Playmaker TP: A Feature Story On Cowboys' Rookie RB Tony Pollard
By: Ram Luthra
It ended up being a good day, actually a really good day, and it didn’t take long for running back Tony Pollard to have one of those good days as an NFL rookie. Pollard has plenty of these days on the horizon as he becomes a household name for Cowboys fans, and he showed why during the second week of team OTAs. During a morning practice session with many media members in attendance, the eager 22-year-old waited for his shot. Wearing a white practice jersey with the No. 36 on it and a pair of blue shorts over his blue compression tights, Pollard stood in the backfield and took the handoff. Right when he took his first step with the ball tucked, he made sure to secure the pigskin with both hands — to his coaches’ delight, of course — and then it was time to make a play. These are plays he’s always made from his childhood days to those Saturdays in college. He made plays with the football; it’s no surprise his handle on Instagram is @playmaker_tp.
Now he’s making plays in the NFL for the grandest franchise in the league and against some of the toughest, tested defenders who undoubtedly don’t want to be showed up, by a rookie no less. A first-year player who was wearing a silver helmet without a star on it because the star is earned here in Dallas. All of that didn’t matter for Pollard, who exploded through the hole, reaching the second level of the defense and then it was time to make a play. He cut back to his right, evading a defender in the secondary before trotting into the end zone untouched with oohs and aahs echoing inside the practice facility. He would be congratulated moments later by veteran Ezekiel Elliott. The play made waves on social media and was the talk of the day, but Pollard was all business after, remaining modest, even when receiving praise for his fine day’s work. His answer to a complimentary text, “Thanks I appreciate it.” That pretty much sums up Pollard off the field, but on the field the rookie will generate plenty of excitement from his dynamic skills that instantly make him into a home-run hitter in this Cowboys offense that’s locked and loaded for big season.
“I’m just a humble, hard-working kid ready to get out there from Day One and work hard to make a name for myself,” says Pollard, who’s well on his way to earn that star to complete that Cowboys fit. Pollard’s speed and elusiveness were a big draw when the Cowboys selected him in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the 128thoverall pick. The club was gravitated by his versatilely. Pollard ran a sub-4.40 second time in the 40-yard dash and showcased that speed in college by scoring a touchdown every 13.5 touches at Memphis. He set kickoff coverage teams ablaze, routinely lighting up the competition, totaling seven kickoff returns for scores in three seasons. The speedy playmaker ended up appearing in 40 games and racked up 4,860 all-purpose yards. Remember his Instagram handle is @playmaker_tp.
He would validate his namesake during the 2018 Birmingham Bowl against Wake Forest. Pollard amassed 318 all-purpose yards, second most in Memphis history and a Birmingham Bowl record, which included a 97-yard kick-off return. Pollard tied the NCAA FBS record of seven career kickoff return touchdowns, a mark shared by Tyron Carrier, C.J. Spiller and Rashaad Penny. “It was just me being ready for my opportunity,” Pollard said of his epic performance in the bowl game. “Just making the most of it. Darrell Henderson didn’t play that game. That gave me the chance to play more. They had me doing more running back stuff. It’s not like it’s something I haven’t done before.” He was extraordinary, if not downright spectacular, and head coach Jason Garrett took notice. “Obviously, we took Pollard first, someone we think is a really good space player,” Garrett said after the draft. “He's an excellent receiver. He's very good running the football, particularly out on the perimeter. We also feel he can run the ball inside, and he's an outstanding special teams player, not only a great returner, a lot of great returns for touchdowns, but we also believe he can be a four-phase player on special teams. What we like most about him is what he can do on offense with the ball in his hands and what feel he can really help us in that area making some plays in space.”
Pollard said growing up his favorite player was Reggie Bush, acknowledging his game resembles that of Bush. With the ability to makes catches out of the backfield or shouldering the load in the running game, he can make a game-changing big play that Bush did so often during his 11-year NFL career that was ridden with highlights. The Dallas coaching staff has already hinted using Pollard the way the New Orleans Saints used Pro Bowler Alvin Kamara when he entered the NFL in 2017. Pairing Pollard with Elliott, like the Saint did with Kamara and bruiser Mark Ingram II. “I honestly feel like I can do any run in this offense,” Pollard says. “Whether it’s outside or inside zone or misdirection. I feel like I can do it all. Not just being an outside runner because I have speed. "I wouldn't just compare myself to him,'' Pollard said of Kamara. "But I'd say me and him were similar in some ways that we play, just being able to do more than one thing, line up in the backfield at running back, mismatches with the linebackers, running routes out of the backfield, making plays on special teams.''
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has another name in mind when thinking of the rookie’s playing style. "You look at Randall Cobb's highlights, it's the same stuff he did in college," Prescott said. "It's exciting." Whatever role the Cowboys choose for Pollard, you better believe he will have the football in his hand, making plays, racking up yards and earning that star. “I know people think he’s going to be this gadget guy,” Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown says of the rookie. “He’s more than that. He’s bigger than what you may think he is for a guy that you think is a gadget guy. … I think he can do all our runs. He can do a lot more too.”
It’s in his blood. It’s where he bled. It’s where his heart and soul will always be. It’s Memphis, and Tony Pollard is Memphis – through thick and thin. “Memphis to me is just a grit and grind city,” he said. “Everything that you want, you have to grind for. I’m not used to being given things because of who I am. I’m used to working for it or coming in somewhere and maybe not expecting to be the top player but working and putting myself in that position. I’m used to grinding and working for whatever it is I want.” He’s the son of Torria and Tarrance and brother of Tneshia and Terrion – a true “T” theme in the Pollard clan. His Dad, Tarrance, runs a barbeque joint that’s sandwiched between a bank and an auto parts store on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Pollard’s Bar-B-Que gets rave reviews online, upwards of four stars by most. It’s described as “a comfy spot for Memphis-style BBQ” and must-order items include the pulled pork, baked beans and fried okra. So how does Texas barbeque compare with what’s smoking in Memphis? “The first day I got here, they had ribs out there [in Dallas],” Pollard said. “It was all right. It just helped me appreciate what I had in Memphis,” he adds with a million-dollar smile. His Mom, Torria, works at FedEx, which has been a Memphis institution since 1973 when it relocated there from Little Rock, Ark. The billion-dollar company employs the most people from the city, providing roughly 30,000 jobs to the area. The question isn’t “Do you work at FedEx?,” rather it’s “Where in FedEx do you work?”
Tony went to Melrose High School and earned All-District honors as a wideout and defensive back. He wrapped up his senior season with more than 1,200 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns in 2014. It was a no-brainer to attend the University of Memphis. He wanted to me a part of the history of the school, more so he wanted to leave an undeniable mark on the city. Since 2016, Memphis has produced a good share of NFL draft picks with the majority of them coming on the offensive side of the ball. Signal-caller Paxton Lynch was selected in the first round by the Broncos and even caught the eye of Cowboys brass as a possible franchise quarterback of their own. Wideout Anthony Miller was drafted by the Bears in the second round in 2018, and this year running backs Darrell Henderson and Pollard went in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. “It just shows where our program is going,” Pollard says. “We have more and more draft picks, we had two running backs out of the backfield to get drafted this year. “If you want to play football and not get lost in the shuffle and have hopes to play at the next level, then Memphis is the place to be.” That’s not bad for a school that gets more buzz for its basketball program and has bounced around in various leagues – Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference – in recent years. But there have been a few to wear the blue and white with the Tigers and become big-name offensive talents while wearing the NFL shield, including Pro Bowler DeAngelo Williams, three-time Super Bowl winner Stephen Gostkowski and All-Pro Isaac Bruce. “Those are all names that mean a lot to me and the city of Memphis,” Pollard said. “I grew up watching those guys, cheering for them. Me and the whole city knows those names. I just want to be like them and have my name said with their names.”
Pollard graduated in December with a degree in sport and leisure management. Leaving school with a diploma was important for him and he’s couldn’t have wanted anything more than accomplishing the feat in his hometown. “I’m Memphis all the way,” Pollard said. “Born and raised in Memphis. Stayed at home and went to school. It just feels like the whole city is behind me. Not only the school, but the city itself since you really grew up there and know the culture of Memphis.” Watching the NFL Draft at his Memphis home with family and friends nearby, Pollard saw all the coverage from players across the nation achieving their dream, yet he kept asking himself, “Why is everyone crying when they get on the phone?”. He didn’t get it, but when his phone rang and when he brought it near his ear it all made sense. “My hand began to shake,” he said. “I’m like ‘OK, this is real. That’s why they are like that. I held it together but it was a surreal moment when you hear you have been drafted in the NFL to play for the Cowboys — the Dallas Cowboys.” Yes, Tony, the Dallas Cowboys. “Enjoy the ride cause it’s gonna be a good one. I’m just ready to get out there and show what I can do.”
Pollard isn’t football all the time, actually the real Tony Pollard is the one who is chilling at home — in this case a hotel room near the Star in Frisco — and watching a TV show online. He’s recently gotten into Game of Thrones. Though he’s a few years late to game, he still has the same feeling that resonates among anyone who’s seen the show. After watching a few episodes, Pollard posted on Instagram: “Just recently started watching Game of Thrones….. the hype is real.” “I’m chill. I’m usually at home chilling and listening to music. I watch anything on Netflix,” said Pollard, who does acknowledge he misses one part of Memphis the most – his pit bull, Rocko. But once things get settled and the regular season finally arrives, he will have Rocko by his side and he should have that Cowboys Star on helmet. Playmaker_TP will shine bright.