When USC junior Mike Pollard started at middle linebacker in the 2001 season-opener against San Jose State, it was the culmination of a long journey fraught with many obstacles.
Academic difficulties in high school delayed his impact at USC. Pollard failed to qualify for what would have been his freshman year of 1997. He didn't join the Trojans until 1998.
The 6-0, 225-pound Pollard, who had already suffered one major knee injury as a junior at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High, then tore the ligaments in his other knee in the spring of 1999.
As a result, the heralded prep linebacker then spent much of his Trojan career-to-date riding the bench, a scout team player with hidden potential doomed to play behind stars like Chris Claiborne and Zeke Moreno.
Yet, when the Trojans ran out of the Coliseum tunnel this past September 1, Pollard was running out as the starting middle linebacker. Looking back, it seemed like the day would never come.
"It's been a long journey," said Pollard. "It all began my sophomore year in high school. I had a great sophomore season. Then, in my junior year I was blowing up. I had two great games, but then I tore my knee. The rehab was difficult. I was 17 and I just kept thinking, ‘Why me?' But everything happens for a reason."
For a while, Pollard doubted whether he'd ever be back to play football. He credits his parents with keeping him motivated.
"My mom and dad told me to hang in there," Pollard said. "They both come from tough backgrounds. My mom is the oldest out of 15 kids. She never really had a chance to go to school, plus she was from Alabama. So it was pretty tough. I think she only finished sixth grade. She told me that if I want to go to USC, I'd have to work hard. So that was my motivation right there to come back and play my senior season at Poly."
It also helped that he had the support of USC and then-head coach John Robinson.
"Everyone had pretty much stopped calling me except for USC after the injury," said Pollard. "Everyone else shied away, but USC stuck with me. It made me really secure in my decision about where I wanted to go to school."
Pollard came back from his injury and had a tremendous senior season before signing his letter of intent with the Trojans in the spring of 1997. But when he didn't qualify academically, he instead attended classes at Cypress Junior College that fall.
"I felt like a nobody," said Pollard. "All my friends at Poly, like Ken-yon Rambo and Marques Anderson were going off to school in the fall and I was still at home. So I got a tutor and buckled down and got a qualifying score. It was the greatest feeling in the world, because I knew I would get to go to college. I had had my doubts about getting to USC, but when I got the score I needed, I was on my knees thanking God."
When Pollard arrived at USC, he got the opportunity to play behind one of the greatest Trojan linebackers ever, Butkus Award winner Chris Claiborne. Pollard absorbed as much knowledge as he could from Claiborne and seemed poised to win a lot of playing time after the All-American left for the NFL after his junior season. Then disaster struck.
In the spring of 1999, Pollard suffered another knee injury and was lost for the entire season. It was another setback from which to bounce back, another obstacle to overcome. Pollard was devastated and thought about quitting once again.
"It's over, that's what I thought," said Pollard. "I thought my football career was over. I thought I wouldn't play ball anymore."
Then there was the thought of the grinding, painful road back through rehab.
"When I got hurt again, I thought about going through all that again," said Pollard. "The hardest part is when you have surgery and you lay there and then you have to get out of the hospital. They elevate your leg and then let it down and all the blood rushes back into the leg. Then they get you to try to bend your knee to get the range of motion back. That pain is so bad, I wouldn't wish that even on my enemies."
Oddly enough, it was an offensive lineman who snapped him out of it, or at least helped him to do so. One day, then-coach Paul Hackett showed Pollard a film clip of former USC great Anthony Munoz. The mammoth tackle was just dominating his opponents. And, noted Hackett, his knees had been operated on five times.
"That just motivated me," said Pollard. "He lasted so long after all those surgeries. He barely played at USC because of them, but he had a long career afterwards. If he had five surgeries on his knees and could do that, I knew I could do it with just two. After that, it was all about getting my mindset right and being determined."
After the arrival of new coach Pete Carroll, plus the departure of Zeke Moreno and Markus Steele, Pollard saw that there would be new opportunities at the linebacker spots in 2001.
"I knew I could play if someone gave me a chance," said Pollard. "I just buckled down and busted my butt through winter and spring."
The hard work has paid off. Through two games as a starter, Pollard has 8.5 tackles, including one for a loss, one pass deflection (that led to an interception) and a forced fumble. Most importantly, he's running around making plays and feeling healthy while doing it.
Indeed, it looks like Mike Pollard is back to his old self again.