16 Jan 2007
Robbie Tobeck was an undersized defensive tackle at Washington State in the early 1990s. Unlike his roommate, Drew Bledsoe, Tobeck wasn't much of a prospect. One day, his line coach called him and asked him to consider a position change. Tobeck didn't exactly leap at the opportunity.
"What (defensive line coach Del White) didn't realize," Tobeck said in a 1995 interview, "was that I really didn't like him very much. As a defensive player, I had always viewed offensive linemen as the bottom of the food chain. But I was too small to be playing (defensive) tackle at that level and I knew there was no chance of an NFL future if I stayed there. Mentally, I didn't have that 'eat-raw-meat' mindset of a defensive lineman. So here's White in my ear, telling me, 'Now you don't want to do this, son.' And in my head, I'm thinking, 'Hmmm, a chance to get away from a coach I don't get along with and to play a position where I might at least have an outside shot at the pros?' It sounded pretty good to me."
Tobeck switched to guard, and he signed with the Falcons as a free agent after leaving college. He spent a season on the practice squad and another on the bench. When incumbent left guard David Richards held out at the start of Falcons camp in 1995, Tobeck was penciled in as the starter. He played every offensive snap that season, most of them at guard, a few at center in place of injured Roman Fortin. He signed a long-term contract with the Falcons in 1996 and moved to center full-time in 1998. He started 78 regular season games for the Falcons, plus two playoff games and a Super Bowl.
Tobeck signed with the Seahawks in 2000 but missed most of that season with a knee injury. He wouldn't miss another game for five years. He earned a reputation as a vocal leader in the locker room, and as a prankster who kept his teammates loose. He earned the nickname "The Instigator." He was the guy who would handcuff rookies to their beds in training camp, the guy who poured coyote urine all over Trent Dilfer's camp dorm room for a laugh.
But on the field, he was all business. He became a free agent in 2004, and the Browns and Cowboys expressed interest in signing him. The Seahawks had recently drafted Chris Spencer, so Tobeck's starting job was in jeopardy. But he took a pay cut and stayed in Seattle. "This is home for me. I’m not leaving home. Not at this point in my career," he said at the time. His loyalty was rewarded with another Super Bowl appearance and the only Pro Bowl selection of his career.
Tobeck retired quietly after Sunday's loss to the Bears. He missed much of this season with injuries, and Spencer has clearly supplanted his soon-to-be-37 year old mentor. "I feel fortunate and really blessed to be able to play this game and live a childhood dream out for 14 years - and really, still be a kid a little bit," Tobeck said on Sunday. "In some ways, it will be easier for me," Matt Hasselbeck said when he heard the news. "That's because I am always the butt of his jokes."
Tobeck was never a great player. But he was a very good one who started two Super Bowls and dozens of regular season games. He was never a flavor of the month or a product of hype, overrated or underrated or even rated. But he helped teams win, earned every check he received, and left the game quietly and gracefully while we were all screaming about post-game celebrations and controversial fourth down punts.
Good luck, Mr. Instigator.
"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.