Henry Pollard had worked the same job as a welder for two decades when the shipyard closed down. He was in his late 40s, too young to retire, too old to get hired elsewhere. He started a business selling peanuts to support his family.
"Talk about hard times," he says. "But you can't give up."
So whenever his son, Mike, was having trouble on the football field, there was a dose of inspiration--not to mention reality--waiting at home. Lord knows, he needed it.
These days, the younger Pollard plays middle linebacker for USC and will be the man the Trojans rely upon to stop halfback Clarence Farmer at Arizona this weekend. Pollard, a junior, has become a defensive leader, and a top tackler, after years of injuries and setbacks.
"He just kept answering the bell," associate coach DeWayne Walker says. "It's nice to see him out there playing like he is."
Pollard's travails began in 1995 when, as a much-heralded junior at Long Beach Poly High, he heard his knee pop and knew instantly the injury was serious. Young and scared the surgeon might make a mistake, he insisted upon having only an epidural so he could stay awake for the procedure. He did not know what he was looking at, yet he needed to watch.
The surgery was successful and Pollard played well enough as a senior to attract a scholarship from USC. Then his test scores came back too low to qualify for admission. Again, he was out of football.
"All this came up on me at a young age," he says. "I had to grow up."
His dad was there to help.
Henry had played linebacker in high school too. Like his son, he was undersized and tough or, as he puts it, "a little piece of leather but well put together." He counseled Mike to enroll in junior college and study with a tutor.
Within the space of a semester, Pollard's test scores rose and he enrolled at USC. He played in almost every game in the 1998 season as a backup to Chris Claiborne and, when Claiborne left early for the NFL draft, figured to have a good shot at the starting position.
But his troubles weren't finished. In the spring, the ligaments in his other knee tore, which meant another operation and another year of rehabilitation. Pollard sat down with his family to discuss quitting.
"He really thought maybe he was all washed up," Henry recalls. "I told him football is nice but do what you feel is best for you."
Pollard needed the leeway, saying "some parents put pressure on their kids; mine didn't." This time, his inspiration came from an outside source.
Paul Hackett, coach of the Trojans at the time, showed him old game films of Anthony Munoz, who had five knee operations and still became one of the greatest offensive linemen in pro football history.
"That gave him courage," Henry says. "It put some kind of drive into him."
The road back was not easy. It started last season when assistant coach Kennedy Pola put him on the kickoff squad. Pollard made a couple of highlight-reel tackles against California and UCLA, the kind of hits that got noticed when new Coach Pete Carroll and his staff arrived last winter.
The coaches switched Pollard to outside linebacker, where he was listed behind Frank Strong. When heralded recruit Marvin Simmons failed to qualify academically, leaving the Trojans thin in the middle, Pollard asked to return to his original position. "That showed some initiative and some confidence," Walker said.
By the end of summer camp, Pollard had won the job. "He was third string and worked his way up, which is the best way to prove yourself to the team," safety Troy Polamalu said.
The defense has been a somewhat pleasant surprise in an otherwise difficult season, ranking third overall in the Pacific 10 Conference. At the same time, the Trojans have surrendered a hefty 180 rushing yards a game, much of the responsibility falling upon Pollard and the other young linebackers.
The man in the middle has worked on making better use of his speed and hands to fight off blockers. He had 11 tackles against Oregon and Notre Dame, leading the team both times.
"He's never going to be the biggest guy or fastest guy on the field," linebacker coach Nick Holt says. "But he's working his butt off and making a lot of plays."
Before each game, Pollard gives a prayer of thanks and takes time to listen to his cleats clacking down the tunnel as he walks to the field. He looks up at people in the stands. His is a satisfaction derived from enduring hardship.
"All the stuff I went through," he says. "I didn't think this day would ever come."
As for Henry, he is in his 60s and works as a longshoreman. The guys down at the union hall pat him on the back after the weekend because they've seen his son playing on television.
"You sure must be proud," they tell him.
Henry answers: "Oh yes, I am."