Staying grounded, Polanco ends on top

December 31, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

SAN FRANCISCO - In the moments before the start of yesterday's Emerald Bowl, four F/A-18 fighter jets streaked over SBC Park, one of them piloted by former Navy quarterback Brian Broadwater.

How's that for a pre-game perspective check?

In the same instant, Broadwater (Naval Academy class of 1999) could look down on his past ... and the current Navy quarterback could look up at his future.

Aaron Polanco, this is your new life.

Polanco, who plans to be a Marine pilot after he graduates from the academy this spring, kept his feet on the ground for one last afternoon of athletic glory, and what an amazing, inspiring, uplifting and sobering afternoon it was.

He carried the Midshipmen up and down the field - leading the team in rushing, passing and (get this!) receptions - to manhandle a bigger, stronger, favored team from New Mexico and end his college career with a 34-19 victory.

Navy finished a season with 10 victories for the first time in 99 years, and Polanco emerged from the shadow of predecessor Craig Candeto to carve out his own little place in academy football lore. Not bad for a one-year wonder.

Polanco scored three rushing touchdowns, threw for another and ground out a 14-minute second-half drive that sucked the life out of the Lobos.

Then it started to sink in. Now it gets real.

"That's something you definitely think about," Polanco said. "It started to sink in a little bit when we were singing the alma mater."

There was some emotion in his voice, but not that much. Maybe because the last football game was also one of the best.

He thought about Broadwater flying overhead and into the uncertain and dangerous future that awaits everyone who throws that cap into the air on graduation day.

"You know, Brian was a great quarterback for the Naval Academy," Polanco said, "but I'm sure that he's enjoying flying fighter jets just as much as he did playing football."

Even when the game was over and there would be no more afternoons like this, Polanco was hesitant to savor the moment. He is a soft-spoken young man, but no one who was on the field yesterday could ever question the steel inside of him.

He took hit after hit from the huge New Mexico defensive linemen and - after the experts talked before the game about that size advantage and how it might eventually run the Midshipmen into the soggy ground - it was Polanco and fullback Kyle Eckel who wore them down with that astounding fourth-quarter drive.

"He did a nice job running the offense," said coach Paul Johnson, who is almost as good at understatement as Polanco is.

It seems like yesterday that the Mids were getting ready to play Duke in their season opener and one of the biggest questions was whether Polanco would be able to make the successful transition from two-year backup to team leader.

He answered that during the regular season, when he became the first Navy quarterback to lead the team to nine victories since Roger Staubach. Yesterday, as he tied a Navy bowl record with his three rushing touchdowns, he evoked the names of both Staubach and fellow Heisman Trophy winner Joe Bellino as he climbed up the academy's all-time lists for rushing touchdowns in a season and a career.

"I wouldn't say I was surprised," Johnson said. "I thought all along that Aaron had the tools to be a really good quarterback, but until they play you don't really know.

"Where I got sold on Aaron Polanco was in fall camp, because I saw how tough he was. We had some struggles on the offensive line ... we had some guys hurt ... and we don't put our quarterback in the red shirt. He plays like everybody else. He took a pounding. He kept getting up and he kept coming back. I got after him a few times, but I respected his toughness. From that point on, I knew he was going to be OK."

Polanco was more than OK. He led the Mids to a 5-0 start before Navy finally stumbled against Notre Dame. He went on to rush for 980 yards, pass for 1,231 yards, score 16 rushing touchdowns and throw for seven more. He also trounced Army and yesterday redeemed Navy for last year's one-sided loss to Texas Tech in the Houston Bowl.

Bellino, Staubach, Broadwater, Candeto ... they would all be proud. Polanco should be, too. He should be eating all this up - he waited long enough for his chance - but that kind of thing doesn't come naturally.

"Now that everything is over with, maybe I can do that," he said. "It's something that is going to take awhile. It's something I have tried not to think about."

Then he thought about it for a moment and summed it all up pretty well.

"We had fun," Polanco said, "and we'll always be brothers."

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