BOULDER - Ray Polk's final season of college football follows an unforgettable year for him and his family. Profound grief made it difficult to forget, but Polk has memories he wants to keep alive.
During the Christmas season, he lost his younger brother, Nicholas, to complications of pneumonia that followed a lengthy illness. In mid-June, he lost his maternal grandfather, Chuck Corey, to a heart attack.
Polk enters his senior season at Colorado on Saturday wearing a set of military dog tags around his neck. They belonged to his grandpa, a decorated United States Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam. Corey, 77, died suddenly at his home in Alpine, Ariz.
Polk wants to honor him, and to do so he's wearing Chuck Corey's USAF ID.
"He was a big part of my life; I was really close to him," Polk said. "Growing up, we'd always make trips up there (from Phoenix) to see him. Sometimes the longest we'd stay was two weeks at a time. He was just a great person, a great person."
Nicholas, said Ray, was three years old and had been in and out of hospitals since birth. "He got pneumonia about a week before Christmas and was in intensive care," Polk recalled. "The doctors said he probably was going to die and the family decided to take him off of the breathing machine . . .
"He passed away with all of us there. Yeah, it's been a rough year for our family."
CLOSE FAMILIES DEAL differently with difficult times and what can seem like unbearable grief. Memories of the good times help them move forward, but the pace is never predictable.
Her voice cracking with emotion, Susan Corey, Polk's mother, called her father "really something . . . a great and very generous guy. He gave Ray the truck he drives there at school."
But Chuck Corey gave his grandson so much more. There were camping and fishing trips in Arizona's White Mountains. There were family Christmases in Alpine in the big, rambling log home with the huge fireplace. There were the cowboy hats and boots that Chuck gave Ray when Ray was a youngster. And, of course, there were the mental snapshots that became indelible memories for the entire family.
"All kinds of stuff they did together, really neat stuff," remembered Susan Corey, who has practiced law for 20 years in the Phoenix area and also teaches at Arizona State. "It was just such a great loss. We're all so very proud of him."
The USAF also held Col. Chuck Corey in very high esteem. His nearly three decades of service included two tours in Vietnam. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit awards. Included in his log of almost 700 parachute jumps was a stint as the Project Officer on a world record altitude jump (43,500 feet) in 1963.
Although they were brief, Chuck Corey had Buffs ties, and Ray said CU was his grandfather's "dream school." Reared in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, Chuck was an avid hockey player who earned a tryout with his favorite team, the Montreal Canadiens. His enrollment at CU lasted a year, said his daughter, noting one of the school's lures was to play club hockey but the team was disbanded.
And, she conceded with a laugh, her dad might have been more attuned to life on the ice and off campus than life in the academic world. "But he made up for it in the Air Force," Susan Corey said proudly.
Not more than two hours before his grandfather suffered his heart attack, Polk had talked to him on the telephone. Chuck Corey had heard about Polk, a starting free safety, being on the Lott IMPACT Trophy preseason watch list. He called to offer congratulations.
"He wanted to let me know he had written me a letter and sent it," Polk said. "I talked to him that day only a few hours before he passed . . . then the letter came. He sounded fine on the phone when I talked to him. It was a real shock."
POLK LATER ASKED HIS grandmother, Penny Corey, if he could take his grandfather's dog tags "and wear them on the field, kind of carry his memory and keep the love alive." Of course, his grandmother consented.
Wearing the dog tags as a tribute, said Susan Corey, "means a lot to Ray. He asked my mom and she didn't hesitate. Ray came back for the funeral (in June) and spoke. He was very emotional, but he handles it in a different way; he doesn't get tearful, he gets very sober."
Polk's parents met at Oklahoma State, where Susan ran track and his father, Raymond, played football (cornerback). A spectator at most of CU's games during Ray's career, Susan probably will miss this season's first four games due to recent major surgery. She took a hard fall while running and popped a hamstring.
The Buffs are counting on Polk this season as one of their team and defensive leaders. Over his CU career, he has proven himself as a tireless worker, which came as no surprise to his mother. "He's got a tremendous work ethic and has a great heart," she said. "He couldn't wait to get into this camp."
Initially signed as a running back four years ago from Brophy Prep in Scottsdale, Ariz., the physical talents of the 6-1, 205-pound Polk were never in question. The only unknown was where he should play. He moved to defense following his freshman year and quickly found his niche.
To accompany his physical gifts, he's evolved into a film-room junkie whose dedication initially surprised his position coach. Defensive coordinator/secondary coach Greg Brown tells of coming into the Dal Ward Athletic Center in the spring and summer on off days at odd hours. The only other person around would be Polk, watching tape.
"He relishes that role as a leader; he's taken to it," Brown said. "He's prepared himself in every way possible. There's nothing lacking in his preparation; he goes for it.
"I just want him to keep doing what he's doing. He's a big physical, fast athletic specimen. He's got another year to show what he's learned and how fast things have clicked for him on the field. He's done a terrific job as a leader. He eats, sleeps and breathes football."
The odd-hours tape study, said Polk, "has been going on for a while. I'd try to sneak into Dal Ward and watch film on my own when I can't sleep or on a Saturday or a Sunday. Whatever off time I get I would try to get in and watch some film.
"Coach Brown would bring his kids down and let them play in our DB meeting room and I'd be there watching film. It's really made a difference for me, but there's still a long ways to go. Really, I'm still learning how to watch film and how to analyze game tape."
POLK'S SENIOR SEASON finds him wearing a new number, having changed from No. 26 to No. 7 this year. His reasoning: "I've always liked seven and my dad's always liked it, too. He's always said it was God's number and that things happen in sevens and threes. So I decided to give it a shot; I hope it serves me well."
It will indeed serve him well if it allows him to avoid the worrisome injuries he's endured during previous seasons. Last year there were torn wrist ligaments that eventually required surgery, as well as a cracked sternum that simply required more healing time than was available.
Polk played through both, but missed a couple of games (Oregon, USC) because of concussion symptoms. "I could always feel the sternum with any kind of body movement," he said. "But the wrist was the most difficult to get over . . . I'd make a tackle and the wrist was killing me."
CU coach Jon Embree's challenge for Polk is to become a more consistent tackler. Polk's aggression comes to the forefront on almost every snap, but Embree is looking for more smarts, discipline and "wrap-up technique." Said Embree: "He's a hitter right now; he'll run up and blow you up . . . but he needs to be a better tackler."
However, Embree finds no fault in how Polk has mentored the Buffs' herd of talented freshmen defensive backs. Polk almost immediately took freshman safety Marques Mosley under his wing - or as Embree described it, "He put him in his hip pocket . . .
"I think that's one of the reasons (Mosley) has done what he's done. Marques sees how (Polk) works. Ray is a professional as far as how he prepares, practices. Marques is following up on that. Terrel Smith (junior safety) is following on that lead, too."
MOSLEY, LISTED AS POLK'S backup at free safety, called Polk's help "really beneficial . . . I ask him questions all the time and he lets me know where I need to be."
With Brown trying to identify more defensive backs to use in nickel and dime packages, the faster that young DBs like Mosley can develop, the better off the Buffs will be. Polk calls Mosley "a great young player, very versatile. We'll be able to use him in a lot of ways in a lot of positions.
"I try to reach out to all these guys and help them. He said he wanted to play safety this year, but I don't know if he'll end up at safety or nickel. But he can play both, as well as corner. I was just trying to walk him through the coverages and help him out with his reads. He's a great kid."
Embree is expecting much of Polk in his final season, and Polk is expecting no less of himself.
"I expect him to have a good year," Embree said. "He's a lot more comfortable in the defense. He understands what we want out of him."
Polk's goals match those his coaches and teammates have for him and the Buffs. But there also is a deep personal motivation to make his final CU season memorable for him and his family. What he's wearing is far more meaningful than a mere reminder.