Chris Polk has rushed for 1,238 yards this season but there was a time when his future was filled with questions.
There was a time when Chris Polk’s knack for breaking free from the pack was enough to drive a mother crazy.
“I was always losing him,” said his mom, Edrena.
She recalled a day when she left Chris in the TV room with her two other kids — an older son and a younger daughter — and at first glance was unable to see him before turning her eyes higher and spotting him climbing to the top of a door.
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“Oh my God, how did he get up there?” she remembers saying.
He was so wiggly, Edrena took him to the hospital a few times. Doctors told her there was nothing wrong — just a really hyperactive kid.
When her son turned 6 years old, Edrena Polk finally found a suitable outlet for all that energy — football.
She called a local community center, enrolled her son in a Pop Warner league, and Chris Polk has been running away ever since.
On Dec. 4, in a game the Huskies had to win to clinch their first bowl appearance since 2002, Polk turned in one of the most memorable performances in UW history with 284 yards — second only to 296 by Hugh McElhenny in the 1950 Apple Cup.
“It took me back to my high-school days,” said Polk, considered by many the best running back in California as a senior at Redlands (Calif). East Valley High in 2007. “That’s what I came here to do.”
That game gave Polk 1,238 yards for the season, making him the first player in UW history to break the 1,000-yard mark in each of his first two seasons — and one of just three to top that mark twice in a career (the others are Napoleon Kaufman and Greg Lewis).
“I just ran with the will to win,” said the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder. “I didn’t want to be stopped, like if I can, I will put the team on my shoulders, whatever it takes to win. Three carries or 20, I’m going to do whatever it takes.”
Some UW fans wondered why it took the Huskies so long to put a game almost solely on Polk’s shoulders. The 29 carries were a season and career high, and one of just four times this year that Polk topped the 20-carry mark. The Huskies won all four of those games.
“The thing I know, the more times he touches the ball, the better he gets,” said his high-school coach, Kurt Bruich. “He’s better on his 30th carry than on his first. It’s a flow for the game that he gets into, and I think it showed against Washington State.”
Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said the manner in which some of Washington’s games unfolded this year prevented Polk from getting more carries. And it’s worth noting that his 226 carries were the fourth-most in the Pac-10.
“At the end of the day, he’s the second-leading rusher in the Pac-10 behind the guy sitting in New York (Oregon’s LaMichael James, a Heisman finalist),” Sarkisian said. “He’s 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.”
There was a time, though, when Polk’s future was filled with questions.
At Redlands East Valley, he played slot receiver his first two years when the quarterback was Ronnie Fouch, who played at UW for three seasons before transferring.
“Because we had Ronnie, we threw the ball a lot, so we wanted to get the ball in his hands as much as we could,” said Bruich.
The talent was evident enough that USC offered a scholarship before Polk’s junior year was over and he committed to the Trojans, thinking his college path was set.
But when Fouch graduated, Polk moved to running back and rushed for 2,561 yards as a senior at East Valley. And as the yards piled up, Edrena Polk began to wonder if her son wouldn’t be better off a place where he could be the spotlight guy immediately, instead joining the chorus of All-Americans at USC.
Edrena Polk is only slightly exaggerating when she says she looked at the USC depth chart and there were “15, 18 running backs, 16, 17 receivers. He’s used to playing and I didn’t want him competing with all those All-Americans.”
So she led the push for Polk to reopen his recruiting, eventually deciding on Washington. She liked Tyrone Willingham as well as the opportunity to play immediately.
“He wanted to go to a team where he could help build the team instead of where it was already built,” she said. “So I went against the grain of a lot of people to do that. But he said, ‘Mom, you have never failed me before so I am going to do what you want me to do,’ and he chose Washington.”
Edrena Polk, who said she played a year of college softball, had always been heavily involved in her son’s career, a single mother raising three kids while pursuing a nursing career.
During his early years, Edrena would get in pads herself and practice with her son, tackling him just like any other player.
Polk said friends “used to make fun of me for it until they tried it, and she did it to them and then they thought my mom was cool. She used to race us after practice, and I couldn’t beat her until I was 11 in a footrace. She says (she) is where I got my athleticism.”
So he packed up and headed to UW, winning the job to become a rare true freshman starter at tailback for the ill-fated 2008 season. In the second game against Brigham Young he dislocated his shoulder, a season-ending injury that required surgery.
As the Huskies skidded to an 0-12 season and fired Willingham, Polk has admitted thoughts of heading home filled his head.
“It got so bad, I was second-guessing myself for coming here,” he said in the fall of 2009. “I didn’t think football was something I wanted to do anymore.”
But his mom told him to stick it out, and then Sarkisian — who as an assistant at USC had helped initially convince Polk to become a Trojan — arrived.
“I knew the talent was there,” Sarkisian said. “The key for us was, could we bring that out of him? Could we get him to a physical point where he could run with such a physical nature and then still make big plays with his feet?”
Polk fought through a shoulder injury suffered at midseason in 2009 to become UW’s first 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman (1,113). And staying healthy this year, he followed up with another 1,000-yard season and already ranks ninth on UW’s all-time rushing list with 2,384 yards.
Washington coaches say he has finally put together the package of being able to bounce off tacklers at the line of scrimmage and turn runs into long gains in the open field.
“I think he has outstanding balance,” said UW running-backs coach Joel Thomas. “Some of the shots that he takes, or the shots that he gives, he manages to keep his balance. And he doesn’t stop his feet. I don’t know if that’s a taught characteristic — it’s just something you naturally have. You can keep developing it, but that’s one of his greatest attributes. And he’s learning how to be more comfortable in the open field.”
With two more 1,000-yard seasons he would become the leading rusher in UW history — if he stays that long.
As a third-year sophomore, Polk has the option to leave for the NFL after this season, and it’s thought he will at least enter his name for a grade before deciding.
Last week, Polk said that he hadn’t thought about it yet and won’t until after the Holiday Bowl.
Edrena Polk said that’s a conversation for another day. For now, she simply marvels at the maturation of a kid she said was so shy in high school she used to have him practice doing interviews, confident there was a day when it would be necessary to know how.
“When we came in, he was injured, he was struggling in school a little bit,” Sarkisian said. “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.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org