A two-sport appetite

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tommy Polley has barely entered his living room after another football practice, and the phone is ringing before he can crack open a school book or a soda. Another stack of mail is placed on the table. Polley tries to keep track of all the recruiters, but it's hard when almost every college in the country wants Dunbar High's two-sport phenom.

And Polley, a potential high school All-American in football and basketball, should expect the demands on his time to increase in the future.

"The sports overlap," said Charlie Ward, the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and point guard at Florida State. "Football is very taxing physically. Basketball is very time-consuming, especially the travel.

"Anybody can play two sports as long as they take time to study; it's a matter of going out and trying to help yourself," Ward said. "You have to learn the discipline in high school and carry it over into college because it's a whole new world in college."

That's one of several questions facing Polley. Here are some others:

Can Polley add the necessary bulk through a football weight-training program and maintain his fluidness in basketball? he better at one sport than the other? Which one might lead him to a pro career?

"I don't have the answers yet, and I won't find out until I move on to the next level," said Polley, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound inside linebacker and tight end for the No. 2 Dunbar football team, and a forward for its nationally acclaimed basketball squad.

"I don't want to second-guess myself. I know I can play two sports in college. If I have to spend a lot of time in study hall to play both, then that's what I'll have to do."

No one knows the hectic schedule better than Ward, who now plays for the New York Knicks. He remembers the long days and short nights filled with weight training, countless meetings, seemingly endless practices, long road trips and numerous interviews.

And then he had to find time to study.

"Tommy is an incredible athlete with remarkable ability. Maybe he could go to a place like Maryland, Syracuse or Florida State and be another Charlie Ward," said Bob Gibbons, publisher of All-Star Sports.

"And then again, maybe he can't. It's very, very tough. Not everyone can handle the academic stress of playing two collegiate sports."

Polley concedes he wasn't focused on his school work until last summer. Now he's obsessed. He got A's in English and algebra in summer school, raising his grade-point average in his core courses to 2.4.

He has a private tutor and spends most of his evenings studying, hoping to improve on a 750 Scholastic Assessment Test score. He needs 860 to be eligible to play as a college freshman.

His mother, Amy, screens every recruiter about tutoring programs and study halls.

"I want to know what they are going to do to help him get a degree," said Amy Polley, a clinical coordinator at Johns Hopkins University during the day and a saleswoman at a local retail store at night. "He has to establish himself in a field if he doesn't make it to the next level. Tommy deserves the best arrangements we can get. He has been through a lot."

Polley grew up fatherless in Aberdeen and had a hard time adjusting to city life when he moved to Baltimore six years ago. He was, and still is, a role model for his two younger brothers. And two years ago he had to deal with the loss of his close friend and teammate Antoine "Stevie" Greene, who died of cardiac arrest.

Polley has had only two dreams since he enrolled at Dunbar.

"When I first came to Dunbar, I knew I would always be overshadowed in basketball by Donta Bright, Michael Lloyd, Muggsy Bogues, Skip Wise and Larry Gibson," said Polley. "I wanted to do something larger than that, and I knew I could do that by playing two sports.

"Now, every night I dream about playing pro sports, of being in Sports Illustrated one day," said Polley. "I dream of giving my mom whatever she wants, and her never having to worry about anything again. Then I have to wake myself up and say, 'Hey, Tommy, you ain't in that league yet.' "

But he's still in a league by himself, especially on the football field, where he has 108 tackles and 22 receptions for 296 yards.

Polley is an intense and aggressive competitor who plays the run extremely well. He has soft hands, great initial contact on blocks and runs precise patterns. He is emotional, an intimidator who stands over his victims and screams after a vicious hit.

His weaknesses: Polley expects his teammates to play as well as he does, and when they don't, he criticizes them and becomes easily frustrated. Recently against Largo, a pass was barely thrown over his head and Polley kicked the ball into the stands, costing his team a 15-yard penalty and a scoring opportunity. He also free-lances too much and is slow dropping back into pass defense.

"Tommy wants to make the big play all the time," said Dunbar coach Stanley Mitchell. "He needs to get under control more. Remember, though, this is a kid who didn't go to football camps because he had to play basketball. Football has always come easy to him, and he needs to be challenged. There's a lot of untapped football left in him, and playing on the college level will bring it out."

Polley is just as athletic in basketball. He runs the court well and is a deft passer. He has a quick step off the dribble, which is followed by an assortment of short jumpers, fadeaways, layups and "no fear" dunks. He averaged 15.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists last season.

Weaknesses: Polley's mid- to long-range shooting ability is suspect. His ball-handing needs to improve.

"He needs to be more consistent in that area [mid-range shooting]," said Dunbar basketball coach Paul Smith. "But Dunbar has a nationally ranked basketball team and most of the college scouts say it's just a matter of time before he's a distributing force in their program."

Yet Gibbons, who scouts prep basketball players across the country, says Polley's stock dropped during camps last summer.

"I saw him when he was in the 10th grade and thought this kid was really going to be something special," said Gibbons. "But I think other players have caught up with him, and in some cases, passed over him. Tommy Polley may have reached the crossroads where he has to pick which one is going to be his primary sport."

Polley has given that some thought. He knows that he can add 40 pounds to be a solid college linebacker.

"Maybe I could play safety, and still play basketball without the added bulk," said Polley.

It seems like almost everyone has an opinion.

"I think his future is in football," said Bill Spotts, who runs the Charm City Classic high school basketball tournament and is director of the Charm City AAU team.

Smith said: "Does he have the physical capabilities to play both sports? Yes. Does he have the desire? Yes. My personal concern is the additional weight -- I hope it doesn't impede his expected progress in basketball."

Polley has narrowed his choices to Florida State, Miami, Maryland, Syracuse and Southern Cal, which have indicated they will let him play both. He expects to make a decision in January.

"There's no pressure," said Polley. "If I was doing something wrong, then there would be pressure. Right now, it's all positive.

We'll get the questions answered soon enough."

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