Bernard Pollard plays football like he's angry at the world.
Yet in the hours before kickoff he avoids the expletive-filled lyrics so many players rely on to get in the mood for a violent game. The fiery Titans safety sings a much different tune, which doesn't exactly match his public persona.
"He'll be walking around the locker room singing gospel music," teammate Coty Sensabaugh said.
The big-talking, hard-hitting Pollard plays like a madman. The eighth-year pro has fought, injured opponents with big hits and has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. He's been an outspoken critic of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The handwritten note he taped inside his locker this offseason opened another window into his mindset: "Goal — Super Bowl. Mission — Kill!!!"
Teammates, however, say Pollard is not the nasty guy many people envision. They insist he's really nice and kind-hearted.
"All I knew about B.P. before he got here was he was coming down to murder folks when he hit them, and he's done that with us," defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said with a smile. "But off the field, I'm telling you, he's completely different. He's very religious. He doesn't use many cuss words. He doesn't use the n-word.
"Every time we are doing prayer, he has something really good to say, and how he believes in the Lord. He's a Christian. And it's not just a front. There must be some kind of inner beast inside of him, and he releases it at game time, because he's not the same guy."
Pollard, who stirred up controversy during stints with the Chiefs, Texans and Ravens, was voted a team captain with the Titans. But he sounded flattered and embarrassed when he heard how his new teammates had bragged on him. For a second, he managed a smile.
"A lot of people think I am a thug," he said. "But I ain't no thug."
Yet Pollard also knows he can't sell the choirboy image. The same player who's among the NFL leaders in unnecessary roughness penalties since 2010 and has been fined, "too many times to count," doesn't pretend to be a saint.
This season the NFL has docked him $52,000. Some of his previous stops were short-lived because coaches grew weary of his outspoken nature. He won't win many popularity contests around the league, and he knows it.
But the bad guy wears No. 31, he said, and No. 31 is not the same Bernard Pollard.
"Am I perfect? No. I have fallen and I continue to fall," he said. "But it is about showing up, and showing people, it doesn't matter if you fall, you always have an opportunity to get back up and you don't have to stay in the same place that you were in.
"I just do the best I can. On the football field, I don't care whether you like me or not."
'He is passionate'
Two things have become evident since Pollard signed with the Titans on March 26:
— His leadership skills and presence are big reasons the defense has improved over the unit that gave up a franchise-record 471 points last season. Going into Sunday's game against the Jets, he leads the team in tackles (29) and has one of its three interceptions. His blocked field goal was one of the biggest plays in a victory over the Chargers last week.
— He is a much different person off the field. He said he's an avid reader of the Bible. The married father of three established the Pollard's Helping Hands Foundation, which focuses on feeding the hungry. He used Twitter to give away tickets to the San Diego game. He recently took the shoe sizes of all the defensive backs — so he could buy them UGG slippers.
There's No. 31, and there's Bernard Pollard.
"He has two personalities, and I think in this game you have to, especially a defensive player," said Titans secondary coach Brett Maxie, who played safety in the NFL for 13 seasons. "Bernard's playing personality doesn't conflict with who he is as a person, which is phenomenal. And that's what I like about him."
Pollard sets a great example for teammates, Maxie said, and is good at picking his spots to speak up in meetings.
"When he addresses a group, it is for a reason, and it is because he is passionate about something. … Bernard is allowing the young players to see what it is like to be a pro, and the guys that see that and gravitate to it, they are going to play as long as they want," Maxie said. "But the guys who ignore it, they won't be in this league long."
Nicknamed "Bonecrusher" during his college career at Purdue, Pollard continues to enjoy dishing out pain. It's part of the game, he said.
With the Chiefs in 2008, he was involved in a play that ended Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's season — he also has the nickname "Patriot Killer" because of hits that injured other Patriots. He's voiced displeasure over what he called the NFL's effort to make the game "two-hand touch."
Yet he's tried to clean up his act. After audio of him cursing out Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne became public in 2010, he toned down his language. He cuts himself slack on game days, when emotions run high, but during the week he has a no-cursing policy. He's not always successful at enforcing it, however.
'It's not that hard'
Pollard listens to gospel before games, though he admitted catching himself bobbing his head to other types of music when it's booming in a stadium on game day.
"No rap music. That's just me. I cut that out of my life," he said. "Tye Tribbett, Fred Hammond, John P. Kee, you'll find me listening to those guys."
As quickly as he lists those gospel performers, however, he pivots to point out that he's no angel. While teammates talk about the "kind-hearted" side of Pollard, he never wants to be known as "nice" on a football field.
To Pollard, those are fighting words.
"There's nothing wrong with having two different personalities — one on the field, and one off it. And really, it's not that hard," he said. "This is me understanding that God has blessed me with the ability to go out there and play. That doesn't mean I can't cut on my mean streak. That I can't cut on that switch to play hard-nosed football, and to dominate.
"But at the end of the day, when that whistle blows and that clock expires, I am back to being Bernard, not No. 31."
Wyatt writes for The (Nashville) Tennessean, a Gannett property.