Since childhood, Tommy Polley has had a tough time deciding which sport he favors, football or basketball.
"I remember when he was 7 and he won a punt, pass and kick competition," said Amy Polley, Tommy's mother. "It was around that time that he also told me he was someday going to be in the NBA. And now he's just 16, and it's like he's a celebrity."
Polley enters his junior season as a linebacker for No. 5 Dunbar with 174 career tackles and 25 career sacks. Among his goals is to play football in college, possibly as a free safety or defensive end.
But Polley's 6-foot-5, 190-pound frame is built more for basketball, for which he is considered among the nation's best. Hoop Scoop ranks Polley among America's top 20 juniors, and Reidel's Roundball Review rates him the state's fifth-best player and its second-best underclassmen.
Last Sunday, Polley earned Most Valuable Player for Charm City Baltimore's basketball team as it won the 28-team Charlie Weber Maryland Invitational Tournament at the University of Maryland.
"Baltimore's known nationwide for basketball, but Maryland gets little respect in football," said Polley. "If I get recruited more for basketball, I'll go with that and try to walk on in football."
Polley established himself in football as a freshman under former coach Pete Pompey, with a team-high 10 sacks. He ranked second with 80 tackles on a 10-1 squad.
The next season, first-year coach Stanley Mitchell was impressed enough to make Polley a sometime defensive signal-caller.
Polley responded with a second-team All-Metro season, a team-leading 94 tackles (66 solo), 14 sacks and five interceptions. As a tight end, Polley caught 28 passes for 479 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Poets to a 9-3, 2A state runner-up finish.
"He's our hardest hitter and wants to be in on every play," said Mitchell, Polley's former coach in Northwood's recreation program.
One of last year's sacks came in the Poets' 12-6 loss to Poly, a game in which Dunbar held the Engineers' Player of the Year, Greg Kyler, to 64 yards on 10 carries. And a hit by Polley against an Engineers punt returner produced a fumble that set up the Poets' game-tying touchdown.
The Poets face No. 2 Poly again on Friday.
"Everyone's looking forward to this one," Polley said. "We're going to win this time."
Amy has demanded that her son balance his sports with maintaining a 3.0 grade point average and spending time with his brothers, Antoine, 12, and Dwayne, 9.
"He'd been on the honor roll, but his grades slipped. I've been on him more to stay away from the riffraff," she said. "He's worked on his attitude and is more for his team. Some situations have forced him to mature."
One situation was the controversy surrounding former athletic director and football and basketball coach Pompey, who was placed on administrative leave last summer pending the outcome of a 14-month investigation into alleged misuse of athletic department funds.
The day before last year's opening football practice, the Poets discovered that Pompey's interim replacement would be Mitchell.
But Polley missed two days of practice this year to attend rallies in support of Pompey, who was seeking a return to his old jobs after the Baltimore State's Attorney's office did not pursue charges in mid-August.
Pompey eventually was transferred to Edmondson, but Mitchell was left feeling betrayed by Polley, who missed another practice week during a family vacation and was bothered by a flu when he finally reported.
"I was thinking, 'When you're in high school, you shouldn't have to deal with these kinds of things,' " said Polley. "It's all helped me to grow."
Mitchell was a believer again after Dunbar's season-opening, 20-0 victory of then-No. 9 Randallstown.
Polley had 13 tackles (nine solo) and his 25th career sack to help hold Randallstown to 90 total offensive yards. As a tight end, Polley caught six passes for 80 yards, including the Poets' final touchdown on a 29-yard pass from Anthony Wiggins.
But it wasn't Polley's performance on the field that impressed Mitchell so much as what he said after the game.
"After my post-game speech, he stood up and asked if he could speak to the team," Mitchell said. "He told the players they should put the preseason behind them and play 100 percent for me.
"It was like a huge weight had been lifted from both of our shoulders. I knew he had matured from just a good ballplayer into a team spokesman and leader."