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Former CK star poised to help USC to share of national title

When Willie Poole runs onto the field with the No. 1-ranked University of Southern California Trojans Jan. 1, it will mark the end of a long and difficult journey.

From blue chip high school prospect at Christ the King, injury, a controversial stint with Boston College and a small detour through the junior college ranks, the 22-year-old St. Albans native stands poised to lead his team to a share of the national championship in what will be his last collegiate game.

“I never thought I’d be at USC coming out of high school,” said Poole, a cornerback with the Trojans who tied to lead the PAC-10 Conference with seven interceptions this season. “I never thought I’d be in this position at all.”

That position is one that has him on the verge of college football immortality and the likelihood of hearing his name called Saturday, April 24, when the National Football League holds its annual draft. It’s a long way from his humble beginnings living in St. Albans and cutting his gridiron teeth in southeast Queens.

“It’s a great feeling just to be in this position,” Poole said. “At the same time, I’ve been through a lot. I know it can easily be taken away from you. It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”

When he was at Christ the King, Poole was regarded as one of the most dangerous and versatile athletes in the Catholic High School Football League. A quarterback with the Royals, Poole was all set to make some noise during his senior season before breaking the fifth metacarpal in his foot in the team’s first game. He was forced to sit out the entire season.

What was to be his year, his time to shine, turned out to be a lackluster season of unfulfilled promise. But the injury, though painful, only slowed Poole’s march to success.

“I knew I would heal, that I would be able to run again,” said Poole, who also had limited college interest due to the fact that he was coming out of New York City, which historically has not been known as a football town. “The fact that I was coming from the city didn’t help. It’s really hard for guys to get that recognition. I just wanted to put it out there that there were some kids out here that can ball.”

Because New York City is perceived as more of a basketball town, Poole was probably just as well-known for his exploits on the hardwood as a member of the nationally No. 2-ranked Christ the King basketball team. A terrific outside shooter, Poole was the first man off the bench for a team that featured future Division I talents Omar Cook, Mark McCarroll, Kason Mims, Jave Meade and Zach Williams.

“We had a pretty good team,” Poole recalled.

The injury and his coming out of New York did not deter some institutions from wanting to ink an athlete of his caliber. Poole eventually signed with the Big East Conference’s Boston College Eagles, for whom Poole planned to play both football and basketball.

His stint at Boston College was short, but he was a stellar football standout. Poole, who participated for one full season, started 10 games at cornerback as a redshirt freshman in 2000, posting 75 tackles (second on the team), including four for losses (with a sack), one interception, eight deflections, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles in 11 games. Poole also had eight tackles and an interception in a victory over Arizona State in the 2000 Aloha Bowl.

His dream of playing football and basketball on the Division I level appeared all but a reality in the 1999-2000 season, being listed on the team’s roster, but for reasons that still escape Poole, he was never given the opportunity to try.

“Honestly, I didn’t get the opportunity to play basketball there,” Poole said. “Whatever the reason, I just didn’t get the opportunity. I was hoping to play. My first year, we weren’t really that good, so I didn’t think it would hurt. I just didn’t get the opportunity.”

His career at the Big East school ended suddenly in 2001 when Poole was suspended from the team for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Poole chose not to disclose the details of the “unfortunate incident,” which eventually led to his leaving Boston College.

“I was 18. I made some mistakes in my life,” Poole said. “It just didn’t work out. It was just a bad decision for it to happen like that.”

Poole’s sudden departure from Boston College put the football player’s career on hold. It was only some quick thinking, hard work and determination by Poole that he now finds himself at the zenith of the collegiate football mountain.

“It was a point in time I needed to get in a school,” Poole said. “I really wanted to play football. That was my big goal in my life. I just decided to come out here. I didn’t know anybody and it worked out.”

Poole selected Ventura Junior College in southern California, a powerhouse athletic institution that also has among its alum Rafer Alston, a former Cardozo High School grad now playing for the Miami Heat.

“Before I left New York, that was my plan,” Poole said. “I just wanted to go to junior college and do what I had to do.”

Poole played one year for Ventura, stirring up enough interest in him to feel like he was back in high school going through the whole recruiting process all over again. He had only one year of eligibility remaining, but USC and head coach Pete Carroll gambled that Poole could contribute enough to make the investment worthwhile.

And they were right. Helping the Trojans to an 11-1 record, the nation’s No. 1 ranking and a possible share of the national title, Poole put up stellar numbers. His seven picks tied him with Washington State’s Erick Coleman for the conference lead. He returned one INT 68 yards for a touchdown, recorded one sack, made a total of 70 tackles, forced three fumbles and led the PAC-10 with 21 passes defended.

Poole was named conference defensive player of the week when he had two interceptions in a win over Arizona.

“It’s been a lot of hard work,” Poole said. “I’m prepared to do whatever it takes. I put in the work and the sweat with everybody. I was just going out there and just playing, trying to make plays.”

The national championship debate playing itself out in the national media concerning the BCS system, which will tab the winner of the Fiesta Bowl between No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Oklahoma as the best college football team in the nation, is not lost on Poole. While USC can lay claim to a share of the title by beating Michigan and remaining No. 1 in the polls, not having the opportunity to play for the complete crown certainly appears not to sit too well with Poole.

“That’s what’s at stake for us,” Poole said. “(Michigan is) a good team. They got great coaches, great athletes over there and we have to prepare for that game. We can’t worry about everything that happens outside of the game.

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” he added. “Whatever happens with the BCS happens. We just got to get ready for Michigan. The Rose Bowl is a great game and I’m really proud to be part of it.”

And after Michigan, the NFL.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

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