PITTSBURGH (AP) – The Pittsburgh Steelers, like most NFL teams, draft a group of players they’d like to land with their first selection.
Not in 2003. Only one name was on the list of the then director of the football company Kevin Colbert: Troy Polamalu.
One problem: Pittsburgh had 27th overall selection, which was viewed as far too late to have a chance at USC’s free run safety. So Colbert reached out to his bosses with a very un-Steeler-like idea and suggested the team do a swap to get Polamalu into their lap.
So what if the team had never climbed the board on the first lap before? Colbert was persistent.
“Kevin just felt like he was going to be a very special player,” said Art Rooney II, Pittsburgh’s then vice president. “He knew Troy had great physical abilities, but probably more importantly, I think Kevin just felt very strong about his character, his football character. And just be the guy who would be able to come in and make a difference. “
Or more precisely, a player who could make all the difference.
Pittsburgh eventually put together a package Kansas City found enticing enough to take on, a deal that allowed the Steelers to climb to # 16. The Steelers practically sprinted to the podium, making a choice that would give the franchise a pair of Super Bowl titles, and put Polamalu on its way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Polamalu’s participation in his fixation this coming weekend was cast into doubt on Friday when he posted on social media that he had recently tested positive for COVID-19. He said he was working with the Hall of Fame and health officials to see if he could be cleared for travel.
Polamalu – who is slated to be placed in a class that includes former Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher and longtime Steelers defenseman Donnie Shell – didn’t necessarily think that after a rocky first season he called both humiliating and humiliating, would ever travel to Canton.
Polamalu did not start. He didn’t really do much that led to a difficult but necessary conversation with himself about what he wanted in his life and what he wanted from his football.
“(It was like) ‘Listen man, you either go all-in or all-out here, because if you’re not all-in then maybe there is no career'” called Polamalu.
So, he grocery shopping, making the nutritional choices necessary to get in shape, while getting more comfortable with Defense Coordinator Dick LeBeau’s system. LeBeau and Cowher quickly realized that they had to walk a fine line with Polamalu. Yes, he had to be disciplined. Just not at the expense of his innate soccer IQ, which made it almost impossible for his opponents to play against him.
“Troy, when he was in the field, you didn’t want to harness him. You let him play, ”said Cowher. “If he felt uncomfortable, I was uncomfortable. We gave him a lot of leeway. “
The leeway that often ended with Polamalu doing something spectacular. His long hair – a tribute to his Samoan roots – protruding from under his helmet to the top of his No. 43 jersey, whizzed Polamalu from side of the field to the next for 12 seasons in Pittsburgh.
Eight pro bowls. Four all-pro choices. An NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2010 and two Super Bowl wins, plus 32 interceptions, 12 sacks, and five return touchdowns.
But defining Polamalu in terms of numbers seems like a disservice. It wasn’t just what he was doing. That’s how he did it.
The weaving pick-6 against Baltimore in the 2008 AFC title game. The jump over the line to darn Kerry Collins of Tennessee three feet from the end zone. The impossible one-handed interception of the dive against the chargers. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s strip sack late in the fourth quarter to get a stunner out on the streets.
This is just Troy who is Troy. Polamalu played with a ferocity that belied his calm nature outside of the field.
“He was obviously one of those people who, as soon as he crossed the white line, flipped the switch and boy, when that switch flipped it was on and he was just an amazing player,” said Rooney. “And when we left the field, he was as gentle and humble a person as you will find him.”
At the end of an everyday mini camp in the spring of 2012, Polamalu found himself back from the field with defender Myron Rolle. As a Rhodes Scholar, Rolle was trying to keep his career alive at the time. The two had a lively discussion. Their conversation didn’t focus on Pittsburgh’s defense, however. Far from it.
“We talked about expanding the middle class and about the fact that resources are becoming scarce,” said Rolle at the time. “How everyone wants to have two cars and three televisions in the house. But how are we going to keep that with 6.4 billion people on earth and growth? “
As much as Polamalu loved football, he refuses to let it define him. He retired in 2015 after it became clear the Steelers weren’t going to bring him back. However, the harsh feelings he harbored have disappeared over the past six years. In retrospect, he regards his calm exit as a blessing.
“I am so grateful that I am here today with my skills, my health, my family and my memories,” said Polamalu.
Another perfectly timed piece for a unique talent who built a Hall of Fame career out of them.
More AP-NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL