SEATTLE — Using the 20-20 vision that hindsight provides, Chris Polk can see now that he made one of the best decisions of his life in December of 2007.
A year later, he nearly made one of his worst.
After backing out of a verbal commitment he made to mighty USC in 2007 to accept an o
ffer from the struggling University of Washington football program, Polk spent much of his freshman year in a state of misery. He hurt his foot early in the 2008 season opener, watched from the sidelines as the Huskies struggled to an 0-12 record, and somewhere along the line Polk decided he was finished.
He was ready to quit, and not just being a part of the Huskies.
“I mean giving up football,” he said last week with a straight face.
Two record-setting seasons later, with his name appearing on several preseason watch lists for the Heisman Trophy, Polk realizes that would have been a mistake.
“I prayed on it, I talked to my mom, and I realized I came here for a reason,” Polk said last Wednesday from the practice field at Husky Stadium. “I’m glad because it turned out for the best.”
It wouldn’t take much imagination to project where the UW football program might be without Polk right about now. The Huskies probably would not have beaten Cal or Washington State late last season, they wouldn’t have played in a bowl game and they would most likely be entering another season as a projected also-ran in the conference standings.
But even more tragic is the thought of where Polk might be right now without the UW football program.
“I have no clue,” he said after a practice last week. “It boggles my mind what my life would be without football.”
This much is certain: Polk was headed in the wrong direction before head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff arrived in Jan. 2009. It wouldn’t be overly melodramatic to say that the running back’s life was spiraling out of control.
His athletic career, academic standing and personal life were directionless, and Polk didn’t carry much hope of things turning around for him.
“I was not into football. Wasn’t into class. I could care less if I was here or not,” he said four days ago.
Sarkisian and running backs coach Joel Thomas marvel at where Polk was two-and-a-half years ago, especially when they compare that kid to the young man that is with them now.
“The thought that he’s already been able to walk for graduation,” Sarkisian said while shaking his head with pride. “Forget the 1,000-yard seasons. He’s really changed. And that, as a coach, is why we do what we do: to inspire young men and to watch them go on and do great things. He’s been awesome. He’s been great.”
Shortly after arriving at UW, Sarkisian had numerous one-on-one meetings with Polk, whom he had initially recruited to USC in 2007. The goal was to try and talk the running back from Redlands, Calif., out of giving up on the game.
“It was just a matter of pushing the right buttons,” Sarkisian said last week of his sales pitch to keep Polk in the program. “… You need hope. You need to know that there’s light somewhere at the end of the tunnel.”
Thomas, who has been a part of Sarkisian’s staff since the beginning, said the key to Polk’s turnaround has been structure. It was missing early in the running back’s career, for whatever reason, and the new coaching staff set out to provide him with some short-term and long-term goals.
“We all need a sense of structure in life, and at the moment we got here that structure was just a disaster, in his mind,” Thomas said. “We had a clear-cut vision as far as what his goals were, something he could latch onto every day.”
Asked what kind of extra care the coaches put into Polk’s life change, Thomas grinned and said: “I might’ve met him at class a couple times to make sure he was there.”
Now, Polk is a more mature person both on and off the field.
As the running back said last week: “The person you see today is not the person you saw two years ago. I’ve made a drastic change. I’ve become a better person. I’ve got my priorities right.”
The later chapters to Polk’s story tell the tale of some incredible twists of fate. After initially getting abused on chat boards for his decision to turn his back on USC and sign with the Huskies, his decision now looks like a stroke of genius. With Polk in the backfield, UW has beaten the Trojans two years in a row. The Huskies appear to be on the way to repairing a national reputation that once pinned them alongside top-five programs like Oklahoma, Miami and Colorado, while USC is entering a second year of NCAA probation.
In a less mature state, Polk probably would have thumbed his nose at the USC fans who laughed at his decision almost four years ago. But these days, he’s too focused on the present and immediate future to look back.
“I came here for a reason, and I don’t live life with regrets,” he said. “I’m happy that I’m here; I’m real blessed to be here. When I came here, I didn’t want to just be a part of something to add on; I wanted to be a part of something to rebuild.”
Despite the Heisman hype, Polk seems more proud with the way the UW program seems to be turning around than he does any individual accolades.
“As far as the Heisman vote goes, that means nothing to me,” said the man who is being tabbed as Jake Locker’s replacement as UW’s offensive centerpiece. “There’s no one player on the team, no individual performances. It all come down to what you did as a team. One person can’t win every game for you — especially in my position.”
Those doesn’t sound like words the Chris Polk of two years ago would have uttered.
“Chris Polk of two years ago wouldn’t have said anything like that,” the fourth-year junior said with a smile last Wednesday afternoon. “Chris Polk two years ago wasn’t even into football.”
Thankfully — for both the Huskies and for Chris Polk — he is now.