Dec. 15, 2010
SEATTLE - You know about Jake Locker's gritty leadership playing through a broken rib. About Mason Foster's astounding season of tackling everything except the team bus. About Chris Polk's historical stampede that has carried the Huskies into their first bowl since 2002.
Now I want to introduce you to another Most Valuable Person in Washington's 2010 revival: A dedicated, proud and witty nurse in Southern California.
There are two people Polk tries to emulate when he runs, which the bullish sophomore just did for more yards in a game than any Husky had in 60 years.
"Emmitt Smith," Polk says, still smiling from his 284-yard romp in the Apple Cup two weeks ago that sent Washington into the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska on Dec. 30.
"And my mom."
Someone get Edrena Polk a game ball.
"I got my size from my dad, Christopher," said the 5-foot-11, 214-pound plowhorse, who just joined Napoleon Kaufman and Greg Lewis as the only Huskies with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons. "But I think I got my toughness and my speed from her."
Chris began in Pop Warner football when he was six years old in Southern California. That's when Edrena Polk began putting on the shoulder pads and a helmet of Lawrence, Chris' older brother by two years. She would place the ball on the ground, lay head-to-head with Chris and say "Hike!" Chris would grab the ball while mother and son simultaneously popped to their feet.
Then - THWACK! A linebacker in that timeless football drill of runner versus tackler, mom would drill Chris to the ground.
"He told you that?" Edrena Polk said to me with a laugh Monday while on telephone at work.
She is the nurse manager of the psychiatric clinic at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, Calif., in San Bernardino Country near where she has raised Chris, Lawrence and younger daughter Faedra.
"He's absolutely right. I tackled him," she said, still laughing. "Then he finally got past me.
"That's why he is where he is. And that's why I am where I am."
Chris says he didn't just finally get past mom, "one day I actually ran her over."
Thing is, that wasn't until Chris was 14.
"Yeah, that's why he's as tough as he is," Edrena said of the eight years Chris spent getting humbled and hammered by his mother on a football field.
No wonder Chris says today, "I hate to be tackled. I hate to have someone bring me down."
Now anyone who has played anything macho beyond marbles knows Polk's teammates had to have been all over him about getting tackled by his mom.
"They just made fun of me," Chris said, grinning, "until they tried it. And she tackled them, too."
His mom also consistently dusted her son in sprint races.
If you haven't figured out by now, Edrena Polk was a prime athlete herself. She is still a shortstop, catcher and third baseman on a co-ed softball team - "co-ed," she reiterated, "those men hit the ball HARD." She says she ran track on scholarship at the University of Miami before she left Florida to complete her nursing studies and raise three kids in California.
She's still raising one, long distance to Seattle.
"I'm there with him on the phone, email, whatever. And I have every one of his games on tape," she said of Chris' first two wondrous seasons for the Huskies.
"We go over them after every game and critique them, things like how he holds the ball."
Yep, while we were all wowed by Polk running over Wazzu, his mom was looking to ensure her son was carrying the ball in the appropriate arm.
Her reviews had to have been great when Polk set a career high with 138 yards in UW's home home finale win over UCLA last month. Then he plowed for the winning score the following week on the final play at California, again keeping the Huskies' bowl hopes alive.
Minutes after he steamrolled Washington State with the second-most yards in UW history - 12 fewer than what Hugh McElhenny got against WSU in 1950 - Polk sat in full pads on an equipment trunk with a look of pure satisfaction. He accepted scores of congratulations inside a jubilant locker room and simply and quietly kept saying, "Thank you."
"I just run with the will to win, like I can't be stopped," he said. "It took me back to my high school games.
"It's what I came here to do."
Mom was driving force behind that, too.
Polk received scholarship offers from UW, Oregon and Texas-El Paso following his junior season of high school, in which he caught 62 passes with 12 touchdowns as a wide receiver at Redlands East Valley.
He committed verbally to USC in February 2007, choosing to stay close to home and join a Trojans offense run by a whiz-kid coordinator named Steve Sarkisian. But in December of that year, the nation's No. 7 rated high school running back walked away from the Trojans. He and Edrena were impressed with former Huskies receivers coach Charlie Baggett and head coach Tyrone Willingham.
Polk also saw USC already had high school All-Americans stacked atop each other on its depth chart.
Make that, Polk's mom saw that.
"Even though I am a registered nurse, I can still do research," Edrena Polk said, chuckling.
"I was looking at (USC's) roster. They had 12-15 running backs and about 17 wide receivers. He was going to have to compete with all those guys just to get on the field. He's used to playing all the time."
She compared rosters at the other schools that had already offered Chris scholarships.
Bow down to Washington.
"I saw less competition was probably the best thing for Chris," she said. "USC was already on top. We wanted to go to college where we could change and we could give.
"It was a very hard decision. I was against a lot of people -- all his coaches, everyone at USC. But I knew what was right for him.
"My son listened to his mother."
Sarkisian felt snookered.
"He was coming, he committed to us," said Sarkisian, who had already been thinking of how he could utilize Polk's vast talents in the Trojans' loaded offense. "To Washington's credit at the time, they kind of stole him and swung him back right there at the end."
Asked now, in his second season as the Huskies' head coach, if he has ever talked to Polk about backing out from USC, Sarkisian said: "Not as much. I was pretty upset, to be honest."
Then he added with a wry smile, "I do know I'm happy he's here now. ... And, no, it wasn't planned."
The obvious question today is whether Polk would be getting 29 carries for USC, as he did for Washington in the Apple Cup.
"I don't know," Sarkisian said. "He's a tremendous player now. He's the second-leading rusher in the Pac-10 behind the guy sitting in New York (last week, Heisman Trophy-finalist LaMichael James of Oregon). A two-time 1,000-yard rusher in only two years. So he's accomplished a lot, but he's still got a lot ahead of him."
Yet all that is only part of Polk's intriguing story at UW.
He enrolled early for the 2008 season, participating in spring practice and rocketing to the top of Willingham's depth chart. Then he wrecked his shoulder in the second game against Brigham Young. It ended his season, led to a medical redshirt - and to a period of self-doubt with difficulties adjusting socially and academically to college.
On top of that, his Huskies were 0-12. USC, where he could have been, went 12-1, won the Pac-10 and yet another Rose Bowl. Polk briefly thought of quitting football.
"When we came in, he was injured, he was struggling in school a little bit," said Sarkisian, who took over UW in January 2009. "To his credit, he's really put his entire life in order to make this thing happen - not just on the football field, but in the classroom and in his personal life. He's really come a long way in two years time, and I'm really proud of him."
His mom sternly told Chris that whatever you start, you finish. Yet she knew Chris was struggling being away from the nurturing she gave him with homework, with athletics, with life.
"I was always there when he needed me," Edrena Polk said. "For him to be by himself for the first time - he's a very isolated type - to not have me there, that was tough.
"He was afraid to get help from people on his academics. That's just the way he is."
But when Sarkisian, someone he knew from Southern California, arrived, Polk transformed. He calls it a blessing. His mom credits Sarkisian and his assistants for working with the academic support staff and tutors of the Huskies' athletic department, for drawing her son out of his shell.
"I think he's a genius," Polk said of his 36-year-old coach.
In the two seasons with Sarkisian calling the plays, he's rushed for 1,113 and now 1,238 yards, with 13 touchdowns. Last year he became the first Husky to rush for 1,000 yards as a freshman. This season, with Locker's rib broken and the Huskies having been blown out three consecutive times into mid November, Sarkisian turned the offense and essentially the season over to Polk and his running.
Now look who's headed to San Diego for the holidays.
"This is where Husky football is supposed to be," Polk said. "It just shows everything happens for a reason. Being able to redshirt gave me all four years under Coach Sark. I always knew this was the place for me."
So did Edrena Polk, the behind-the-scenes MVP of this Huskies' revival.
Not that she'll take credit for it.
"By the grace of God, it's totally been a 180 for him," Mother Polk said. "It's been a natural progression, and a maturity.
"He's come a long way."
About Gregg Bell
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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