Say Their Name: The Story of Robbie Tolan
Disclaimer: In our exclusive series, Say Their Name, DCP Entertainment takes a deeper look into the impact of the assault and killing of unarmed Black people by the police and in ‘Stand Your Ground’ states. We share the stories of families who have been negatively impacted by these situations, as well as memorialize the lives of the individuals who were victimized. We did not talk to officers or governing bodies—just the families and their support systems. We are not the court of law, nor do we try to be. For legal purposes we are not here to presume guilt or innocence for anyone, because, quite frankly, we do not want to be sued. We simply want to give the families a voice while examining what happens when the hashtags stop and the news unfortunately moves on to the next big story. All we want is to give the families the opportunity to control their narrative and share ways we can all help. While also raising money for the families highlighted in the series.
“I remember, it really was like slow motion. Because I remember seeing him draw his gun and I was like, ‘He’s not going to shoot me. He’s not going to shoot me’…And then the gun went off…And then I started feeling this pressure and fell back against the front door and collapsed. He wasn’t even there 30 seconds.”
In 2008, Robbie Tolan, a major league baseball prospect and the son of former major league star Bobby Tolan, was shot by Bellaire, Texas police officer Jeffrey Cotton.
Robbie, who was unarmed, was shot after he and his cousin Anthony were detained in their family’s driveway under suspicion of stealing their own car. The officer who had followed them home had incorrectly entered Robbie’s license plate number into the police database, falsely confirming his suspicion that the car was stolen.
Robbie survived the shooting. But the bullet now permanently lodged in his liver would ultimately end his professional sports career. And the ongoing battle for justice would become all-consuming for Robbie and his parents for years to come.
Robbie Tolan was born in San Diego in 1985. That’s where his major league dad, Bobby Tolan, had finished up his baseball career with the San Diego Padres.
Robbie grew up immersed in the world of baseball. His parents were friends with Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn Sr., and other notable sports figures.
The family stayed in San Diego until Robbie was around eight. Then his mom felt called back to her home state of Texas, where her family lived.
Robbie continued to develop his athletic skills after the family’s move.
“I think my mom would say that my first sport was soccer,” says Robbie. “I did play basketball, I was terrible, but still played. I’ve been playing golf since I was a kid. Played football for a couple of years, played tennis. I did everything. But I mean, baseball was where it was at for me. I was good at it. I looked up to my dad so much.”
Growing up immersed in the world of baseball—and endowed with natural athletic ability—Robbie was a natural fit for pro sports.
“He was a baseball baby,” says Robbie’s mother, Marian Tolan.
“Baseball was where it was at. I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” says Robbie.
In 2006, after graduating from Bellaire High School, Robbie stayed in the Houston area, going to Prairie View A&M University—the same school Sandra Bland graduated from in 2009. Robbie majored in criminal justice and joined the Prairie View A&M baseball team. After his team won the conference championship in 2007, Robbie decided to go pro, signing with the Washington Nationals.
Robbie’s career was just taking off when he got shot by police.
As the EMTs wheeled Robbie from his parents’ driveway into the ambulance, he overheard the officers saying they ‘had to get their story straight’ before members of the media and others showed up.
Word had quickly spread around Bellaire that Robbie had been shot, and people were literally lining up at the hospital to see him.
“I woke up to someone squeezing on my leg and squeezing my hand,” Robbie remembers. “I opened my eyes a little bit and there was this bright, bright white light. And I was like, ‘Oh, shit, am I in heaven? Am I dead?’ But then I…saw it was my parents. That was the most beautiful shit I had ever seen. You know what I mean?”
“And my mom was, tears in her eyes and she said, ‘You made it out of surgery and doctors say you should make a full recovery’…She said, ‘There are a lot of people in the hallways here to see you.’ So she said, ‘Dad and I are going to go out and let some of them come and see you.’ It made me feel safe. I was scared to death on that concrete [after being shot], when it got real quiet…I don’t wish to be hemmed up at the hospital again, but definitely that’s a special time for me.”
Still in the hospital trying to process what happened to him, Robbie soon faced another scare. Probably due to the stress of the ordeal, Bobby Tolan’s heart gave out. He had double bypass surgery in the same hospital where Robbie was recovering. Robbie’s dad made it out of surgery, and the hospital administration placed the two across the hall from each other in the cardiac ward.
Although the month after he got shot was a blur, Robbie eventually learned that two other Black men were shot by the police in the same 24-hour period: Oscar Grant in Oakland (whose death inspired the film Fruitvale Station), and Adolph Grimes, who was in New Orleans at the time he was shot.
Robbie struggled with survivor’s guilt.