Plenty of faith in Polanco

College football: Navy's quarterback may be quiet, but he has the undivided attention of his teammates.

December 04, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

In the precious first few days of his young life, Aaron Polanco was battling for survival.

On May 6, 1983, Polanco and twin brother James emerged into the world seconds apart in Austin, Texas, the sons of two law enforcement officers. Aaron entered first, crying, considered a good sign at birth. James never uttered a sound.

They had been delivered by Caesarian section eight weeks prematurely and were so tiny they were given little chance to live. Rosaries were in their incubators. They were fed one tiny bit of nourishment at a time.

"Aaron weighed 2 pounds, James a pound, 12 ounces. You could cradle them with your hand," said their father, Hector Polanco, now retired from the force. "They told me I had 72 hours with them. That's all they gave them. We called for a priest, and they were baptized and given their last rites right there."

Prayer, a prenatal program that was just being launched at the hospital and the twins' determination prevailed. After four months that included incubation, delicate nurturing and tugging at the tubes that were helping them survive, they went home to a pair of proud and relieved parents.

"They have been tough little fighters from the start," said Hector.

Aaron and James Polanco grew into strapping 6-footers, accomplished athletes, good students, dedicated to the Catholic faith and now, at age 21, fellow midshipmen and football players at the Naval Academy.

Aaron will be on center stage today as Navy's starting quarterback and co-captain against Army, while James - who is on the scout team and hoping to break onto the active roster next season - will be with the brigade in the stands as usual, cheering on his likeness.

Unlike at birth, James is now the more outgoing twin; Aaron is reserved and exudes a quiet strength. To tell them apart, one must communicate with them, because their physical appearance is identical - except for the indentation in the center of James' head that resulted when Aaron inadvertently hit him with one of the rocks they were skipping across water.

"He had a good arm, even when he was about 5 or 6," their father said with a laugh.

"They're a good complement to each other," said their mother, Robbye, who attends all the Navy games. Things have gone well. I'm glad Aaron got the chance to be the quarterback. I'm very proud. But we've got to beat Army. I don't think the team is taking that for granted. They play better when they have to scrap for it."

Doubt at start

Scrapping to prove himself was Aaron Polanco's mission at the start of this season. The media wondered. The fans wondered. Even the coaching staff was unsure. Could he capably succeed Craig Candeto?

Polanco was one of the team's bigger question marks. He now ranks as one of the bigger exclamation points, seizing the opportunity in his one and only year in the limelight.

After two years of playing an understudy role with mixed results when he did play extensively, the unassuming senior has erased all the misgivings and firmly established himself.

Only the players were sure. They were the prophets. In the spring, Polanco's teammates voted him a co-captain, an honor on any team, but especially so at a service academy where the football roster is bulging with players possessing leadership qualities.

They weren't concerned that Polanco isn't particularly vocal - as Candeto could be at times - or that his experience on the field was sparse. Beneath the surface, they saw his quiet confidence, his ability to take charge through deeds, not words.

"We knew Aaron had a lot of tools, but he hadn't played, so there was a question," said coach Paul Johnson. "All in all, I couldn't be more proud of him now. He has toughness, and I like tough guys."

"Everybody's tough in Texas," said Polanco, a resident of Wimberley (30 minutes from Austin), only half-kidding. "I'm not much of a talker. I lead by example."

Nobody realizes better than Candeto the punishment the quarterback of the Mids must absorb while directing Johnson's spread option offense. There is little dropping back into the relative security of the passer's pocket. The quarterback runs often, is hit often and must bounce back up ready to suffer more punishment.

But it hasn't been Polanco's physical attributes alone. He has shown a mental acuity that allows him to make the proper reads on the option and a serenity that permits him to duck and dodge tacklers for the extra instant required to prevent losses. He also has a knack for producing long gainers in critical situations, whether by run or pass.

Polanco is second nationally among rushing quarterbacks (81.2 yards per game), tied for second in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (12), and averaging a school-record 18.2 yards per pass completion.

He surprised many

"He has kind of exceeded expectations," said quarterback coach Ivin Jasper. "We thought he'd play well, but he's made a lot more plays than I thought he would."

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