- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It's not that Robby Toma was barely 60 pounds when he first played Pop Warner as a nine-year-old in fourth grade. It's that he gained only 40 pounds from then to his freshman year of high school, when he stood just 5-feet tall and weighed 100 pounds.
"I think for me that was my more major concern," Ross Toma, Robby's father, said. "When he went into JV being that size, that was the first time I thought, 'Man, maybe I better pull him out.'"
Doing that would have meant no football scholarship to Notre Dame, nearly 5,000 miles and four time zones away from the Tomas' hometown of Laie, Hawaii. And it would have meant no moments like the one Toma experienced this past Saturday, when he hauled in a 10-yard first-quarter touchdown pass from Tommy Rees.
The now 5-foot-9, 185-pound Toma has won over Irish fans with his style of play. Judging by his teammates' reaction after his first career score Saturday, he has won them over as well.
"When I got into the end zone it was an amazing feeling, especially here at Notre Dame in front of 80,000," Toma said. "And it was a great experience to see all of my teammates and how excited they were for me, and it really meant a lot to me."
That excitement was clear at a young age, keeping Ross Toma from telling his son that he was having second thoughts about his football career. Quelling those thoughts was the fact his son was shifty enough on the field, quieting any potential talk from other parents or coaches off the field.
Robby's mother, Tammy, overcame any parental concerns immediately and was almost always pushing him.
"Initially she was that way, but once he got in she was full-force support and just go," Ross Toma said. "After a while almost if he got injured or whatnot, she'd be like, 'Get up and just go. Stop complaining.'"
A lifelong friend and high school teammate of Irish standout linebacker Manti Te'o, Robby Toma's first introduction to the game was from Te'o's father, Brian, who coached both in Pop Warner.
"Brian kept saying, 'You've got to play football, you've got to play football,'" Ross Toma recalled. "And me and my wife were like, 'Uh, he's a little bit small.' But sure enough he bugged us and really wanted to play and we said OK."
Despite being the smallest kid on the team, Robby Toma played running back and outside linebacker initially, and "Uncle Brian" pitted him against Te'o in his first-ever hitting drill.
"I got crushed," he said with a laugh.
He didn't become a wide receiver until high school, and he has found no shortage of fellow little guys at the position to model himself after. Toma will often go on YouTube and study pro players like the Patriots' Wes Welker or the Dolphins' Davone Bess, the latter having played college ball in Toma's backyard at Hawaii.
"Just the way we're smaller guys, so we have to use our quickness to our advantage and really concentrate on getting in on our breaks," Toma said of techniques he looks at. "And obviously making sure you catch the ball."
The last part has been easier said than done for Toma, though that has been more of a matter of circumstance than lack of seizing the moment. The junior was overthrown in the end zone two weeks ago at Purdue, and he has just two catches for 26 yards through the first half of this season.
But his ability to step up in place of an injured Theo Riddick last season -- notching 14 receptions for 187 yards -- is proof that his diminutive stature can handle the load when his number is called.
"I feel like I can play," Toma said. "Obviously I'm not the biggest guy, but when I'm out there I don't feel like I'm that much smaller than anybody, and I feel like I've worked hard to be where I'm at."