Amani Toomer didn’t know how to play cards. He had never played poker. But as he sat at a celebrity Texas Hold ‘Em tournament, his confidence was limitless: he was going to win.
Other celebrities at the table kept folding hand after hand. Wisely, truth be told. Toomer couldn’t fold. He refused. That next card would be the card to put him over the top. He would defy all logic. He always did.
"I was out in five minutes. I was the first person eliminated. It was terrible. People were looking at me and laughing."
Toomer encounters boundaries four years removed from the NFL at 38 years old that were foreign to him in 1999 at that poker table. Self-inflicted financial, physical and mental limits are Toomer’s counter to the cliché. His discipline has enabled him a smooth transition from life in the NFL to retirement.
A transition that Toomer admits was tough, “The football world is not like any other world.”
Toomer has been a part of that world since becoming one of the first highly sought-after national recruits out of De La Salle High School and going on to sign with the University of Michigan in 1992.
In his four years as a Wolverine, Toomer captured all Big Ten honors in his junior and senior seasons—including a 1,096-yard receiving season in 1994. Such success at Michigan resulted in the New York Giants selecting Toomer in the second round of the 1996 NFL Draft.
Over a dazzling 13-year career in New York, Toomer resides as the all-time leader in every statistical receiving category for the Giants. But it’s a statistic that can’t be found in the history books that sets him apart: the number 93.8—his memory’s percentile ranking among his age group on a brain training website.
Toomer boasts, “I am actually very proud of this because, for a while, I was struggling.”
His memory is a pool of past experiences that aided in his understanding that one day, any day, his pads would come off and his mortality would be awaiting him. Toomer remembers the first time he ever truly felt limited.
“When I first got out [of the NFL], I interviewed for all these different jobs: ESPN, NFL Network, FOX, ABC, CBS, everywhere—and I didn’t get any of them.”
He could have remained defeated. He had every reason to sulk inside his private man cave at home for eternity: surrounded by his glory days, symbolized by his 10 Giants helmets, Super Bowl XLII jersey and photos that splash the wall.
Instead, he kept rolling.
Toomer wanted to do something constructive and parlayed that with his long-time desire to play hockey in the form of roller hockey in 2010. Toomer first heard of a roller hockey league in Belleville, New Jersey from the man installing his fish tank. He followed his intrigue and, despite having no clue how to skate, joined a team.
The former NFL receiver also ran his first marathon, the New York City marathon, in November 2010.
Running up to two hours a day, he lost 30 pounds in the process and gained a love for running, which he has implemented into his daily routine.
“How could you not be a productive person?” Toomer wonders aloud. “I’d always go out and do stuff. And then, all the sudden [for the NFL] to say, ‘Oh, you’re done. Just go sit on a beach somewhere.’ Nah, I gotta go do something.”
While remaining limitless in his ambition, Toomer has invented restrictions to curb his susceptibility to the vulnerabilities plaguing his fellow NFL retirees.
Checkpoints are omnipresent for Toomer. This includes a restriction targeting his favorite purchase: cars.
Despite accumulated earnings that could afford a different car for everyday, Toomer vowed to only buy a new car in five-year intervals once he retired. After buying a Mercedes ML430 for his wife, Maj, and a BMW X5M for himself, Toomer won’t buy another car until 2015.
Carl Romain, 45, Toomer’s Kung Fu instructor of 15 years, has had a front row seat to witness Toomer’s discipline but cites a different quality as the reason for his success:
“[Amani] is really, really disciplined, and a lot of athletes are, but he’s also very teachable. He’s very open to learning, and I think that’s why he’s successful at everything he does. He has a coach for every aspect of his life.”
One of those coaches is a world-renowned disciplinarian: Tom Coughlin. Toomer played under Coughlin in New York from 2004 to 2008. Coughlin demanded all Giants to check-in at every meal to ensure no player skipped meals, to submit to mandatory weigh-ins before and after every practice and to arrive five or ten minutes early to every meeting. Failure to abide resulted in a fine.
Toomer was only fined once by Coughlin.
“I was early, but I was late. I was right on-time. I walked in at 9:10 when the offensive meeting was going on, and I got fined. [Coughlin] was like, ‘Look, I can fine you $2,000 or I can fine you $10,000. Now, you could fight it if you want, but if you fight it, it’s gonna go up to $10,000.”
Toomer accepted the $2,000 that time, respected Coughlin consistently and elected to perpetuate such structure into his current lifestyle.
Complacency has hurt Toomer before.
In 1996, Toomer suffered his first ever injury of his career against the Washington Redskins. He had been sitting out the entire first half. He was tight. He remembers the play vividly. It was a Hail Mary. And as he stretched upward for the football and twisted his body, his ACL snapped.
He cites 2004 as the fork in his career. Eli Manning as the Giants’ raw rookie quarterback coupled with a nagging pulled hamstring of his own, Toomer’s productivity plummeted.
He didn’t score a touchdown all season.
“It was tough to get over because, for so many years of my career, I was a dominant player in the league. And then, all the sudden, I go from being dominant to just being [an] average guy.”
Toomer observed the perils of those around him as early as his Michigan days.
Speculated as one of the best recruiting classes Michigan football had ever seen, in 1992 Toomer and his fellow freshman teammates planned to all make the NFL together. The dream was bulletproof, until one of those teammates unexpectedly blew out his knee during routine up-down drills at spring practice—never to play football again.
“I remember looking at him, like, ‘Man, that could’ve been me!’ I was right next to him. Just like that, it was over.”
Injury kept hitting closer to home.
Toomer’s older brother and longest-tenured teammate, Donald Jr., excelled as a defensive back at Utah State. He, too, was on his way to a decorated NFL career until he required career-ending shoulder surgery as a rookie free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals, resulting in an injury settlement.
Donald admires his brother, “He always wanted to win. The higher he went up, the more he knew that things were out of his hands and he had to deal with the hands he was dealt.”
But fate is the one opponent Amani never tempts.
Toomer intended on keeping routes inclusive in his life after football.
He wanted to start and own a racecar company before he learned how expensive of an endeavor that would be. Instead, he follows different route: the one he traces every Saturday morning to drive his twins, Amani Jr. and Jasmine, to swim lessons.
That route is priceless.
“They taught me that there is something bigger than me,” Toomer says of his family—a lesson Toomer’s parents instilled in him.
Toomer’s father, Donald Sr., was the assistant principal of Amani’s junior high school: Aptos Junior High, in the Toomers’ native California. Donald Sr. sent Amani home as punishment for getting into a fight in seventh grade. To this day, Amani’s morals revolve around his home.
Amani aims to emulate his father’s presence for his own children by making sure his hectic work schedule at NBCSports Radio, SiriusXM and Sports Illustrated crosses paths with his time at home.
“I want to have a good relationship with my kids. ...I just want to make sure that they know who I am and they know what I stand for and I’m something that they can be proud of.”
All quotes were obtained firsthand by the reporter. You can follow Megan Armstrong on Twitter at @meganKarmstrong .