Local ties, national dreams

College football: Baltimore's Tommy Polley and Burtonsville's Darnell Dockett eyed a national title. Florida State's Orange Bowl berth has one in view.

January 01, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Tommy Polley and Darnell Dockett came to Florida State from their homes in Maryland for the same reason: a chance to play for the national championship.

For Polley, a fifth-year senior linebacker from Baltimore, the opportunity has been there in each of the past three seasons.

For Dockett, a redshirt freshman defensive tackle from Burtonsville, the first of what he hopes to be numerous chances will come Wednesday night.

Polley and Dockett played significant roles in helping the third-ranked Seminoles reach the FedEx Orange Bowl.

Florida State (11-1) will meet top-ranked Oklahoma (12-0) in the Bowl Championship Series championship game at Pro Player Stadium.

"It's kind of funny," Polley said recently. "Ever since I've been in high school [at Dunbar], I've always been on teams that played for the championship. In high school, we were state champions all four years in basketball and two years in football. At Florida State, it's been the same thing."

As a redshirt sophomore, Polley was on the losing end of a 23-16 decision to Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl, the first Bowl Championship Series title game. Last year, Polley celebrated Florida State's second national championship after a 46-29 win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.

But that game in New Orleans proved to be a bittersweet experience.

After helping the Seminoles get out to a fast start against the Hokies by blocking a punt that resulted in a touchdown, Polley injured his knee trying to tackle Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick late in the second quarter at the Louisiana Superdome.

"I went to sack him and he cut the other way," recalled Polley, who had also made one tackle for a loss. "I went to cut and my knee just gave out on the turf. It was disappointing not to play after that."

Polley learned the next day he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. It was reconstructed a month later and Polley surprised team doctors by being ready for the season opener.

"It wasn't tough at all," Polley said of his rehabilitation. "I knew I had to get back. Not only for my teammates, but for my family. I knew I had to be 100 percent for this season."

After getting over some initial trepidation about making sharp cuts, Polley picked up this season where he left off last year. He made the All-Atlantic Coast Conference first team for the second straight time, finishing with 100 tackles and one interception that he returned for a touchdown.

Polley was also a semifinalist for the prestigious Butkus Award, given to the nation's top linebacker, and is considered by most scouts to be a potential first-round pick in this year's National Football League college draft.

While Polley's return to form had been anticipated by the coaching staff, Dockett's development was one of the keys for a defense that lost All-American noseguard Corey Simon and All-ACC lineman Jerry Johnson, then watched defensive end Roland Seymour reinjure the knee he hurt in the Sugar Bowl.

"I just wanted to go out and play - and make plays," said Dockett, who began the season at defensive end, the position he played at Paint Branch High School, and was quickly switched to tackle. "I didn't have any goals except to play hard. I look at it that if you play hard, you'll get attention."

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden recalled how frustrated Dockett was when told he was being moved to tackle.

"He nearly left [school]," Bowden said. "But playing tackle came so natural to him. He's been as happy as a lark."

A 6-foot-4, 260-pound lark. Dockett had a breakthrough season, finishing with 66 tackles, including 19 for losses, and seven sacks, making the All-ACC second team.

"At the beginning of the year, people took focus on what I was doing and tried to take advantage of me," Dockett said.

Dockett's play improved steadily, and he will play an important role in Miami in trying to put pressure on Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel. Dockett believes he has benefited by playing in front of a couple of the country's top linebackers.

"I think a lot of credit has to go to Tommy and B. A. [Brian Allen]," Dockett said.

Polley has been something of a mentor ever since Dockett showed up in Tallahassee two years ago. Originally from Decateur, Ga., Dockett had to get reaccustomed to living in a sleepy Southern college town after moving to Maryland when he was 13.

Interestingly, Dockett had never played football when he lived outside Atlanta.

"I played JV the first three games and went to the varsity," said Dockett, who was named the Maryland player of the year as a senior by USA Today.

An Ohio State fan growing up, Dockett eliminated the Buckeyes after one visit to Columbus ("It was too cold") and never even considered Maryland, despite living within minutes of the campus.

It came down to Florida and Florida State.

"I wanted to go where I could win the national championship," Dockett said.

As a redshirt freshman, Dockett watched from the sideline last year as the Seminoles eventually pulled away from the Hokies. This year, he will be in the middle of the scrum.

"It was interesting to watch my team play for the national championship," said Dockett, who took his redshirt season after being injured early in the year. "I knew my time would eventually come."

At Florida State, it usually doesn't take long. As a freshman, Polley had watched the Seminoles lose to Florida, 52-20, in the Sugar Bowl, giving the national championship to the hated Gators.

Polley will try to add a second ring to his collection Wednesday.

"I'm excited," he said. "But it's also kind of a scary feeling, knowing that it's your last game and the next couple of months are going to be so important to your future."

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