Polley gives football fans here reason to stay tuned

January 26, 2002|By Gregory Kane

WHY ALL the long faces? So the Pittsburgh Steelers took our Ravens on a guided tour of Butt-kick City last Sunday. So what?

No one should be really surprised. The Steelers showed all year that, this season, they simply have a better team than the Ravens. Or, as Sports Illustrated put it in a rare perspicacious moment, Pittsburgh won by playing defense the way the Ravens once did and by playing offense like the Ravens never could.

So the Ravens are out of the playoffs. But there was still a reason for Balti-morons to shout out a cheer last Sunday. The Ravens failed us, but Tommy Polley came through for his hometown once again.

This is the part where most Ravens fans will ask: Who or what is a Tommy Polley?

I'm happy to answer. He's Baltimore's original "there was never any doubt guy," arguably the best all-around athlete to come out of this town. From 1993 to 1995, he played linebacker and tight end on Dunbar High School's football teams that won two straight state titles. He played forward on Dunbar's championship basketball squads of 1994, 1995 and 1996.

Picture the scenario just before the state football championship game in December 1995: Dunbar, with Polley and 28 other gutsy souls, took an 11-1 record into the game against Churchill, undefeated and with 60 to 70 players on its squad.

The smart observer would have said "Churchill in a cakewalk," but Dunbar's Davids, with Polley catching a two-point conversion that proved to be the margin of victory, slew Churchill's Goliaths. It was only the second time a Baltimore high school had won a state football championship. Polley was on the first team to do it: Dunbar's 1994 squad.

After the excruciatingly close 30-28 victory over Churchill, Polley was heard proclaiming "there was never any doubt" Dunbar would prevail. He would repeat the assertion several months later, after another close win over Kennedy in the state basketball finals.

"He's all-universe," Anthony Wiggins, Polley's teammate on the 1995 football squad, said of the All-Metro football and basketball star the day before the Churchill game. That applies to his athletic talent and his confidence. Polley went on to big-college football stardom, playing linebacker on the perennially top-notch Florida State football squad from 1996 to 2000.

In June, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams Playing In St. Louis - that would be the St. Louis Rams to the rest of you - a team that later voted him its Rookie of the Year. Polley tied for third in the voting for the National Football League's Defensive Rookie of the Year.

On Sunday, just hours after the Ravens got their smack-around from the Steelers, there was Polley, playing for a Rams defense thought to be every bit as inept as the Ravens offense, making tackle after tackle and play after play.

In the second half of the Rams' trouncing of the Green Bay Packers, Polley intercepted a tipped pass and darted into the end zone for a touchdown. Yes, the Ravens had been beaten, but Baltimore's current favorite athletic son (sorry, Antonio Freeman and Hasim Rahman) somehow found a way to make us proud.

"I was ecstatic," said Edwin Johnson after seeing Polley's performance against the Packers. Johnson has reason to be. Like Polley, he's a Dunbar alumnus. Johnson is a past president of Dunbar's alumni association and, while overjoyed with Polley's play at the professional level, is probably not surprised.

Johnson coached Polley in Little League football.

"I first met Tommy when he was about 11," Johnson recalled. "Tommy came up the street with his mother. He was wearing a football uniform you might find under a Christmas tree. He asked if he could come out for the team."

Johnson gave Polley the nod and was astonished when the kid played so aggressively that he soon had the youngster scrimmaging with the 13-year-olds. After the football season ended, Polley asked Johnson if he coached basketball. Johnson said he didn't, but steered the lad to recreation league basketball coach Bucky Lee. A stellar athletic career was under way.

But it's more than just athletic ability with Polley. The kid seems to have the magic touch. Johnson explained how that touch has worked.

"When Tommy played with us," Johnson said, "we went to the city championship. We won the national Little League championship. When he went to Dunbar, he won two state [football] championships. When he went to Florida State, he won a national championship. Now he's with the St. Louis Rams, and he's on the verge of going to the Super Bowl."

Johnson ranks Polley as Dunbar's greatest all-around athlete, ahead of the likes of Charlie Leach, Bob Wade, Skip Wise, Larry Gibson, Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams, Reggie Lewis, David Wingate and Sam Cassell.

"Tommy has a strong work ethic," Johnson continued. "He's fast, strong and tough as a nail. I wish him well."

All Baltimoreans should. The Ravens may be out of the playoffs, but we'll still have something to root for when the Los Angeles Rams Playing In St. Louis meet the Philadelphia Eagles tomorrow.

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