Heart of gold: Makai Polk’s triumphant exploration of love and loss

Photo of football game
Al Sermeno / KLC Photos/Courtesy

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Walks were heavily relied on by Mark and Kahli Polk as a reprieve from the speed of urban life. Los Angeles was a hub of life and the place where they started and grew their family, but the constant flurry was draining. Such cathartic strolls away from the apartment often succeeded in virtually stopping time, but nothing could ever slow down their son, Makai Polk.

When his mother was pregnant with Israel, his younger brother, the family would step outside whenever possible, touring the neighborhood to decompress. Polk, an ever-curious almost 4-year-old at the time, couldn’t keep himself from running. As a child, the current Cal receiver was just as hard to wrangle as he is now, but a sight on one particular walk stopped him dead in his tracks.

It was a football team practicing at a local middle school. The boys were almost double Polk’s age, but he was utterly entranced.

“That was pretty much the spark,” his father said.

Polk didn’t stop begging to play football until his parents finally conceded, despite him being three days shy of the 6-year-old age requirement. A few pulled strings later and Polk was walking onto the gridiron — a tiny, little league gridiron — for the first time.

It marked the beginning of a saga for the sophomore wideout, one that would anchor him when life changed quickly. Although he surely didn’t know it when he stepped onto the field for the first time as a child, many losses and plenty of incredible successes lay ahead of him. Cultivating the mindset of a champion at such a young age was hardly child’s play, though. His time running on the field prepared him in many ways for all the challenges he would face during his walk through life.

It’s hard to imagine that being unhurried would be of any great challenge to him, as he’s mastered high-speed scenarios as a receiver at Cal with a finesse many can only dream of.

But the slowest parts of Polk’s life, not the fastest, have been the hardest.

Polk has always had a proclivity for speed. Even as a baby, he wanted to be moving faster than he was.

“He’s always been a very fast learner, very intuitive, a very smart kid,” his father said. “He had a small stage of crawling. I don’t know if that was just because he thought crawling was moving slow for him, but he got out of crawling and walked early on.”

Polk quickly transitioned from walking to running, and since starting, he hasn’t stopped.

“He was funny. He was a busy guy,” said his grandmother, Donna, who is only ever referred to as Nana in the Polk household.

Full of energy, playfulness and a competitive instinct, Polk successfully channeled his dynamism through football. But even between the lines, he was hardly ever satisfied. The positions he was best suited for, such as tight end and linebacker, didn’t allow him to capitalize on his playmaking ability. Quarterback and running back were the coveted positions that got the rock most often, and Polk wanted in on the action.

“He would complain that it was boring,” his father laughed. “Makai wanted to be a running back. And I said, ‘Son, it’s going to take a lot of hard work. Are you willing to work hard?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do anything.’ So we set out on our journey to work hard, to not just become a running back, but to become an overall good player. We trained a lot, and the training that he was doing wasn’t for kids his age — it was for older kids. But he’s a hard worker, and he didn’t complain.”

Soon, Polk was playing more positions than Charles Woodson — Polk played fullback, running back, safety, receiver and even quarterback.

“He was a jack of all trades,” his father said.

Polk was just as charismatic as he was skilled. His wit and benevolence allowed him to form fast friendships with his teammates and capture the hearts of his family members, particularly his grandmother’s sister, Diana.

Auntie Di tempered Polk’s intensity with enthusiasm and was ardent about his interests. After he moved to the Bay Area where she lived, the two were inseparable. Polk spent many of his childhood days watching ”Harry Potter” with her and devouring her famous gumbo, which he could never get enough of.

“She was a very special person, honestly. Sweet, generous, kind, you name it — she’s a great cook, great listener, great friend,” Polk’s father said. “He felt a lot of comfort in Auntie Di.”

Auntie Di and Nana were two of the many relatives who showered Polk and his two younger brothers with affection and had every ounce of it returned by the boys. His family members eagerly entertained his interests, and when it came to football, they were no different — Polk always had a small village of supporters there to cheer him on. His grandmother has even dedicated a portion of her study as a makeshift shrine to her grandson’s football career, a constant reminder of his achievements and warmth.

“I have a really supportive family, and without them, I wouldn’t be here today,” Polk said.

After his freshman year at El Cerrito High School, Polk’s parents decided that LA provided a better scene for him to be recruited. The family made the move the next year, and Polk started from scratch at Dorsey High School, where he earned a spot on the dean’s list for his 4.0 GPA and played safety.

It didn’t take long for him to get noticed.

Just a few games into Polk’s first season at Dorsey, Division I coaches thronged to LA to see the bastion of four- and five-star athletes on Polk’s team. Clay Helton of USC, Jim Harbaugh of Michigan and none other than Justin Wilcox of Cal were on the sidelines watching what would be one the best games of Polk’s young career.

Many of those coaches were there to see Kayvon Thibodeaux, the No. 1-ranked high school player who is now a defensive end at Oregon. But a different player caught Wilcox’s eye: the 6’3” safety with an incredible competitive edge.

Polk’s football career was taking flight, and he was getting looks from more than one Pac-12 school. Everything he had worked for since his first walk with his parents was coming to fruition in a poetic fashion. His great-aunt attended Cal in the early 1950s as one of the few Black women at the school at the time, and his grandfather, Harry Brown, played basketball for the Bears in the 1970s.

“When it was mentioned that he might have an opportunity to go to Cal, it was just like, ‘OMG, that’s wonderful.’ It was an exciting moment,” said his grandmother, who worked for the school for years.

“I was just happy that he had his moment, his opportunity, because I understood and knew the adversity that he went through and all the hard work that it took to get to this place,” Polk’s mother said. “We were just delighted.”

Things were moving fast, just the way the speedy receiver prefers. Few things in life proved capable of slowing him down until he faced a roadblock unlike anything he had experienced before.

Photo of football game

Meg Oliphant, KLC Fotos

Under the shining lights of Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Polk and his teammates took a devastating trouncing at the hands of Utah for Cal football’s first shutout since 1999. The then-freshman knew something needed to change.

Losses, however — both in his personal life and on the field — have never defined Polk.

Auntie Di died from ovarian cancer on Jan. 7, 2017. Time froze for the entire family as it reeled from the loss of its most trusted friend.

“They had a beautiful relationship,” Polk’s father said. “He was the son she never had.”

Polk was devastated, but he knew she wouldn’t want him to stop moving forward. Upon arriving at Cal in spring 2019, he decided to evince his love for her in a new way by donning No. 17 on his jersey to represent the date of her death.

“That was another point in my life where I felt like I had to make something out of myself because she would want me to. She wouldn’t want me to not live out my dreams,” Polk said. “I had never worn 17 before, and I just felt like coming in, I needed a new beginning. I felt like that was a number I wanted to rock for the rest of my life to represent her.”

Polk has worked to make good on his new number by giving the love he received from his aunt back to his teammates, coaches and family members.

Far too soon after his aunt’s death, an unspeakable tragedy robbed Polk of yet another one of his relatives. His 18-year-old cousin Zarrie Allen, a student at Sacramento State known for her infectious personality, was killed in a drive-by shooting this past July.

“He kind of treated her like his sister. They were very close,” Polk’s father said. “He’s had his share of tragedies, and he keeps pushing forward, but that one was really hard.”

The death of his cousin, the pandemic, systemic racism and police brutality cast a shadow over Polk’s life, but he remains determined to strive for better days.

“It’s something that stays with him, that he’s dealing with,” his father said. “But he finds a way to move forward and push forward. He’s just triumphant.”

Photo of football game

Michael Wondoloski, KLC Fotos

Polk’s ability to overcome has also served him well on the field. Cal had a bye the week directly after the Utah game, and Polk used it to get his mind right. Washington State and its Air Raid offense were next on the docket, and Polk would face former little league teammate Derrick Langford, a Cougars defensive back, on the main stage. Despite the pressure, there was something in the air that day, and the Bears’ wideout couldn’t shake the auspicious feeling that he was going to have a big night.

“When we got to the stadium, I just felt loose,” Polk recalled. “I was just like, ‘Man, I ain’t never felt like this before.’ ”

The first time he stepped between the lines that night, he made the most of the good feeling. He ran an out route, snagged the pass and spun around a defender for a gain of a few yards. Polk felt electric.

A few plays later, the receiver had another catch but was just short of a first down. He realized he needed to adapt if he was to help the Bears to a win. Regrouping on the sidelines, the players listened as the coaches brought up a screen play they had practiced that week.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘If I could get this screen, I got to crib it. I’ve got to get a touchdown so they can keep giving it to me. When they give it to me, I’ve got to make good,’ ” Polk said.

Sitting on the 48-yard line on the left side of the field, Polk was waiting in the wings when the coaching staff called the screen play. He knew it was his time. Quarterback Devon Modster took the snap and connected with Polk downfield, who made a leaping catch before burning the defender and blazing away.

“We tell him that you just have to be prepared when it’s your opportunity. He understands his contribution — he’s just waiting,” his mother said.

It was a brisk night in Pullman, and in spite of his adrenaline, Polk was feeling the sprint. His legs were tired and heavy, but defenders were flocking on every side.

“I was just thinking to myself, ‘Just don’t get caught,’ ” Polk said.

Polk outran everyone in pursuit until the only person between him and the house was Marcus Strong, a Washington State cornerback. But Polk saw Strong coming, and a juke to the left was all it took to beat him.

“I remember walking into the end zone, and I just went blank,” Polk said. “I was just thinking of all the stuff that I had to go through to get there.”

His teammates swarmed around him and showered him with praise as the Cal sideline erupted in celebration, but Polk was engulfed in something else entirely. Memories of hardships and lost loved ones flooded him as he basked in the significance of his achievement, and time stood still.

That walk to the end zone was the first of many at Cal and perhaps one of the most important of his life. It cemented his standing as a key part of the receiving corps, and his 295 receiving yards and two touchdowns as a freshman were just the beginning. This season, Polk tied his career long reception of 52 yards and walked out of the end zone with the ball at Oregon State for his first touchdown of the year.

“The only pressure is probably the pressure I put on myself just to be great and to be the player I want to be. I just go in every day with a positive mindset — every day is a day to get better,” Polk said.

For all of the grief the sophomore has suffered throughout his life, it does not show in his demeanor. His joviality harmonizes with his mature understanding of life’s preciousness and his determination to make the most of his own.

“He is a very humble kid. I tell him all the time, ‘You know, you’re inspirational to a lot of people,’ ” his father said. “He has a heart of gold, he’s a very, very good person and he’s never without a smile on his face. The only time you would probably catch Makai without a smile on the face is when we would take a long road trip because of his long legs.”

Never one to shy away from competition, Polk is adamant that he won’t stop until he’s done it on each and every NFL field.

“Now that he’s nearing his dream and my dream, it’s like, ‘Dang, it’s really about to happen,’ ” said his brother Israel, a fellow receiver. “When I know I have a person just to look at that’s close to me like that, I’m just excited and happy.”

Although he is thriving with the Bears as an incredibly skilled receiver and has even greener pastures ahead, he never lets himself get too comfortable. Polk shines most when his environment is just as fast as he is, whether that be his old LA neighborhood or Memorial Stadium.

Both away from defenders and toward his future, No. 17 was born to run.

Emily Ohman covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.