Tommy Polley has played in his share of big games at the highest level before millions of viewers, but he was admittedly nervous when he entered the Dunbar High School gymnasium Tuesday before an audience of about 200 current and former students and faculty.
This time, Polley, who played six seasons in the NFL, including one with the Ravens, was playing the role of storyteller instead of playmaker.
The former football and basketball star at Dunbar in the mid-1990s was on hand for a screening of Poet Pride, a documentary that he co-produced with fellow alums Rob Foster and David Manigault about the school's storied basketball program, which was a national powerhouse in the '80s and '90s.
"As an athlete, you can determine what people are going to think, or at least influence them, but this is wide open," Polley said.
Judging from the audience, Polley had nothing to worry about. The film was greeted with cheers from alumni seeing their friends on screen and "oohs" and "ahhs" from students watching Dunbar products who became NBA stars such as Sam Cassell and Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues.
Poet Pride, which was five years in the making, chronicles more than five decades of basketball tradition at the high school, and features Dunbar coaches and players recounting their experiences with the team. The interviews are interspersed with game footage and original news clips.
The film, which runs for more than 2 1/2 hours, focuses on key players, games and moments from each decade. It delves into some of the challenges Dunbar students faced growing up in East Baltimore, including segregation, and also discusses the death of Reggie Lewis in 1993 and the fact that several former players have been killed or incarcerated.
While Poet Pride acknowledges that not every player has had a happy ending, Polley said that the overall message in the film is positive. "There's a lot of messages kids can pick up," he said. Most of "these guys are positive role models, and kids can pick up something from them and apply it to their lives."
Nathan Ayers, a junior point guard for the Poets last season, said the film illustrates the unique nature of Dunbar and its basketball program.
"It made me learn more about the history of Dunbar," he said. "Every school doesn't have a history" like that.
Manigault, who directed the film, said it is long overdue that the story of the school's rich basketball history be told on the big screen.
"Little kids didn't know Muggsy was 5-3," he said. "They need to know about the seeds that were planted and that there are 50 to 60 years of success here."
The filmmakers are working on distributing the film nationwide. Meanwhile, there will be a public screening at Sports Legends Museum on June 25. An edited version of the film will be available online and at Downtown Locker Room stores next month.