Lufkin, Texas might not be the first place that comes to mind when you envision the realization of a lifelong dream, but that’s exactly where Ja’Lynn Polk decided he wanted to be the day before the 2024 NFL Draft.

He had some business to attend to.

Polk, just two days away from being selected by the New England Patriots, decided to head back to his old stomping grounds at Lufkin High School and talk to current student-athletes. It’s something he did throughout his collegiate career and was in part inspired by the moment former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver (and Lufkin legend) Dez Bryant gifted him a pair of cleats when he was a youngster.

Polk didn’t go back to Abe Martin Stadium to hand out swag, though. He wanted to relay a message to the couple dozen or so upperclassmen in attendance.

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“He told the kids, ‘Mark it down, I will win a Super Bowl and I will be All-Pro,'” Lufkin head coach Todd Quick told “His goals are lofty, but they’re goals he can reach.”

Polk’s journey toward New England started out in Lufkin, where he had an exceptional high school career following a trail that was blazed by other NFL wideouts Bryant and Keke Coutee. Polk helped the Panthers win a pair of division titles and added his name to several school leaderboards, but his recruitment wasn’t anything to write home about. Texas Tech was his best offer, and although it’s a power-five program, it wasn’t where Polk needed to be to make his later proclamation come true.

It was the perfect place to start, though.

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David Yost and Joel Filani, the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach for the Red Raiders at the time, fell in love as soon as they found Polk. He attended a recruiting camp in East Texas that had about 700 kids running around and stood out immediately. Yost and Filani saw the same thing Quick had been experiencing the previous few years; Polk wasn’t the biggest, fastest or strongest kid in attendance, but he was the best.

“His goal is to win every snap he takes,” Quick says. “He knows that will give him the chance to compete, so he is a fierce competitor during practice and he’s not blowing smoke just saying stuff. He truly believes it and he knows what it takes. He’s going to work, he’s gonna compete and New England will fall in love with him just because of who he is.”

Polk only spent one season in Lubbock, Texas, but accomplished more than just about anyone expected out of the then-freshman wideout. Erik Ezukama was the leading receiver on that team, and T.J. Vasher was a former teammate of Patrick Mahomes who was described by Yost as “the second coming” for Tech. But it was Polk who immediately stepped in and became the offense’s most reliable player.

“He was good from the get-go,” Yost told “He’d just go out and make plays, and they play good football where he’s from, but he walks into a room and it’s never too big for him. I think when he went to Washington it was the same thing, where he was better than they expected… He’s just a really, really high-level football player. Ja’Lynn isn’t the first guy you think of when you want to run a reverse or throw a screen, but it always worked when we’d get the ball to him so we’d be dumb not to put the ball in his hands. You just get the same thing from him all the time.”

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Polk was earmarked for greater success in his sophomore campaign with the Red Raiders, but things were changing in Lubbock. Yost was out of a job, making it likely that Filani wasn’t too far behind. It was the first example of something Polk dealt with throughout his amateur career and an unfortunate reality of football: it’s a business.

“We all knew there were uncertainties,” Filani shared. “He came to me and said, ‘Coach, I don’t even know if you’re going to be here.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be here, either!’ It came to a point where he thought about leaving, so I helped him get to Washington where he’d have an opportunity to shine.”

It was an easy decision in the end. Polk moved north to Seattle, where his cousin and former high school teammate, Caleb Berry, had just enrolled.

Polk’s arrival to Washington didn’t lead to immediate success. He was stuck behind Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan, alongside others, on the depth chart and saw the majority of his first season lost to a broken clavicle. He looked to move past that in 2022, but the deck seemed to be stacked against him as Jimmy Lake, the head coach who recruited Polk to the Pacific Northwest, was fired due to an on-field incident where he lunged at a player.

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Lake and Filani essentially facilitated the transfer from Texas Tech to Washington, and now neither would be around to aid Polk in what would be a critical season for his development. The Huskies ultimately hired Kalen DeBoer, someone Polk had zero prior relationship with.

It wound up being the best thing that ever happened for the young wideout’s career.

Polk flourished in DeBoer and Ryan Grubb’s offense, catching 110 passes for 1,853 yards and 15 touchdowns over the next two seasons, good for the second most receiving yards and scores in the program across that stretch.

“It’s impressive,” Filani said. “He knew that he’d get it done, just with his work ethic. It wasn’t guaranteed that he was going to play there, and he had to work his tail off. He’s just the guy that would never go away and proved he could be the guy at a high level.”

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Polk’s most impressive attribute, at least from an outside perspective, was his ability to continue growing into himself and bring others along with him. He had a leadership quality that was unmatched by those he’d been around, whether it was at Texas Tech or Washington.

“He’s funny. He’s very bubbly,” Yost said of Polk’s personality. “I’d met Rome Odunze throughout the recruiting process, and he didn’t really speak. Ja’Lynn was like — he was chit-chatting all the time. I’d heard he was the third guy (at Washington), but when I watched him I thought, ‘He’s as good as any of them.’ Ja’Lynn will be a really, really good player the day he shows up, and he’ll be that way until the day he’s done. It’s the same guy every day, whether it’s leadership, maturity or any of those things. He’s been that way since the day I met him.”

Polk arrives in New England with some fairly lofty expectations. He isn’t quite as declarative as new teammate Javon Baker, but he’s displayed exactly what the Patriots could have hoped for out of a potential No. 1 option — both as a leader on the field and off it.

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Polk led positional drills throughout rookie minicamp and took it upon himself — alongside Baker — to become more vocal as the rookies acclimate to their new environment.

“We’re trying to find our routine and schedule to be the best we can be,” Polk said following rookie minicamp practice in early May. “We want to lead the guys in the room, and to feed off the vets and pick their brains about the things they do.”

It’s been a trait Polk has held since he was 18, learning the culture at Texas Tech.

“He’s a guy you can lean on,” Yost said. “He’ll seem more veteran and mature than his time. He was a true freshman for us, but he might have been the most mature of our receivers, just because he talked the most and did it all the time.”

The Patriots, long mocked for having a string of No. 3 wide receivers, probably didn’t do themselves any favors in the pubic perception department by selecting Polk. He was, in the eyes of many, the No. 3 option in his own college program.

It’s up for debate whether that’s even true, but the undoubted truth is that Polk has what an NFL team looks for in a true top-flight option.

“He’s got great hands,” Filani said. “He probably has the best hands I’ve seen since (Michael) Crabtree. He makes catches that — he’s just so strong and can control his body. He can separate enough to where he can make contested catches but give the quarterback an opportunity to get him the ball.

“I know he wants to be a No. 1. He’s working toward that, and there’s only so many Justin Jeffersons and Ja’Marr Chases but you talk about a guy like Stefon Diggs — these guys are unwilling to not be the top guy. I see him competing for the top spot, and I think he’ll attack that and take it. He can be the guy (New England) really leans on, and I can see him being the guy.”

If he’s able to be the guy for the Patriots, they’ll consider his selection a home run. But is there a real shot at Polk reaching that lofty goal he shared back in Lufkin the day before the 2024 NFL Draft?

“Book it,” Quick said. “He doesn’t talk to hear himself talk. It’s truly part of what his goal is, and you can book it.”

Featured image via Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports Images