper, with whom the elder Reid has a mutual friend.
What people don’t know is the bond that has formed between Tolbert and Reid since. The two spoke before and after the Panthers’ Jan. 12 playoff loss to the 49ers in Charlotte, and have talked this week during the first Pro Bowl appearance for both players.
“We just spoke and made sure everything was on the up and up, that he was OK,” Tolbert said of their conversations at Bank of America Stadium. “We just showed mutual respect for each other.”
Reid said it has been good getting to know Tolbert as a person.
“He’s a great guy. That moment on the field showed what kind of character he had,” Reid said Thursday following practice at Hickam Air Force Base. “It’s been pretty cool actually getting to meet with him and have a conversation with him.”
The play that brought the two together came midway through the third quarter of the Panthers’ 10-9 win at Candlestick Park. Tolbert took a shovel pass from Cam Newton and bolted around the left end with a head of steam.
Reid, 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds, came up from his safety spot and ducked his head into 5-9, 245-pound Tolbert, who lowered his shoulder before impact. The hit spun Reid like a top, and he wound up face first in the grass, where he laid motionless for several seconds.
As the 49ers’ medical staff and several players gathered around Reid, Tolbert took a knee alongside them. Watching at home in Louisiana, Eric T. Reid was so touched by Tolbert’s concern he decided to let him know how much it meant.
“Actions always speak louder than words. Please let Mike Tolbert know that his actions of compassion towards my son will not be forgotten,” wrote Reid, a Louisiana State University employee who serves as a Baptist minister. “Character means a lot and he has shown a lot of character.”
Tolbert could empathize with the safety. During a 2010 game at Cincinnati while with San Diego, Tolbert was sandwiched between a pair of defenders at the end of a run.
The helmet of a Bengals safety struck Tolbert on the side of the head, and he had to be carted off the field.
“It was scary,” Tolbert said. “So I’ve been where he was.”
His head-down tackle on Tolbert resulted in Reid’s second concussion during his first NFL season, and it prompted the 18th overall pick from LSU to change his approach. He said he’s now more aware of the size of opposing backs and receivers when he reviews the scouting report.
“I’m used to in college and in high school being one of the biggest (defensive backs) on the field in comparison to the tight ends and running backs,” Reid said. “But the NFL’s a different level. All these guys are big and strong. Just something I had to get adjusted to, and I think I have.”
Just as Reid’s father appreciated Tolbert’s compassion, Tolbert said he was impressed the elder Reid took the time to get in touch with him.
“That definitely meant a lot to me,” Tolbert said. “To see what kind of kid he is, the kind of person he is, it makes it easier for me to be there for him.”
Eric T. Reid was en route to Hawaii on Thursday. Tolbert hopes to meet him in person before Sunday’s game.
“That’d be awesome,” the younger Reid said. “I’m going to try to make it happen.”
After their time together this week, Reid will head home to Louisiana and Tolbert will travel with his family back to their offseason home in San Diego. But Tolbert anticipates maintaining a connection with Reid, and following his development as a pro.
“He’s a guy that I would root for for the remainder of his career,” Tolbert said. “Unless we’re playing against them.”