CHARLOTTESVILLE – By the time Tony Poljan reached high school age, he wasn’t shying away from battling the severe stutter he had since childhood. In fact, his high school football coach recalled Poljan seeking out challenges.
Lansing Catholic coach Jim Ahern said Poljan ran for student government positions, largely because he knew he’d have to give speeches in front of large gatherings of classmates and faculty.
But it was as a star athlete that Poljan — now a graduate transfer tight end at Virginia — really found the confidence to control his stutter.
“I used to get made fun of and whatnot,” said Poljan, stopping and repeating the words “get” and “made” before pushing through. “There really wasn’t an avenue I could express [myself] besides sports. I would go out on the football field or the court, and it wouldn’t matter what people said because I was always going to try harder. I was always going to win. At the end of the day, the actions speak louder than the words.”
One of seven children from an athletic Michigan family, Poljan’s actions made him stand out to Ahern before he reached high school. Poljan’s brother, David, was starring for Ahern’s team and Poljan — then an eighth-grader — would join the squad for summer workouts.
“I’ve never seen an eighth-grader — of course he was a big eighth-grader — but he was yelling at the seniors,” said Ahern, laughing at the memory. “‘Hey, we have to work harder. Work harder.’ I was thinking, ‘This kid’s going to be okay.’”
Poljan was more than OK.
He led Lansing Catholic to the state finals in 2014 and the semifinals the next year. He was the Michigan Gatorade player of the year as a senior and finished his prep career throwing for 58 touchdowns, running for 58 scores and accounting for 9,208 yards.
Poljan wasn’t the stutterer. He was the star.
“I think it was his outlet to become who he was,” said his brother, David. “He gained his confidence through sports.”
Division I offers poured in for Poljan, but some came with a catch. Most schools, including his hometown Michigan State Spartans, saw him as a tight end. Others thought he would put on the weight to become an offensive lineman. Some liked him as a strong safety, another position he played for Ahern. He originally committed to Minnesota but, after a coaching change, opted to play at Central Michigan, in part because coach John Bonamego told him he’d get a shot to play quarterback.
That’s where Poljan spent his first two seasons in college football, even starting the Chippewas first three games of the season in 2018. He spent the rest of that year switching between quarterback and tight end, before packing on 45 pounds in eight months, he said, to make the permanent transition to his new position.
Last season, he earned second team all-MAC honors after catching 33 passes for 496 yards and four touchdowns.
“Looking back, it was a very good choice,” Poljan said.
After the year, Poljan made another significant decision. Having graduated from Central Michigan, he would complete his eligibility elsewhere.
Virginia’s coaches reached out after he entered his name in the NCAA’s transfer portal and five weeks ago, after quarantining to make sure he was COVID-free, Poljan joined his new team. He said he spent much of his time in quarantine studying the playbook, helping him hit the ground running when he was able to get on the field.
His new coaches have noticed. That studying, combined with his quarterbacking experience, has helped Poljan pick up UVA’s offense quickly.
“Tony has a skillset that he can do it all, as far as blocking, running routes,” said Virginia tight ends coach Ricky Brumfield. “I think his greatest attribute is football knowledge. Playing quarterback at Central Michigan, he kind of understands the defense and what a defense will do.”
That’s allowed him to make quite an impression on his new teammates.
“He’s been making a lot of plays,” said offensive lineman Alex Gellerstedt, who transferred to UVA from Penn State before the 2019 season. “A lot of people around here are real excited for what he can do this year.”
As for Poljan’s stuttering, it’s not something his teammates spend much time discussing.
“It’s something he just deals with,” Gellerstedt said. “That’s the great thing about football and teammates. We’re all accepting of each other.”