Freshman nearly quit the team after an injury, but says the hiring of coach Steve Sarkisian has revitalized him as well as the Huskies.
Chris Polk was done with football. He was done with the excruciating pain in his left shoulder. Done with the losing. Done with the toxic culture that had infected Washington football.
A blue-chip freshman recruit from Redlands, Calif., who had chosen Washington over USC, Polk was supposed to be a big part of the 2008 Husky offense. He was going to be the punishing, explosive running back the program had been missing.
But in the second week of the season, against Brigham Young, he stiff-armed a player, felt the shoulder slip out of its socket, then fell on the shoulder. That quickly, his season was finished.
“I wish that pain upon nobody,” Polk said. “It was nagging and burning. I couldn’t raise my arm. It was just terrible. I’d never had a serious injury like that in my life, so I really took it to heart.
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“I blamed me for not working hard enough in the offseason, so at first I kind of gave up on myself. It got so bad, it was like I was second-guessing myself for coming here. I didn’t believe in myself anymore. I didn’t think football was something I wanted to do anymore.”
As sharp and persistent as the pain was, however, there was something else hurting Polk. A true freshman with grand ideas about how much fun college football would be, Polk became depressed with the dissension and what he called “the segregation” he felt on the Huskies.
Losing is never fun. Going 0-12 last season was tortuous for everyone. This wasn’t what Polk signed up for and, he thought, if this is what big-time college football was about, maybe it wasn’t right for him.
“Last year our team was very segregated, and I don’t know why that happened,” Polk said. “That’s just how it was. We just didn’t talk much. We weren’t close. The offensive players wouldn’t talk to the defensive players. We didn’t believe in the schemes of our plays.
“If you don’t believe in the plays, you’re not going to give 100 percent effort. You sort of do your own thing. It got to the point where I just wasn’t sure I wanted to play football anymore.”
Polk’s mother, Edrena, encouraged her son to be patient. She told him he had gone too far to quit.
“If you pick something,” she told him, “you stick with it.”
She pushed him through his pain and motivated him through his uncertainty. When his negative feelings about football were at their deepest, she found a way to lift him.
“My mom was always there for me, and when I look back on it now, I don’t know why I thought about quitting,” Polk said. “I would have hated myself for the rest of my life if I had just walked away.”
Polk said his short crisis was like breaking up with a girlfriend, talking it out, then getting back together.
A combination of events rekindled Polk’s passion. Because he played in only two games his freshman season, the NCAA gave that season back. He will be a freshman again this year.
Then he heard coach Tyrone Willingham was leaving. Then Washington hired Steve Sarkisian, who recruited Polk when Sarkisian was an assistant coach at USC.
“I loved his versatility,” Sarkisian said. “And I loved the ability he had to play violent. He had a tendency to run people over. And that’s what he’s shown for us now. He’s getting more confidence that his shoulder’s fine. He’s able to lower that shoulder. He’s showing good speed, good elusiveness and good hands.”
With Sarkisian running the program, Polk’s motor began running again.
“I told myself that in the offseason I was really going to work hard, so that when the new coaches got here I would have something to show them. And thank God it was the coaches who recruited me. I knew them, and they knew me.
“It’s way better now. I actually have a perspective on football again. I’m actually positive about football again. I can’t wait to get out there now and show people what I can do.”
The difference in the energy of Washington football this summer is as obvious as the full-tilt sprints by the coaches as the team moved from one field to the next. The practices this month have been fast-paced and organized.
“Coach Sark coming here is like the cherry on top of the cake. Now everything we do is for a reason,” Polk said. “The first week he got here, guys started talking to each other again. I mean I was talking to guys I didn’t even know. I didn’t know their names, but I was talking to them. We’re all close now. We believe in each other. We act like brothers.”
Chris Polk almost left this band of brothers before it even formed. And now he knows he would have regretted that decision for the rest of his life.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org