FORT WAYNE – He lingers like a bad cold, this Bernard Pollard.
The man hits you – lord, he hits you – and the next morning he’s still there, in your aching legs and your screeching back. He’s still there in your ribs or your shoulder, whose throbbing has beaten the stuffing out of everything in your medicine cabinet.
Which is another way of saying he’s nothing if not persistent, both in the way the punishment he metes out sticks around, and also in the way he never gives up on a play. Knocked down, he will rise and strike you. Taken out, he will clamber to his feet and take you out – and sometimes he isn’t choosy about how.
That’s why Pollard, the Baltimore Ravens’ 28-year-old safety, has drawn thousands of dollars in fines in seven years as a pro. The NFL even changed a rule because of him, after Pollard, knocked down during a game between his Kansas City Chiefs and New England four years ago, scrambled to his feet and lunged at Tom Brady’s legs as he released the football.
Took out Brady’s knee and ended his season. The NFL promptly instituted a rule banning hits below the waist.
Some people, most with Massachusetts ZIP codes, called what Pollard did a cheap shot. Others said he was merely doing what a football player is supposed to do, which is play to the whistle.
Just like the man for whom he was named taught him.
Bernard Pollard Sr. remembers it like it was yesterday.
A Friday night 11 or so years ago, Bernard Jr.’s South Side Archers taking on Homestead, and this is what happened: Bernard came screaming in pursuit of the football, got caught off-balance and went down. The play, a reverse, flowed the other way. And there was Bernard, on the ground.
Bernard jumped up and ran and caught the runner about 35 yards downfield, Bernard Sr. says. Forced a fumble. And that was the night that Bernard really showed everybody that he was a person that really went after the ball, because he continued to stay with the play and he didn’t give up.
At that moment, he should have had his head down. But right there he showed everybody that he really wanted to succeed.
It helped, of course, that he was already outsized for a defensive back. It’s the first thing Matt Land noticed when he arrived at South Side as head coach in Bernard’s senior year, though it was hardly the only thing.
He was a big, physical kid, and, man, when he hit you. He changed the game at safety every Friday night, Land recalls. That doesn’t happen very often.
It only happened this time because, when Bernard was 8 or 9, all of his church friends were playing Metro ball and so, of course, he wanted to play, too. And that was OK with Bernard Sr., who played linebacker at Snider and some semipro ball with the Rhinos and Indiana Invaders, too, and who along with Bernard’s stepmom, Tacoma, was looking for an outlet for his rambunctious son.
His mother and I had divorced, and Bernard and my daughter were heading in the wrong direction, expressing themselves in a bad way, Bernard Sr. says. For me it was a positive way of helping to redirect some of the issues that Bernard was dealing with.
And so one day Tacoma Pollard took him down to the park to sign him up for football, and that was the start of it all. Bernard Sr. became Bernard’s coach, and he made his son the team’s quarterback. And to teach both Bernard and his younger brother Landon the game, he got all the other kids involved, too.
I was trying to teach Bernard how to play quarterback, he says. I’d have my daughters be the receivers just to give Bernard an idea of how he should be getting rid of the ball in a certain amount of time. I used the kids to help him understand.
To this day, he still tries to get Bernard to understand, according to Krystal Pollard, who’s five years younger than her famous brother.
Dad still tries to coach Bernard, she says, laughing. He’ll say, Now, Bernard, when you cover, do this,’ and he’s like, Yeah, yeah, yeah.’
Persistence. It’s a family trait.
Today is the day a father dreams of, when the dreams involve pads and a helmet and 100 yards of chewed turf.
Today, Bernard Pollard Jr. plays in the Super Bowl, and not as an extra. The Ravens’ leading tackler this season, he made news this week by predicting the eventual demise of the game because of the concussion issue. Then he reiterated it at Media Day, where he was accorded a featured booth.
When he enters the Superdome this evening, Bernard Sr. will be watching back in Fort Wayne. Because of the logistics of trying to get everyone to New Orleans – and because, he says, he wouldn’t get to see his son, anyway – he decided not to attend the game in person. Instead, he’ll gather the whole family at his house and watch on Bernard Sr.’s big-screen TV.
Maybe, at some point, what he said years ago to both Bernard and Landon – who’s trying to crack the NFL – will come back to him.
Play above your level, he always told them.
Even when there are no higher levels to reach.