I love watchin E:60…people have amazing stories that they are able to share through sports!!! One day I hope to inspire like so many have!
— Robby Toma (@RobJob293) October 23, 2012
What sets [Toma] apart is the genuine excitement he shows about football and life in general. Even Notre Dame haters should be following his fun, uplifting, and most importantly, entertaining tweets. –from the website College Spun
As 5’9″ 175-lb. over-achieving senior Notre Dame wide receiver Robby Toma closes in on fifty career catches with the Irish, it’s no longer fair to compare him with “Rudy.” However, Toma is also not exactly in the category of Michael Floyd, the first-round draft pick who caught 100 passes for Notre Dame in 2011 alone. So as he enters the final stages of his Irish career, just how will Toma be remembered here?
As none other than Manti Te’o‘s photographer!
Seriously, although the Sports Illustrated feature story on Te’o did mention that Toma, who oftentimes accompanies Te’o around campus, does end up shooting a lot of pics featuring the Irish linebacker (who rarely turns down a request) with the various student alumni and fans they encounter walking to class or practice, certainly the role he is most famous for is that of Te’o's best friend.
Considering that the two met in kindergarten and have trained together every year from when they were nine years old (“Manti’s dad had to talk my dad into letting me play, because I was so small and my dad was a little scared,” Toma recalled) perhaps the friendship isn’t unexpected. But that doesn’t mean the role of sidekick is always easy.
For example, Toma had plans to visit his girlfriend at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, during Notre Dame’s brief bye week this season, but instead travelled home with Te’o to their native Laie, Hawaii, as the Irish linebacker finally got to commemorate the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend.
“He asked me, he’s like, ‘Hey, you want to come home with me. I need you.’ I just told him, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” Toma said Wednesday. “My girlfriend was cool with it. I was going to go anyway. But she told me to go support him. I already knew I had to support him. It was a no-brainer. I was going to go home and do what I needed to do.”
Although the eight-and-a-half-hour red-eye flight wasn’t exactly easy, as the diminutive receiver was double teamed by a sleeping-but-thrashing Te’o and an equally huge stranger who tries to use Toma as an armrest—”The flight to Dublin [for Notre Dame's opening game] was nothing compared to this,” kidded Toma—it was worth it.
“His phone was blowing up,” Toma recalled. “The media was talking about it every second. He couldn’t get away from it…[but] when he got home, he was able to just chill with his family, and not get away from it, but just remember his grandmother, share stories with his family and…smile…the funeral service was beautiful.”
And now the two friends are back together again in South Bend, and as they prepare for a road trip to the not-so-friendly port of Norman, Oklahoma, to take on the highly-favored ninth-ranked Sooners, Toma reminisces about their past life together, and what it means for the present.
“I’ve actually thought about it a bunch, what life would have been like had we ended up at different places,” Toma said, before laughing about the memory of the one year they were separated, when ninth-grader Te’o transferred from Punahou High School to public school power Kahuku High, where they promised to make Te’o into a tailback.
“He thought he was Reggie Bush,” Toma laughed, adding Te’o transferred back to Punahou the next season—which is where the parallel to this season begins.
“There are lessons we learned from that team that carry over to today,” Toma said. “I remember my junior year, we were a really talented team, but we weren’t a family. We weren’t close and we lost some close games. Even last year [at ND], we were obviously pretty talented, but we lost some close games, but this year we’re real close.”
“It shows in the way we care for each other and play for each other and we’ve been winning those close games. As cliché as it sounds, I think we’re all family, and I think it shows.”
But although the man the fans used to call “waterboy” is at perfect peace with his family, the team and Te’o, he is both happy and restless with his own progress.
“My parents are definitely proud of me,” Toma said. “In a sense, I’m proud of myself for what I’ve done. But we know that there’s more.”
“I don’t want to settle with just starting…I want to be a contributor and help lead this team to a BCS game, and, God willing, a national championship game.”
Of course, the drama comes from Toma not only knowing that a win at Oklahoma would be a huge step in that direction, but that he will need to be a big contributor for that to happen.
Fortunately, Toma plays for Notre Dame, the place where dreams, hard work, and prayers, can sometimes make a 5’9″ receiver-photographer shine as bright as a 6’2″ All-American linebacker.