Jamil Pollard has become an expert in gauging distances.
“Closest mall, an hour away,” Pollard said of his new home in Big Rapids, Mich., the site of Ferris State University.
It’s not just the shopping center that’s a decent drive from campus, Pollard said.
“Chick-Fil-A, an hour away,” Pollard said. “A movie theater with good seats, an hour away.”
Pollard wasn’t complaining. There might be not a lot to do in Big Rapids, and “it snows every other day,” he said.
But it’s the place that changed his life.
“A beautiful second chance,” Pollard said of his time at Ferris State.
A former West Deptford High School football star who spent time at both Penn State and Rutgers, Pollard emerged last season after a four-year absence from the sport as a key player for one of the best NCAA Division 2 programs in the country.
On Saturday, Pollard, a senior defensive tackle, will take the field in McKinney, Tx., as Ferris State (15-0) will meet Valdosta (Ga.) State (13-0) for the NCAA Division II national championship. The game will be televised nationally by ESPNU.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Pollard said of the other day from his team’s hotel. “I’m proud of this team, proud to be part of it.”
Ferris State coach Tony Annese calls Pollard “an amazing story” who has served as both a leader and an inspiration to his teammates.
The 25-year-old Pollard traveled a winding road to Big Rapids. A star player as a high school senior in 2011, Pollard signed with Penn State and spent the summer of 2012 in State College, Pa., taking college courses.
When the Jerry Sandusky scandal hit Penn State, Pollard decided to transfer to Rutgers. He spent more than two years with the Scarlet Knights program but rarely hit the field, admitting that he made some mistakes that included an incident in which he was arrested for breaking into another student’s dorm room.
“I had some personal issues,” Pollard said.
Pollard never gave up on football. He even joined the Rutgers club rugby team after leaving the football program, just to stay in shape.
“That was a lot of fun,” Pollard said of rugby.
In the spring of 2017, Pollard was taking classes at the Rutgers’ campus in Camden and working at Ruby Tuesdays at the Deptford Mall. He emailed Annese, asking for a chance to play Division 2 football.
“I must have spent a year and a half emailing coaches,” Pollard said. “I never gave up hope.”
Annese liked what he saw of Pollard on film. He liked what he heard on the telephone even better.
Annese also researched Pollard’s background. He learned that Pollard was 13 when his two younger sisters were killed by his older brother, who was found not guilty of the crime by reason of insanity.
“This is a kid who has been through something horrible,” Annese said. “We like the idea of helping young men who have to overcome adversity.”
Pollard arrived at Big Rapids on the first day of football camp in the summer of 2017. He left shortly afterward and spent 10 days back in South Jersey for the funeral of his mother.
“This kid has been through so much,” said Clyde Folsom, Pollard’s former coach at West Deptford.
Pollard played football in 2017 for the first time in four years.
“I thought I was terrible for 10 games,” Pollard said. “But my coaches kept believing in me.”
This season, Pollard has been a dominant force along the defensive line, according to Annese. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Pollard has made 44 tackles.
“He’s everything you look for,” Annese said. “He’s a very powerful, very physical player.”
Pollard will graduate later this month with a degree in integrated studies. He hopes to play professional football but has a fall-back plan: To work with children.
“I feel like I have a lot of wisdom,” Pollard said. “When I get tired or frustrated over a play or in a game, I just breath and I remember how much I’ve been through and how I’ve tried to make something of myself.
“I feel like I’ve lived more than one lifetime.”