SNELLVILLE, Ga. – In this northeast suburb of Atlanta, a city of only about 16,000 and with a name that sounds like it came from a Dr. Seuss book, one might guess that former University of Georgia defensive end David Pollack would be the biggest celebrity.
After all, how many high-profile personalities can there be in the 9.7 square miles encompassed by the incorporated city of Snellville? Mostly a stretch of farms until about 15 years ago, the city's development is a product of the boom that made Gwinnett County the nation's fastest-growing area.
One would think that, having starred for the Bulldogs and then become the first-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Bengals three months ago, Pollack would eat free every time he walked into the Chili's on Route 78. That the cash register attendant at the Qwik Trip gas station might extend the occasional discount. Or that, given his popularity and Southern-rooted manners, he would be treated not only like the favorite native son, but like a king.
But one would be only partly right.
"You know that Diana DeGarmo?" said Pollack good-naturedly, referring to the big-voiced teen who finished as the 2004 American Idol runner-up, and who also hails from Snellville, as does former Georgia four-year starting quarterback David Greene, a Seattle Seahawks third-round choice this year. "Well, they retired her number over at Shiloh [High School], gave her the No. 1, and all that. I played four seasons of football and my number isn't retired yet. Guess maybe I ought to try singing, huh?"
Fret not, Cincinnati officials, because Pollack, who is actually recognized in virtually every nook of this state given his stellar college résumé, isn't about to quit his day job to pursue a stage career. Of course, with his penchant for taking on challenges, for turning doubters into true believers, Pollack might try going from karaoke to crooning if somebody dared him. For now, though, the task of transforming himself from the nation's most tenacious defensive end in college to strong-side linebacker in the NFL is challenge enough.
It didn't take long for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, eager to upgrade his team's speed on the defensive side and to grow stouter at linebacker in general, to decide that Pollack is a linebacker. A few hours into the NFL draft, when he phoned Pollack before Cincinnati exercised the 17th pick in the first round, Lewis apprised the fourth-leading sacker in SEC history that he'd better get accustomed to playing from a two-point stance.
There were other franchises, but not many, who viewed Pollack the same way. Most teams, though, projected Pollack to weak-side end, and why not? Pollack had won the Ted Hendricks Award in 2004 as the nation's top end. He also won the coveted Lombardi Award as the college game's premier lineman. And after finally settling in at end, following flirtations with fullback and defensive tackle, Pollack joined the sainted (in these parts) Herschel Walker as the only players in Georgia history to earn All-American honors three times.
In the storied history of the SEC, arguably the most competitive conference in the land, only Derrick Thomas of Alabama, Billy Jackson of Mississippi State and Mississippi's Ben Williams posted more career sacks than Pollack's 36 quarterback takedowns.
Lewis knew precisely how he wanted to utilize Pollack and, with the offseason program completed, hasn't regretted his decision to move him to the strong-side linebacker spot.
"It's what he is," said Lewis, who quickly elevated Pollack to the starting lineup. "People are making it out to be more than it really is, you know? The change really isn't all that [profound]. He can do it. It's a challenge, but he's up to it, I'm confident of that."
As is Pollack, who doesn't mind being confronted with another tough task, given that he has always had an obstinate streak and likes to make the skeptics look foolish.
He was, despite a high school portfolio that tabbed him as one of the state's top players, not considered a Georgia recruiting priority. But he worked hard to gain the confidence of the coaches. Viewed as too small and a step slow to the ball, Pollack still emerged as the conference's most dominating player, a defender who commanded double and even triple-team blocking, yet who still made an astonishing number of big plays, including a game-salvaging, sack, strip and fumble recovery in his final college appearance. When some friends told him he couldn't date a girl from rival Parkview High School, he did, and married longtime sweetheart Lindsey last month.
So the move to linebacker, in which new coordinator Chuck Bresnahan has designed some packages that will force opponents to identify where Pollack is aligned before attempting to block him, figures to be his latest in your face retort to the doubters.
"Well, I don't know about that," Pollack said, "but I do know that I've always kind of approached the game with the [philosophy] that football is football. That one constant is that you've got to make a commitment to the game if you're going to be any good at it. I mean, I guess, maybe in those first few practices when playing linebacker was foreign to me, I was thinking, like, 'God, I wish I was a defensive end again.' But that didn't last too long because it doesn't do any good. You don't get anywhere thinking that way."
The Bengals' coaches expect Pollack, who has trimmed down from 272 pounds to 248 pounds for the move to linebacker, to get a lot of plays as a rookie. He will be used frequently as a pass rusher into the opposition's backfield, but also into other spots where he can make big plays.
Because he has such an innate sense for creating takeaways, for authoring huge game-altering plays even in pressure-packed situations, Cincinnati coaches will get Pollack involved in some coverages as well. He will be asked, essentially for the first time in his career, to drop into the flat and check running backs, to lock up on tight ends and ride them up the field, maybe even to occasionally step out into the slot and shadow a wide receiver in shallow zones.
Pollack probably will be joined in the lineup by fellow Georgia product Odell Thurman, the Bengals' second-round choice, who will go to camp as the No. 1 middle linebacker. And so, with Thurman and another one-time Bulldogs star, second-year defensive end Robert Geathers, on hand, Pollack already has a built-in support group. Not surprisingly, the engaging Pollack already has forged relationships with about a half-dozen other young Bengals as well.
"The thing about David," said Thurman, "is that he's always going to be in the middle of the action, on and off the field. He's a good guy."
It wouldn't be fair to suggest that, because of his myriad skills, the Bengals have made Pollack the centerpiece of a defense that statistically ranked 19th in the league in 2004, and which has struggled against the run during Lewis' two-year stewardship. He is still, after all, a rookie. Few players in this year's draft class, though, will carry such lofty expectations into the season.
Said Bresnahan: "Look at the 13 games [from the 2004 season] on tape from Georgia. He didn't do it against many 'slappies' in the SEC. He's played against [quality guys]. Sure, it's a different level and a different position, but he's a football player. … He's a smart player and he's got a lot of snaps under his belt. There's not much that surprises him."
Nor will it be shocking if Pollack, even playing at an unfamiliar position, emerges as a viable defensive rookie of the year candidate. Given that his significance to the Bengals has already been defined, it is imperative the team gets him into camp on time. There has not yet been substantive contract talks between Cincinnati officials and agent Ken Kremer of IMG Football, but Pollack, who will leave the worrying about negotiations to the people he retained for that purpose, is hoping for a quick deal.
In the meantime, he busied himself with his honeymoon, a trip to last week's ESPY Awards and daily sessions with the copious Cincinnati defensive playbook.
"It's so much thicker than what you had in college," Pollack acknowledged, "but there are a lot of things in there that can make me a good player.
"I study that thing every day, because I want to be ready. You know, about 90 percent of what people think of you is formed from their first impression. So from day one in camp, I want to be going 100 miles an hour with effort, and with as few mistakes as I can, you know? I know I've got a lot of work to do, that rookies don't always make an immediate impact, but I want people to know pretty quickly that I'm a football player, that I can take a hit and make a hit."
Given the position in which the Bengals have placed Pollack, expect him to have more hits in his rookie season than DeGarmo had on her debut CD. And expect the good folks at Shiloh High School to get around to retiring his number, too.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.