It was 20 years ago that Tommy Polley had completed his work at Dunbar, laying the foundation for a promising future.
In a banner senior year, he led the Poets to their fourth straight state title in basketball and a second consecutive championship in football — winning All-Metro honors in basketball and a second straight All-Metro Defensive Player of the Year award in football.
He decided on football and Florida State, winning a national championship. He then became the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year playing linebacker for the St. Louis Rams in 2001 to begin a six-year career that included one standout season with the Ravens.
Of all the accolades he received during his illustrious high school career, being named The Baltimore Sun's Athlete of the Year that senior year stood out. He said it was more special because he was stacked up against all the top athletes in every sport.
Now 38 and residing in Illinois, Polley returns to Baltimore today to help The Sun celebrate its 50th annual Athlete of the Year awards luncheon, serving as the keynote speaker at the newspaper's downtown headquarters.
The message he plans to deliver to the 20 student-athlete award finalists will come from his experiences.
"I think my main message is just making sure to control your own destiny and to lay out some of the points in my life when I controlled my own destiny and it all worked out," Polley said. "It doesn't matter what the circumstances are, doesn't matter what environment you come from and what background. You can make it and you just have to put your mind to it and go through it."
When Polley won the award 20 years ago, he thanked his mother, Amy, who raised him as a single parent.
She said one day when he was 7 years old, about the time he first started playing Pop Warner football, he told her that he would play in the NFL.
"I just said, 'Oh, OK,'" she recalled.
Polley said a number of coaches were instrumental throughout his early years, including his Pop Warner and Poets coach, Stanley Mitchell.
"Sports are a microcosm of life in many ways and [Mitchell] taught you to believe in yourself," Polley said. "There also was constructive criticism. I know when I got to college some of the guys never got fussed at, talked crazy to by coaches. I always had that and it just filled my fire to do whatever was needed to overcome things. Coach Stan didn't care who you were — he got on a star just like the last player on the bench and that's a lot like life. Sometimes the boss is going to get on you and you have to accept it, can't cry about it, and move on."
Immediately, Mitchell saw special potential in Polley, whom he described as a strong leader from the start, fundamentally sound and a student of the game with natural talent. Knowing that, Mitchell was determined to keep him on the right track, stressing academics as much as playing the game the right way.
Polley didn't disappoint.
"Tommy never quit on a play," Mitchell said. "When he practiced, he established something for the rest of the guys and that was that we were going to practice the same way we play games. That's something a coach always tries to teach. He played from sideline to sideline and he never quit."
After retiring from the NFL after the 2006 season, Polley returned to Maryland for seven years to coach youth football and mentor youth. He's doing the same now in Illinois and savors giving back.
"Whatever stage they may be at, I tell them what to expect, what outside people expect and what's next to come," he said. "I try to prepare them for the future and what mistakes not to make and what to watch for. I have a lot of insights and I try to give them a lot of information, so they can make rational decisions."