Colorado safety Ray Polk spent most of the 2011 season injured but finding a way every week to play through the pain of a damaged wrist and fractured sternum to be on the field with his teammates.
He used to think it was frustrating competing when he was far from 100 percent.
But Polk has experienced a whole new level of frustration this season being forced to watch from the sidelines, despite feeling much better top to bottom than he did a year ago.
The one thing holding the senior back is among the most dreaded diagnosis in sports -- high ankle sprain.
Polk was injured in the season opener on Sept. 1 against Colorado State and hasn't played since. He suffered a torn tendon in his ankle along with unspecified ligament damage that he hopes won't require surgery. He announced this week he will definitely return to action at Southern Cal on Saturday (4:07 p.m. Pac-12 Network).
"I'm playing," Polk said. "It's definitely exciting. I'm happy to be out here practicing with these guys. It's good to be back out here. I know I'm not at 100 percent, but I think I can help the team out."
He has made being a help to the team rather than a hindrance the determining factor in when he returns to the field. He didn't feel quite right a week ago before the Arizona State game and opted not to play because he didn't want to miss a tackle or have a receiver run by him in coverage.
"The thing is, I'm starting to come to the realization that it's not going to get better any time soon," he said. "So I think a lot of it is about being out there and getting everybody lined up and everything and being functional and a help to the team. If I see that I'm not being a help to the team, then I will be the first one to say, 'Hey, take me out. I'm not doing my job correctly.'"
Polk has been named a captain in five of the first six games this season, even though he only played in part of the season opener before suffering the ankle injury.
"The fact that he is not out there on the field, he still is a big influence for us and still does a lot with those young guys," coach Jon Embree said.
CU's head coach noted that during the first half of the season while recovering from his injury, Polk acted like a captain in everything he did. He said Polk regularly meets with his teammates on Monday nights to watch film. He said Polk has been active in meetings even though he hasn't been playing. He quizzes teammates and works with players on Friday nights before games, too.
When game day arrives, Polk naturally fits into a coaching role offering tips and encouragement on the sidelines because he's been doing it all week in practice and meetings and the weight room.
Polk says the entire experience has been eye opening for him. He now is considering a career in coaching, which is at least one positive that has come from all the physical sacrifice he given to the program he loves.
"The biggest thing that is most annoying about this injury is I could play with the other stuff and I didn't mind doing it," he said. "I was happy to do it. I was happy to be able to go out there every day and perform to whatever degree. But this is the most frustrating thing because I don't know how it's going to limit me. It's already cost me six games. I can't play through an ankle injury being in the secondary. It's just not functional. You're putting yourself at risk and more importantly, everybody else. It's the most frustrating thing I can think of, even more than a season-ending injury because that is definite and concrete. You are not going to play. This is a huge tease."
Polk said he doesn't remember the last time he felt completely healthy on the football field. It was likely either early last season or at some point in 2010 when he was a sophomore. But he was forced to miss last season's game against USC at Folsom Field because of a concussion he suffered the week before and he doesn't want to miss out a chance to play one of college football's legendary programs twice in his career.
"This is my only chance to play them and I'm finally feeling like I'm able to be functional on the field," Polk said. "So I'm looking forward to it."
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