By Martin Cleary
Patience. Perseverance. Production.
If three words could describe Amlicar Polk’s football career at the University of Ottawa, they would be strong and suitable candidates.
That slow-and-steady-wins-the-race timeline has worked well for Polk. The sixth- and final-year runningback has taken advantage of a huge opportunity this season and is the OUA’s leading rusher as well as a key power element in the Gee-Gees’ offence.
And he hopes to excel in his critical role on Sunday and help the Gee-Gees win a fifth consecutive Panda Game over the Carleton Ravens at TD Place Stadium.
It took a long time for Polk to reach this OUA mid-season rushing apex as the regular season enters its second half.
A successful runningback and receiver for the green and yellow Westdale Secondary School Warriors in Hamilton, Polk moved to the next level in 2018 with the Gee-Gees’ football program. But in his freshman season, he only saw action in a mere two games.
As a sophomore in 2019, he dressed for every game, but was primarily a special-teams player. He occasionally moved into his comfort zone as a runningback, carrying the ball 20 times for 80 yards and one touchdown.
The OUA football season, like every other university sport, came to a halt in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic kept all athletes on the sidelines and forced them to find new ways to training and stay motivated.
When the Gee-Gees’ football program resumed in 2021, Polk continued to play a similar, dual role as he did two years previous. He had 8.5 tackles, three forced fumbles and a blocked kick on special teams. But he only got his hands on the ball six times for 29 yards rushing and four catches for 27 yards.
Playing last season behind all-star runningback J-P Cimankinda, who was in his graduating year, Polk still was an important contributor to the Gee-Gees’ special teams and his role was slightly elevated as a runningback.
He started to feel like a Westdale Warrior again, rushing for a career-high 295 yards on 45 carries and three touchdowns in eight regular-season games, including his first century match with 116 yards on 10 carries against the University of Guelph Gryphons. When his number was called for a pass, he caught seven for 139 yards and one touchdown for the season.
Polk, whose love of the game earned him the team’s Lumsden-Avery Award for sportsmanship and dedication in 2022, was starting to emerge as a runningback and then the CFL took notice.
He attended the 2023 CFL Invitational Combine in Waterloo in March. Less than two months later, he was the 10th player drafted by the Ottawa Redblacks, going 58th overall in the seventh round.
Primed for his sixth and final year (an extra year because of the COVID non-season), Polk, 23, has been running wild on university fields with four consecutive 100-yard-plus games and five touchdowns for the 2-2 Gee-Gees.
“His patience and persistence are paying off,” Gee-Gees football head coach Marcel Bellefeuille said in a phone interview before Thursday’s practice.
“Last year, he played in situations, but you could see [his talent] was there and he was ready for a breakout year.”
After the Gee-Gees’ first four games, Polk is ranked No. 1 in the OUA for yards per game at 145.3, which slots him No. 2 on the U Sports national list behind University of Alberta’s Matthew Peterson at 160.
Polk opened the season with 142 yards against the University of Waterloo Warriors. He followed with 191 yards against the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, 108 against the undefeated University of Windsor Lancers and 140 yards against the unbeaten Western University Mustangs.
His rush-per-carry yardage of 7.4 puts him fourth in the OUA.
As for point scoring, Polk’s five rushing touchdowns have him ranked No. 2 in the OUA and U Sports behind University of Guelph freshman quarterback Marshall McCray with six.
“His approach off the field to the game is extremely professional,” Bellefeuille added. “He has taken a leadership role this season and asks good questions. He’s very disciplined and has always been a very good athlete.
“He’s a complete runningback. He runs the ball, is great in protection and catches the ball out of the backfield.”
Polk also showed his professional approach to the game when he attended the Redblacks’ training camp in May.
“I’ve been impressed with Amlicar,” Redblacks head coach and special teams co-ordinator Bob Dyce told Postmedia’s Tim Baines. “I’m here at 5:15, 5:30 (in the morning) and he’s here. He works out every morning and he pushed big weight. He practises hard every day. Going into the draft process, I didn’t know as much about him as I did some of the other Canadian backs.
“But I am so happy we drafted him because he’s shown outstanding skills both as a runner and on special teams. He’s a guy who takes great pride in special-teams play. It’s probably something that’s a little unsung, but he played the boundary corner for us on our kickoff team (versus Montreal) and guys were able to make tackles.
“Josh White made two tackles, but that was because of Amlicar setting a strong edge to the boundary, taking on his block with correct leverage – allowing his teammates to be successful. That’s the type of guy you want to play special teams.”
Polk, who was born in the western African country of The Gambia and moved to Hamilton with his family at age nine, has truly benefited from all the coaching during his university football journey.
“It has taught me a lot each year,” Polk said in a phone interview. “I finally have earned the spot as a starter.”
Polk was ready to be the Gee-Gees’ starting runningback.
“It’s definitely a self-belief. I believe I can do it,” added the communication/interdisciplinary studies graduate, who praised the work of his offensive line.
The 55th Panda Game will be his fifth time in the crosstown rivalry and he’s focused on a fifth straight victory. When he reflects on his first four Panda Games, his thoughts are to the point.
“I have memories of winning,” Polk said. “My goal for the Panda Game is just win. That’s all that’s on my mind.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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