Gregg Bell Unleashed: Why Chris Polk Is No. 1
Dec. 28, 2011
By Gregg Bell
SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Turns out Chris Polk has carried more than his Huskies these last three, turnaround seasons.
He's carried Keith Price.
The fourth-year junior running back shares a Seattle apartment with Price. Without the arrangement, the Huskies (7-5) may not be here preparing for Thursday night's Alamo Bowl against Baylor (9-3) -- because the gritty Price may not have been able to play in every game and set Washington's season record with 29 touchdown passes despite three knee sprains, one sprained ankle and a bruised shoulder.
"During the season there were games he was real beat up, where I had to carry him to the car and drive him to treatment," Polk said of his roommate Tuesday at the Marriott RiverWalk, a couple blocks and days away from where Polk will play what could be his final game for UW.
"I had to help him elevate his leg in our apartment. I kind of made fun of him because when I was seeing him jogging I would tell him to go get Epsom salts and soak his knees."
Now that's value.
This city, much of the state of Texas and all of college football are fixing their pre-Bowl Championship Series attention on Robert Griffin III, Baylor's Heisman Trophy winner who struck a Heisman pose on stage to thrill Bears fans at a pep rally Tuesday night. The buzz for "RGIII" will continue through kickoff Thursday at 6 p.m. on ESPN television, ESPN Radio, espn3.com, plus on the Washington IMG College radio network, and here on GoHuskies.com with the game chat and pictures from the Alamodome sidelines.
Yet Polk is just as valuable to his Huskies.
And that value goes beyond his courier acts of kindness for Price. Beyond his running like a bull through three 1,000-yard seasons. Beyond the 125-yard game he had in this season's opener two weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery. And beyond the fact he is 205 yards from breaking the Huskies' career rushing record set by Napoleon Kaufman from 1991-94.
Coach Steve Sarkisian says the revitalization he's led in three seasons as the Dawgs' coach would not have happened had Polk followed through on his intentions and quit football and gone home to Redlands, Calif., following his injury-shortened and winless 2008 season at Washington.
The 37-year-old Sarkisian also says he hasn't been more proud of a player and person than he is of Polk.
"The growth that he's made from the day we stepped on campus, not only on the football field but in his personal life, in the classroom, has been the thing that has probably been most impressive to me," Sarkisian said Wednesday. "As coaches there are little things that make you proud along the way. And he's definitely one of them.
"The fact that he's already earned his degree from the University of Washington, the fact that he's probably been -- and this is not to take anything away from a guy by the name of Jake Locker -- the biggest reason why we've climbed as quickly as we've climbed from the depths of 0 and 12. (It's been) our ability to win all of the times that have gotten tough on us, to rely on number 1 to run the football, to win tough games late in the season. (It's) not only the physical but mental toughness to take on those amounts of carries and to practice the way he's practiced that speaks volumes."
Price sure appreciates his all his roomie does.
"Oh, man, it makes me job a lot easier," said Price, who is also about to break the Huskies' single-season records for completion percentage (he's currently at .674) and passing efficiency in his first season as Locker's replacement. "We just feed the rock to the beast and let him roll with it, and it opens me up."
By the way, what does Price owe Polk for carrying him to the car at his most aching times this season?
"He doesn't owe me anything. Just throwing touchdowns," Polk said, chuckling. "As long as I get to see that smile and we're winning, we're good."
IS THE ALAMO BOWL POLK'S GOODBYE?
Polk asked for and has received back from the NFL's draft advisory committee an assessment on where he might be selected in April should he decide to forgo his senior season. He and Sarkisian won't disclose what that estimation is, of course. They will meet in the days and perhaps hours after Thursday's game to discuss it.
Eligible underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to enter the 2012 NFL draft.
Polk, who walked at UW graduation last June, finished his final classes this month. He said should he decide to stay he would take classes towards a second degree next academic year.
"I've given it a little more thought. I would call it more like a daydream, if you will, because I am not really going in depth with it," he said of the NFL. "It's just the idea that I could continue with that transition.
"But I still have a game to play. And I'm still focused on Baylor. That's where my mind is right now."
Sarkisian has been through this before, from when he was an assistant close to quarterback Carson Palmer and running back Reggie Bush at USC to Locker following the Huskies' 2009 season. The coach is taking the emotions of obviously wanting the bedrock of his program back next year out of this process.
"For Chris at this point, this is a business decision. This isn't about what feels fun or what feels right," Sarkisian said. "He's earned his degree. He's played great football for us. Now, (it's) `Is this the right draft for me? Would I be drafted in the right spot to do what I know I am capable of doing? And could I benefit more by coming back? Could I improve my position coming back next year and what might the draft look like next year?'
"So that's what a lot of the discussion needs to be about. It's not about emotions. It's not about `Boy, I can't take another x number of carries,' because either league you go in you are going to get those carries. It's a matter of, `Where am I positioned, where am I potentially slotted?'"
Sarkisian mentioned that sometimes the draft advisory committee's assessment doesn't jibe with a player's view of his NFL value, and that becomes a factor.
Polk says he won't base his choice strictly on that committee's draft assessment, either.
"What glitters isn't always gold," is how he put it.
`MOTHER KNOWS BEST, YOU KNOW'
Polk has done almost everything he could have done at Washington since almost quitting football in 2008. He injured his shoulder in the first month of his freshman season, and while the Huskies went 0-12 Polk told his mother he was heading back to Redlands, that college life wasn't for him.
Edrena Polk wasn't having any of that. She told him to stay at UW. Demanded it, really.
She is due to arrive here Thursday morning to watch her son in the Alamo Bowl. Then she will become the central figure in Chris' decision on whether to stay a Husky or go pro.
Just as she has been the central figure throughout his life.
"The first person I go to is my mom. ... She's always there for me. She's never served me wrong. She's the reason why I'm here, why I'm still playing football, one of the main reasons why I'm successful," Polk said.
"Mother knows best, you know."
Edrena Polk is a 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. She convinced Chris to walk away from a verbal commitment to USC, to rebuild a program at Washington rather than wait in a line of blue-chip backs at an established power close to home.
She convinced Polk of the value of having a head start on his college academics from enrolling early at UW as a freshman. She also demanded at the end of 2008 that he finish what he had started.
So Polk stayed. Sarkisian and his staff arrived and changed the way Polk and the Huskies did everything - the way they practiced, the way they lifted weights, the way they ate and dressed.
And the way they won.
That was a fairly good decision, eh?
Now this former high school wide receiver is the Huskies record holder with 20 career 100-yard games and 769 career carries. Polk and Kaufman are the only Huskies to rush for 1,000 yards in three different seasons. Polk's 1,341 yards this season was third in the Pac-12 during the regular season and stands as the fifth-most in Washington's 120 seasons of football.
So why not leave for the NFL? Why come back for a fifth, senior season to sit it classrooms despite being a college graduate, to work more for free rather than for the first big money of his life?
"The record, for sure the record," Polk said of Kaufman's career rushing mark, which Polk feels would validate him as the best rusher ever at UW should he break it. "And just me as a player feeling like I haven't played to the best of my abilities. I want to be 100 percent overall better, just to feel like I am at the peak of my performance before I make that transition.
"I could make more people miss, take those 20-yard runs and turn them into 80. Just overall knowledge of the game, and being sound in every aspect of the game."
He said the relatively short career span of the average NFL running back weighs on him "a little bit."
"But I'm a tough guy," he deadpanned.
That's from the same man who romped for 125 yards in Washington's opener Sept. 3, two weeks and two days following arthroscopic knee surgery.
He says he didn't have personal goals for this season that he needs to fulfill Thursday night. Washington will be trying to win its eighth game, following a 7-6 season in 2010 -- capped by Polk's 34 carries and 177 yards in the win over Nebraska in last December's Holiday Bowl.
"My only goal I had was to improve on last year," Polk said. "We will see after this game if we did that, but whether we win or lose I feel we made a step forward instead of a step back. That means the most to me. Just overall, the energy and the physicality the team brought. That's been great to me."
So his decision on the NFL will wait for one more game.
"After the game, the day after, I have to sit down with my family and really analyze both sides of it and do what's best for me," he said. "I know it's going to be a tough decision.
"I hope I make the right one."
My gut feeling?
We all better enjoy one final romp by big ol' No. 1 in purple and goal Thursday night.
The man who turned around his life while carrying his roommate and the rest of the Huskies for three years likely has only a few carries left for Washington.
Something tells me they are going to be memorable ones.