As Carolina Panthers running back Jordan Todman received a swing pass from Cam Newton during Thursday’s OTA session, he turned up field and came face-to-face with Luke Kuechly.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound running back had two likely options: run out of bounds or be forced out by the NFL’s reigning leader in tackles. Instead, Todman chose option No. 3, juking Kuechly and sprinting down the sideline to the tune of his teammate’s cheering.
Nearly 20 minutes later, as practice ended and the players began their walk from the practice field to Bank of America Stadium, the play remained on the minds of Todman’s teammates.
“Tell him about what you did to Luke Kuechly,” shouted fellow tailback Jonathan Stewart as a reporter approached Todman.
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The former Jacksonville Jaguars running back revered for his playmaking ability on special teams signed a one-year contract with the Panthers in March. Taking most of the snaps behind Stewart and Fozzy Whitaker, Todman is motivated to show he can be valuable to Carolina in more than just the return game.
“The more you can do, the better off you are,” he said about the chances he’s getting in OTAs. “It’s just being able to show what you have. Coming to a new team, you have things to prove in those opportunities.”
Making the most of his opportunities is what has allowed Todman to go from a child born in the inner city of New Bedford, Mass., to a four-year veteran in the NFL. And he says much of his success has been because of Steve and Dana Cruz of Dartmouth, Mass., who are his legal guardians.
The Cruzes met Todman when he was a 10-year-old playing Pop Warner with their oldest of three children, Justin. Steve was the coach. Todman took Justin under his wing, and the two quickly became best friends.
Todman’s mother, Alaina Joseph, didn’t have a driver’s license or a car, which made it difficult for him to make it to practices or games. Shortly after the Cruzes started their relationship with Jordan, he missed a weigh-in for Pop Warner. When Steve finally got hold of Jordan, Steve drove to pick him up and Jordan explained his situation.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you just stay over the nights before games? I’ll make sure you get to the games,’” Steve said. “He lived fairly close to where practice was but didn’t go to away games and other things. So it was difficult obviously with no car.”
Todman began sleeping over every Saturday night at the Cruzes before Sunday games. Despite being hesitant to the offer at first, Todman was quickly welcomed to the household.
“Their family alone took me in as you would’ve thought they gave birth to me,” he said.
The sleepovers gradually became extended visits, as Todman also began to go on vacations with the Cruzes to destinations such as New Hampshire and Florida. And any chores Justin did, Todman did as well.
“Before we were brothers, we were just best friends,” Justin said. “It started as the nights before football games, then it became the entire weekend and then the next thing from that during football season was winter break during school, so then he stayed the entire winter break. Summer break was even longer, and he’d stay the entire summer.”
Todman continued to attend school in New Bedford, where he was unfocused on his academics and was running with the wrong crowd. When he was in the eighth grade, the Cruzes realized they needed to help.
Joseph called one day, and everyone agreed sending Todman to live with the Cruzes and go to Dartmouth High School was better than him attending alternative school West Side High School.
Dana was sitting with Todman at breakfast before their appointment at Dartmouth Middle School when the 13-year-old mentioned his goal was to play in the NFL.
“I said, ‘Wow, that’s awesome,’” Dana said. “‘Listen, I’m going help you get into the NFL, but you’re going to help me and you’re going to do your academics. You’re going to study hard in school.’”
With the Cruzes pushing him toward the goal of graduating high school, Todman began to succeed in the classroom as well as on the football field. He ultimately finished his high school career with 5,083 rushing yards, 70 touchdowns and a scholarship to the University of Connecticut.
Todman recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the Huskies, finishing his junior season second in the nation with 1,695 rushing yards and with Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors.
“Jordan was a guy that could make a lot of things happen,” said Randy Edsall, who was Todman’s head coach at UConn and now holds the same position at Maryland. “He was very hard on himself. He demanded a lot of himself to be the best he could be.
“I loved being around him. He had a smile. He was one of those guys that wanted to work, was willing to work and willing to do the things necessary in order to help make the team better.”
After entering the NFL draft as a junior, Todman was selected in the sixth round by the San Diego Chargers. But he never played a game with San Diego, spending his first NFL season on the practice squads of the Chargers and Minnesota Vikings.
As a member of the Jaguars, Todman never saw more than 76 carries in a season during his three-year tenure in Jacksonville. He made his name as the Jaguars’ primary kickoff returner, averaging 25.6 yards on 38 returns in 2014. But he wanted more.
“He’s always still chasing,” Justin said. “One of the things he always says is he doesn’t want to be known as that kid from New Bedford that made it. He wants to be known as a player in the NFL, not just that he made it.”
And that’s what Todman hopes to achieve with the Panthers. He says the team has welcomed him with open arms, and he’s learning the offense. He looks to challenge for snaps at running back while helping improve a special teams unit that ranked toward the bottom of the league in 2014.
Todman plans to make the most of his opportunities – as he always does.
“The odds have always been stacked against Jordan from birth,” Dana said. “And he’s going to prove you wrong. He’s going to show you that he is worth it. Everything about him is worth it.”