He had a productive, six-year career in the NFL but it could be argued that the Baltimore, Maryland native and Dunbar High School grad Tommy Polley was a better basketball player than a football player. He averaged over 20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists per game as a senior, leading the national powerhouse to a fourth straight state title. Polley was a top hoops recruit but decided to use his talents on the gridiron at Florida State University.
The Seminole racked up a good deal of attention and accolades at FSU. Polley was a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, a third-team Football News All American, a First-team All ACC selection and a finalist for the ACC’s Brian Piccolo Award.
Polley was selected in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. He had a standout rookie season, earning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and starting at outside linebacker in Super Bowl XXXVI against New England.
He ended his career with over 300 tackles, with over 200 of those being solos stops. He finished his career with the Baltimore Ravens in 2005. He’s stayed in the game through his work as defensive coordinator at St. Mary’s High School in St. Louis. His son Tyler is a senior basketball player at UConn.
We caught up to him for a chat about signing a lot of rookie cards as a new draft pick, his boyhood football idols and how he came away with Deion Sanders’ last game used cleats.
Tony Reid–Do you remember the very first time you were asked for your autograph?
Tommy Polley– It was in high school. It was at a basketball tournament. I went to Dunbar High School in Baltimore, which is a famed high school for basketball. A lot of well-known players came from Dunbar. Whenever we went outside of the city people just loved us. We were a big deal. It was in Pennsylvania, at a Johnstown tournament or maybe in Delaware at a Christmas tournament. A kid came up to me and asked me for my autograph. That was the first time. It was shocking because I wasn’t expecting that to happen in high school.
TR– Obviously, you had a long career in the NFL but you were a standout in basketball in high school. You averaged 20, 10 and 8. That’s a pretty impressive stat line.
TP-I have sisters that played in the WNBA. My father was a basketball player who played overseas. My son played at UConn. Really, I’m a basketball player at heart but my head and everything else is a football player. That is just the path my life took.
TR–What players inspired you as a young athlete?
TP-In Baltimore we had the hometown guys. Baltimore was a basketball town. We had our local guys that went to Dunbar like Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams, and Keith Booths of the world. Guys like Sam Cassell and all of those guys were from my neighborhood. They inspired me to work hard and get out. Then looking at Jordan and some of the bigger stars that you don’t know but you follow their career, like Walter Payton and Mike Singletary.
The Washington Redskins were my team at that time. I followed them. I liked big John Riggins and The Hogs. I wore his number 44 the one year because I thought I was a running back. I thought I was Eric Dickerson one year. I thought I was Ronnie Lott one year. I thought I Was different players. You really thought you were those guys. You were really living it. Back in my generation you really loved those athletes. I wanted to be them, then when I go to play with them it was a surreal moment.
TR- Speaking of the NFL, you were a second round draft pick by St. Louis in 2001. You forged a nice career in the league. Your rookie cards came out that year, as you were included in over 50 products from Bowman, Score, Topps, Upper Deck and the list goes on. Do you remember seeing yourself on the trading card for the first time?
TP-Oh, I remember. They sent them for me to sign. Signing 10,000 cards was a task! It was at the time when we were training for the combine and getting ready for the draft. My agent came to me and said I had to sign all of these cars. At the time, you just do what you are told. That what I was doing. I was just signing cards. My hand was hurting.
When they came out and I saw them I was excited. I guess my whole life I expected those types of things to happen. I prepared my mind and everything I did that I was going to make it to that level. When you see it you are happy that you fulfilled one of your goals but it was something that I always figured, if I did everything I was supposed to do, that it would happen someday.
TR–Seeing yourself on a trading card is one of those ‘I made it.’ moments. Did you feel that way, too?
TR–Did you manage to hold on to any of your cards over the years?
TP-Yeah I still have a few of them around here somewhere.
TR–The jersey swap is a phenomenon nowadays. Did you swap jerseys back in the day?
TP-I don’t think that is something I would indulge in. After the game was over I went straight to the locker room. I wasn’t a big sportsman type of guy. I was all about the competition and then taking it back to the locker room, so I probably wouldn’t have done it. I saw a guys do it at Florida State when we played Miami or something. A lot of the guys that went to the same high school or grew up in the same neighborhood might do it.
It wasn’t a thing at the time I was playing. Now it’s all about being friends and being boys. ‘We follow each other on Twitter. We are going to swap jerseys after the game.’ That today’s generation.
Me, personally, I played with a bunch of Hall of Famers, so I have a bunch of jerseys from Orlando Pace and Aeneas Williams but I just got them. All of the ones I got turned out to be Hall of Famers. I have Deion Sanders’ last pair of cleats that he wore in a game. We played Cleveland and I said ‘Let me get those cleats.’ I didn’t even get him to sign them. I should have asked him to sign them. They are still muddy. They have mud all over them. Deion played so long that when I was young I followed his career then I got to play with him. It was surreal. It was one of those things.
TR–Do you have an area where you display memorabilia or items from your NFL career?
TP– When I was a kid, it was crazy. I would keep all of my trophies in the front room. If you walked into my room I had a bunch of trophies and things like that. When you get older it’s time to move on. I have my Rams rookie trophy, when I won (Defensive) Rookie of the Year. I have that piece out and a few game balls. Everything else in is boxes.