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.
“They both had kids. Now you’re taking these kid’s dad’s away from them,” Robbie remembers. “I didn’t have any kids and I’m thinking, ‘Well, why was it me?’ I went through a lot of that, a lot, a lot of that for a long time, for a long time.”
In the months and years after the shooting Robbie struggled emotionally and mentally and felt uneasy in public spaces. He became a self-proclaimed hermit, not wanting to go anywhere or do much.
And every time he started to feel better, he says, another shooting would happen.
“I was in a very, very dark place. I just had to suck it up for the cameras. I had to put on this brave face and just act like I was normal and composed. I would cry all the way home. I wouldn't get out of bed, wouldn’t eat. It was tough.”
While Robbie Tolan was preparing to leave the hospital after almost a month, depositions for the grand jury began in the investigation into Robbie’s shooting and the conduct of Bellaire police officer Jeffrey Cotton.
Officer Cotton was ultimately acquitted by a jury of mostly white jurors.
The Tolans pursued a civil case against the city of Bellaire and Officer Cotton. Judge Melinda Harmon not only dismissed the case, she ordered the Tolans to pay Cotton’s court fees.
To add insult to injury, Cotton was later promoted from Sergeant to Lieutenant.
“It was like being shot all over again,” says Robbie. “He got a paid vacation for a year and some change. Meanwhile, I lost a career and then [Cotton] got his old job back. Got his old job back, got promoted, and we were left to pick up the pieces as a family. It was tough.”
Throughout the family’s ordeal, Robbie’s mom has been a fearless advocate for justice, despite attempts to intimidate the family.
“When [Robbie] was in the hospital, the police would come by at night and shine the light on the house,” Marian recalls. “I guess that was supposed to be intimidating, but…I wasn’t afraid of anything then, I’m not afraid of anything now.”
Robbie struggled for a long time with the emotional aftermath of his experience. Even though he felt an obligation to speak out after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and so many others, he wasn’t ok himself.
It’s been a long journey, but he’s come to a better place.
“I want to continue to share my story,” says Robbie. “I’m doing speeches and speaking in schools and I’ve done a couple of things for the NAACP. I did a panel for the ACLU. So, I think I’ve just embraced this platform now.”
Robbie graduated from Prairie View A&M University on December 14th, 2019. He returned on August 8th, 2020 to deliver a virtual commencement speech for the new graduating class.
While the Tolans never saw Jeffrey Cotton be held accountable for police misconduct, they did score one major victory. In 2014, they took their case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. And they won.
In Tolan v. Cotton, the Supreme Court ruled that Robbie’s excessive force lawsuit was improperly dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. An article in National Law Journal said, “Tolan v. Cotton has been cited in and helped in about 500 cases from May to December of 2014.”
A week after the United States Supreme Court victory, Marian Tolan was able to retain the services of attorney Ben Crump. But after Robbie decided his fight in court was done, Marian was forced to settle their lawsuit. But she was still looking for more than money.
Marian has made it her life’s mission to change the system.
“How is it that [police] shoot unarmed Black men that have no weapons, but a kid will go and shoot up a school, kill seven, eight people, and they take them and buy him a hamburger and they clearly have a weapon….Those of us is here right now, we can’t leave this earth the way it is right now, we have a responsibility.”
“Think about it, Brown and Black people don’t get justice in America. We have to just stop settling…Guess what? 10 years ago, you couldn’t have same-sex marriage in this country. So we changed that system. So why can’t we work to change this system? We can.”
There’s so much more to Robbie’s story—we’ve only just scratched the surface. Hear the full account from Robbie, his mom, and others at https://www.dcpofficial.com/robbie-tolan.
Here’s how you can support Robbie and his family on their mission to change the system and tackle the epidemic of police misconduct:
Purchase Robbie’s book, “No Justice,” at https://www.robbietolan.com/
Book Robbie to speak at an event at https://www.robbietolan.com/
Book Robbie to DJ at https://www.robbietolan.com/
Donate to Robbie and Marian Tolan via Cash App ~ $Mr1231
Demand more Black and Brown representation in juries across the country.
Register to vote. Black voters have the power to change local and state-level politics with their vote. Let your voice be heard and help lift up your community. Your vote matters.
Donate to the Say Their Name Memorial Fund to benefit all the families highlighted in the Say Their Name series.