By Trevor Williams
For a brief moment in time, Washington State redshirt-senior Kalafitoni Polé had the power to turn strangers into best friends. In 2012, thousands of fans at Martin Stadium fell into each other’s arms after Polé intercepted a pass that helped the Cougars prevail against their cross-state rival in overtime. That moment is cemented in Apple Cup history and most will remember it as a quasi-rebirth for the Cougar program. For Polé, it was all about motivation.
“That was where I found my confidence again - toward the end of that (sophomore) season against Stanford and Arizona State – that’s where I started to play with confidence again,” said Polé.
Leading into the 2012 season, Polé’s football life was essentially flipped upside down when Washington State revamped its coaching staff.
“Since I’ve been here, there have been a bunch of coaching changes and position changes and that was a big transition,” he said. “But you can see the direction we’re going in and it was for the better.”
The 2012 home stretch yielded a lot of growth for WSU. It changed the character of the Cougar team and Polé.
“I was battling injuries and things and I wanted to start and work my way back up,” said Polé. “Literally, I put on 40 pounds that season and let myself go. All I remember on that play is that I didn’t score and I got tackled by a little dude.”
Defensive line coach Joe Salave’a pointed to the 60-yard interception return as a play that got the ball rolling for Polé.
“I think that kind of started it for him,” said Salave’a. “He wants it more now. He wants to prove to himself that he can do it.”
Polé set out to prove to everyone that he could improve himself and the team. As his energy continued to mount, his leadership began to shine.
“I think coming towards the end of his college career he has been excited to be a part of the process,” said Salave’a. “He has been a mainstay for us and a solid worker.”
For Polé, the coaching changes and opportunity for success energized his game. The addition of Salave’a to the Cougar coaching staff also played a role in the senior defensive lineman’s leadership transformation.
“It was different with Coach Joe, because we don’t want to have a coach have more energy than us,” said Polé. “That’s not right. So having him be the type of coach he is, kind of brought more energy out of us and myself to compete.”
Polé understood that energy and passion could allow him to unlock potential in himself and his teammates.
“I try not to get down on people,” said Polé. “If I have to, I will. But, most of the time I just try to encourage my teammates because we’re here for a reason. There’s a reason our coaches chose us and you don’t want to lose that. You don’t want to ever lose you.”
When times get tough, Polé tries to get his teammates to lean on each other.
“There are different perspectives to things,” he said. “If you look around, you realize everybody is struggling and we’re all working together. If you can feed off energy like that, it becomes more constructive.”
Energy isn’t only beneficial on the field. In the weight room, Polé has also adapted a strong work ethic.
“I just do what I’m told,” he said. “Regardless of how anything turns out, I always try to just do what the coaches say and do it to the best of my ability, even if it takes putting in extra work on the weekends instead of doing what everyone else is doing.”
Ask Coach Salave’a and he’ll tell you that’s just the kind of player Polé has grown to be.
“It’s contagious,” said Salave’a. “He’s that grinder. He’s a kid that leads by example. I think when he talks, they listen. I also know when we need something to get done up front, he is the grunt.”
As he sets to begin his senior season, Polé is seeing the grunt work pay off for him and his teammates.
“What I see is exciting to me because it is promising,” said Polé. “If we keep doing what we’ve been doing every day and keep pushing ourselves to be better, we are going to beat a lot of teams. I can say that confidently, because that’s the type of team we have.”
Heading into the 2014 season, the past will begin to pay off for the Cougars.
“We have a lot of players who have played and we have a lot more experience than we’ve had in the past, which allows us to come out and play with confidence,” he said. “As cliché as it sounds, confidence is key.”
Last week following a spring practice in Martin Stadium, as Polé stood near the spot where his interception return came to an end in 2012, he spoke of his personal and team goals heading into the season. As he spoke, it was easy to see that in two seasons, Pole’s role with WSU football has changed tremendously. With just one year left to rock the crimson and gray, fans can expect to see him ready to play and motivate his teammates day in and day out. Polé hopes this mindset will lead to the ultimate goal.
“If your goal isn’t to go to the Rose Bowl, then you aren’t doing it right,” he said. “This year is a new year. All the games won and lost in the past? They don’t count towards this season, so this next season everybody better come ready to play.“