Polley has come too far to forget

January 30, 2002|By Mike Preston

NEW ORLEANS - As the national media shoved cameras and microphones into the face of St. Louis Rams linebacker Tommy Polley, his mind shot back to his Baltimore roots.

Those days of playing Pop Warner football at Northwood. And two-a-day practices at Dunbar High, where he also played basketball in the shadows of Sam Cassell, Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Lewis. Those were the good times. There were bad ones, too, especially growing up on McElderry Street in East Baltimore.

"Tough neighborhood," said Polley. "Even when I go back there now, it just seems to get worse. I didn't grow up in the best of conditions, but we prevailed. Thank goodness."

Polley, only a rookie, is just as much a part of the Rams' success this season as quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk and the rest of the cast of offensive players who make up "The Greatest Show on Earth."

He is part of the rebuilt St. Louis defense. One play he is a playmaker on the weak side, the next play he can be the muscle on the strong side. It's not a big deal if you're a veteran familiar with the system, but Polley was a second-round draft pick. A rookie.

Talk about sudden impact. He finished the season as the Rams' second-leading tackler with 119, and second in special teams tackles with 13.

Bigger things are being expected in the future. We're talking about a kid who can still add about 12 to 15 pounds to his 6-foot-3, 218-pound lanky frame, and can run sideline to sideline like No. 52 in Baltimore.

Polley just plays on the outside.

"Not only has he played two linebacker positions for us, which is unheard of for a rookie linebacker, but he has played them both at a very high level," said Rams coach Mike Martz.

Rams general manager Charley Armey said: "He has the physical and mental ability to be one of the best linebackers for a long time."

None of this surprises Stanley Mitchell, Polley's head coach at both Northwood and Dunbar. Mitchell remembers when Bucky Lee, an assistant coach at Oliver Recreation Center and Mervo, brought Polley, then 13, to him for the first time to play football.`Tommy was going to go play for Highlandtown, but Bucky brought him to me, wanted me to toughen him up," said Mitchell. "The first thing you notice about Tommy is that he picks everything up so fast. He knows the game. As for toughness, he didn't need that."

He got that at home from his mother, Amy. She worked two and sometimes three jobs to keep Polley, 24, and his two younger brothers, Duane and Antoine Whittington, in school and off the streets. Currently a mental health worker, she took her first job at age 16.

Polley won't forget. That's why he is buying her a house in Perry Hall. Completion date is in late March or early April.

"My mom has always been a major factor in my life," said Polley. "She worked extremely hard to try to make life easier for us. Now, I want to make life easier for her. I can't wait until the house is finished. I look forward to the day when I can get her out of that environment."

Polley also learned some lessons at Dunbar, a school that has a winning tradition in both football and basketball. Cassell, now playing with the Milwaukee Bucks, made a major impression on Polley.

"In basketball at Dunbar, you aren't encouraged to win; you have to win," said Polley. "That was the bottom line. Sam Cassell took me aside and told me that getting to the next level was going to be tough. He told me that guys I would play against would try to intimidate me, and it gets tougher at every level. I remembered that, and he was right. I've been a winner on every level."

Polley won a national Pop Warner title. While at Dunbar, he won a total of five state titles in either football or basketball. At Florida State, he played in three national championship games, winning the title in 1999.

Is it luck or is he that much of an impact player?

"He was always the kid that set the tone in practice," said Mitchell. "He was always the kid that wanted to know if he had the hardest hit in a game. It's true he may have been in the right place at the right time, but he has developed well as a young man and a player."

Polley wasn't supposed to play much this season. But when Mark Fields injured his ribs early in the year, Polley started on the weak side. When Don Davis dislocated his wrist in Week 8, Polley moved to the other side. His role now is to play strong side in run support on first and second downs, and then weak side in the nickel defense.

"Last year I came here as a fan, now I'm playing in the game," said Polley. "I expected to come in and play well, but to have as much success as I am having is exciting. It seems like I'm supposed to be here, like I'm destined to play for great games."

"I think about where I came from all the time," he said. "I came from a little bit of nothing, playing on a dirt field with no grass, a school that didn't have the facilities I was close to seeing at Florida State. A lot of guys in their 15th or 16th years never reach this point, and here I am in my first season. It's everything I dreamed of. It's a storybook finish."

After the game, Polley said he will take some time off and relax with his family. He'll go back to his old stomping grounds not as a dreamer, but a motivator.

"That's all part of being a professional football player, a professional athlete," said Polley. "I don't mind being a role model."

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