One of Scott Tolzien's endearing qualities is his ability to keep big moments from making him think he is bigger than his teammates, coaches, friends, family and just about anyone else you can imagine.
Part of that is Tolzien did not take the path of least resistance in terms of obstacles to become a star quarterback at Fremd High School and Wisconsin. And yes, he would probably cringe at the accurate use of the word star.
Tolzien had to do the typical two-year tour of underclass duty at Fremd before taking over as the starter for one of the state's most successful programs. He was not a heavily sought recruit and was initially passed over for other candidates before becoming one of the country's top college quarterbacks and leader of a team that went to the Rose Bowl.
So,Tolzien's initial reaction about how he helped the San Francisco 49ers reach Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3 against the Baltimore Ravens was not surprising.
"I had a lot to do with on the sidelines," Tolzien joked about his second season as the No. 3 quarterback for the 49ers during a phone conversation from California late Tuesday night.
While Tolzien may be modest about his role with the 49ers, anyone who has been watching them can tell head coach Jim Harbaugh isn't going to keep someone around just for the ride. The organization and Harbaugh clearly saw the value of signing Tolzien as a rookie after he was cut by the San Diego Chargers and keeping him this year for the third quarterback spot instead of Josh Johnson, who has NFL game experience.
That value was apparent when 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks broke up a pass to help thwart a late-game drive by the Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan to win the NFC title.
"My satisfaction comes from our defense batting a pass down on third down, on the same play we ran Wednesday that they ran on Sunday," Tolzien said of his scout-team impersonation of Ryan. "You feel like you had a hand in it to get the guys to that point. They saw it on Wednesday and the second time around, they defended it and the team is better because of it."
That means Tolzien will be performing his best Joe Flacco impressions to give the best possible look for Super Bowl Sunday. But Tolzien's film study of the opposing quarterback isn't just to pick up their tendencies. It's also a chance to learn more about what he needs to succeed and keep pushing Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith.
"The focus is still more on our game plan," Tolzien said of his weekly preparation. "As crazy as it sounds, I'm still two injuries away from being the quarterback out there. I have to treat it that way and always go with our own focus first."
It has also given Tolzien a close-up look at one of the more fascinating quarterback situations in NFL history. The 49ers were 6-2 and Smith was playing some of the best football of his career when he was sidelined by a concussion. Kaepernick stepped in and brought a dynamic running and passing combination -- which Bears fans can unhappily attest to -- that resulted in Harbaugh keeping him as the starter even after Smith was cleared to play.
"It's been the most unique quarterback controversy I've ever been a part of, because usually one guy is struggling," Tolzien said. "It's been unbelievable and in a lot of ways it's been a win-win situation.
"The cool part is it's really been fun to watch the whole operation. Everyone is competitive and wants to be the starter but it hasn't changed how all of us help each other out."
Tolzien also feels blessed to spend his first two years in the NFL with Harbaugh, who quarterbacked the Bears for seven seasons of his 15-year pro career. Not only did he play for Mike Ditka for six years but he also played at Michigan for the legendary Bo Schembechler.
"It's great that he played at a high level at that position for over a decade, because he sees the game through our lens," Tolzien said of Harbaugh. "He's really been fascinating to play for. He's extremely blue-collar in his approach and he's always about work first.
"What I've learned from him is there are no short cuts in anything and the guys have responded to it. People ask what is his recipe for success and it's his relentless drive to work every day. It's not the most exciting thing but it's what wins games."
It's not unlike Tolzien's drive and determination to do more than just help with the lines of communication on the sideline to get plays in for Kaepernick or Smith. Tolzien was activated and dressed for games against the Lions, Bears and Patriots, but all of what he called "a lot of unpretty hours" are being put in so he can ultimately be the guy running an NFL offense.
The odds of going from an undrafted free agent to an NFL starter might seem long to a lot of people. Overcoming those kinds of odds isn't foreign to Tolzien, since jobs weren't handed to him at Fremd and Wisconsin.
"What I've learned is you cannot be satisfied with where you are at and be comfortable with where you are at," Tolzien said. "Some people say I have the greatest job in the world because I'm healthy, I'm not getting beaten up and I'm making good money. But since I was a little kid I've dreamed about being a starter in this league.
"My goal is to be a starter in this league and not a career backup, but the bottom line is a lot of work goes into it. During the three years at Wisconsin (before becoming a two-year starter), you remember those times, so you don't forget where you came from. I've been in that role before and that's what I use as motivation."
Tolzien hasn't forgotten, whether it's taking 45 minutes of time to talk about his current journey or to reply to a text message from Mike Donatucci, his coach at Fremd.
Not long after what he called "the best plane ride I've ever been on" touched down in California after Sunday's dramatic NFC championship victory in Atlanta, Tolzien reached out and extended his best wishes to Fremd assistant coach Mike Brown for the hip surgery he underwent Tuesday. And he gave his champagne-soaked NFC championship T-shirt to the quarterback he looked up to as a little kid, former Fremd star Patrick Brown, who lives in Atlanta and was at the game.
He's also thrilled to share the success with his family since he's living in Santa Clara with his brother Mark, who recently graduated from Holy Cross and is working in nearby Redwood City. Their parents, Mike and Ginny, will be going to New Orleans and the bonus is they'll get to see their oldest son Mike, who flies C-130 transport planes for the Air Force and is stationed in Biloxi, Miss., after finishing his second tour of duty in Afghanistan in December.
Scott Tolzien figures he'll be listed as inactive for the Super Bowl since teams can only dress 46 players and the NFL dropped the rule two years ago where teams can suit up the third quarterback as an emergency inactive player. But that won't diminish his appreciation for being more than just an interested observer.
"I've been really fortunate and thankful and I'm still pinching myself," Tolzien said. "A lot of people don't get this opportunity, guys who have played 10 years in the league who don't get a sniff of the playoffs, much less the Super Bowl. Here I am in my second year, a guy standing on the sideline going to the Super Bowl. I almost feel guilty about it and I try not to take it for granted.
"What's fun about it is this is the game you grew up in the backyard pretending you're in and now it's a reality. Your parents would drive you to all your games when you were younger and tell you to reach for your dreams, and that's what's cool about it."
• Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org