This profile is based on highlights from an interview Tommy Polley did with Access Athletes. Our thanks to AA's founder, Matthew Allinson. You can read the entire interview here.
While a Senior at Dunbar High in Baltimore, Tommy Polley had a dilemma: Football or basketball? In shoulder pads Tommy was named USA Today Player-of-the-Year in Maryland and helped Dunbar to back-to-back state titles.
On the court, Polley was a top 60 prospect and led Dunbar, a school famous for its basketball, to four straight state titles with his 20.4 point average.
All of that created a second dilemma: Polley had to choose from a long list of colleges. His final list included FSU, Southern Cal, Syracuse, Maryland, and Florida, chosen because they had outstanding programs in both sports.
What made Polley select FSU?
“I just always liked Florida State. It was one of my favorite schools growing up. Derrick Brooks, Bobby Bowden…the whole Seminole chop. I just wanted to be a part of it. When I went down there, I just fell in love with the players and the atmosphere.”
That was one dilemma solved. The other worked itself out during Polley's freshman year (1996). Redshirting in football allowed him to walk-on in basketball. He practiced with the team, but soon decided to focus on football, the sport in which he felt he had the best chance to go pro.
The time commitment of playing both sports wasn't the issue for Polley. The basketball team’s mediocre record was.
“At Dunbar we won all the time...And then going to Florida State, in football they were used to winning all the time. So when you are used to winning all the time, your mentality is a little different. The basketball mentality was just used to mediocrity. It just wasn’t my type of vibe...[It] worked out better for me in the long run.”
He obviously made the right choice. Polley became an All-American linebacker at FSU and led the defense in back-to-back BCS championship games—the 2000 Sugar Bowl and 2001 Orange Bowl.
Polley played a pivotal role in the Sugar Bowl win over the Hokies and Michael Vick, blocking a punt in the first quarter that led to a touchdown. “I had the play of the game as far as defense, but then the injury came out of nowhere,” said Polley.
Tearing his left ACL while trying to tackle Vick in the second quarter, he was forced to postpone his dream of entering the NFL draft. Polley underwent reconstructive knee surgery and seven and a half months of rehab before his senior season. And that was just the physical part.
“The mental adjustment is coming off a major knee surgery. Just coming back. Wondering if you can get back. Wondering if you are going to be as fast as you were. My motivation always was I got a family to feed. That was my main thing.”
Polley returned for an All-American season that included 100 tackles with 53 solo, 7 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, and recovered a team-high 3 fumbles. He ended his FSU career with 289 tackles (170 solo) and was a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award, third team Football News All-American, first team All-ACC selection, and a finalist for the ACC’s Brian Piccolo Award, thanks to his courageous comeback from the Sugar Bowl injury.
His best memory about Bobby Bowden? Tommy says it wasn't just one thing, but the entire package.
“It is his whole every day approach. His vibe. How he talks to a player. How he talks to the media. He’s not too arrogant, but he is a good stern coach. He’s funny. Janikowski stayed out late [before the national championship]. People asked him ‘how come you didn’t suspend Janikowski?’ He said, because you got international rules. He couldn’t suspend Janikowski, but he made him do some extra running in practice. He had his own way of dealing with things.”
Polley believes the driving force behind Bowden's decision to continue coaching is not the competition with Penn State’s Joe Paterno, but the comfort in routine and fear of letting go.
“I think with the old coaches, they don’t want to die. I think Bear Bryant might have died 6 months after he retired. (Editors note: Bryant died only 28 days after his last game as a coach.) So most of these guys think if they retire, they got nothing to do and what else is left? They are looking at their predecessors and how they died. I think that is why he is trying to hang around…to hang [on] to his life a little longer.”
“I was excited! I paid my dues. Now it’s time to cash in...as a competitor, you always want to play against the top players in the world. As much trash as I talk, I wanted to get a chance to prove that I can play at that level.
Some colleges have a few preferred agents that the coaching staff recommends to players when they become eligible for the NFL Draft. Polley described the open system that FSU has with respect to the agent process.
“See, when you go to FSU, it’s not like USF, where you might have one player come out every 10 years. Every year, you got about 10 players who might get drafted [out of FSU]. So for a coach to point you in a direction, would be wrong. There are some schools out there that have their agents, but Florida State is more open. Anybody can come in and get a player.”
Polley was the NFL Defensive Rookie of 2001 and played four years for St. Louis, including the 2002 SuperBowl. He moved on to Baltimore in '05 and New Orleans in '06.
After Polley went unsigned as a free agent in 2007, he retired from the NFL and quickly transformed himself into a businessman. Polley’s first venture involved launching an independent film production company called Big Vision Films, along with two other Dunbar High School alumni, Rob Foster and David Manigault.
Big Vision Films was formed to bring socially conscious ideas to independent films. The company's first project is a documentary titled Poet Pride, which sets out to capture the legacy of Dunbar High School’s storied basketball program.
From football to film production, and from backstreet playgrounds to the SuperBowl, Tommy Polley has nailed every new challenge in life much the same way he mowed down ball carriers -- with impact and total commitment.