Also an American football player, Tolan won Michigan state championships as a high school boy. When he studied at the University of Michigan, Tolan set a World Record of 9,5 in the 100 yd dash, which gained him instantaneous fame in his home country. That same year, he also equalled the World Record in the 100 m on numerous occasions.
In 1932, by then winner of several AAU Championships, Tolan qualifies for the 100 m and 200 m in the Olympic Games to be held in Los Angeles, although Ralph Metcalfe beats him twice in the Olympic Trials. However, the finishing order at the Games themselves is the other way round; Tolan set two Olympic Records to win both sprint events. Remarkably, neither Tolan nor Metcalfe was part of the American 4 x 100 m relay team, which nevertheless won that event in a new World Record.
After the Games, Tolan quit running, although he did use his talent to run in several professional races later on. Tolan later became a vaudeville performer and, eventually, a school teacher. He died at age 58 of a heart attack.