Polamalu a study in contradictions
The Steelers safety's personality doesn't match the ferocious way he plays
by Tom E. Curran, NBCSports.com
TAMPA - When Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert sat down and talked to Troy Polamalu in early 2003, he was slightly taken aback.
Polamalu, at the time coming off a brilliant career at USC, was projected as one of the top safeties in the draft.
But the havoc-wreaking play Polamalu put on tape did not match the voice coming from his mouth. He was so serene, so soft-spoken.
"It was a little unusual," says Colbert. "You're not concerned, but it was noticeable. Most of the time, the personality matches the play. In his case it didn't. I remember when we were thinking about drafting him, we'd talk to him and you'd say, 'This can't be the same person we're watching on tape.'
"He's a totally different person on the field from the way he is off the field," Colbert continues. "If you met him off the field, you could not project his personality to the way he plays. It's just a switch that goes on and I can't explain it. It's unique. But then you realize he's a great person, and you felt good about the decision (to draft him). But we really had to rely on just watching him. The two sides didn't match so it wasn't a natural, easy projection."
But by the time the Steelers were done with their research, they knew they had their guy. Moving up from the 27th spot in the first round to the 16th in a deal with the Chiefs, the Steelers selected Polamalu. And he's been making them look smart ever since.
In the AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens, Polamalu, 27, imposed his will on the game with two memorable - and momentous - plays. The first came early, following a Steelers turnover. The Ravens had a fourth-and-1 in Steelers territory, and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco was attempting to push forward to extend the drive.
Then, soaring over the mass of gnarled humanity, came Polamalu. He latched on to Flacco like a jackal on a zebra and pulled him to the ground.
Later, with the game still up in the air, Polamalu struck again. The Ravens, trailing 16-14, were trying to mount a drive behind Flacco. But with 4:34 remaining, Polamalu made a leaping interception at the Ravens 40 and took a weaving route to a game-sealing touchdown.
We are currently in the golden age of NFL safeties. Darren Sharper of the Vikings, the Colts' Bob Sanders, Philadelphia's Brian Dawkins...the list of game-changers at the position is long.
But Polamalu is a step ahead of them because of the impact he has in the running game, the passing game and with the ball in his hands after an interception. Only Baltimore's Ed Reed is as all-around dangerous.
How can a player be so zen off the field and be so disruptive on it?
"A lot of the media thinks he's quiet, but he's not," insists fellow safety Ryan Clark. "He's a prankster. He's always tying people's helmets to the bench in the preseason. Tying shoes together. Throwing snow in your helmet at practice. He's fun-loving and makes sure the work doesn't get too heavy. It is a game, and he makes it fun for us."
Polamalu, Clark says, is a mood-enhancer. As much as he keeps it light off the field, he imbues his teammates with energy on it.
"When you see the way he plays, he doesn't have to say anything," Clark states. "When you see a guy on fourth-and-1 literally jumping over a pile to stop a quarterback, you feed off of that. The best thing about him though is he makes those plays and runs to the sideline. He doesn't get caught up in a celebration. He lets us celebrate for him."
Asked about his personality and whether he ever gets angry, Polamalu says, "I've gotten a lot of personal fouls in my career. You try to be level-headed. But on the field, I don't talk a lot of trash, and I'm not a big rah-rah guy. I'm tired a lot of the times in the game. I'm trying to conserve as much energy as possible."
Polamalu's cool is evident too as he digests the hype leading into Super Bowl XLIII. Clearly, the explosiveness of the Cardinals passing attack presents a direct challenge to Polamalu and the Steelers secondary.
"Whenever you have a passing game with a quarterback (Kurt Warner) who is able to read how defenses develop, as well as putting the ball on the money, along with great receivers who are always going to catch the ball, it's always going to be difficult for any defender," he says. "This is really unique in a sense because they have two of the best wide receivers in the game (Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin). Even when they are in position not to make plays, they make the plays. When a cornerback makes a great play on the ball, they are still making plays and you can never substitute for that."
Even though his Steelers are favored, Polamalu is dismissive of all forecasts.
"I think first of all, as football players, as athletes in general, we don't really care what you guys say about these type of things. Quite honestly, the media feeds off these predictions," he says. "Our mentality whether we're favored or the underdog has always been, 'The game has got to be played.' A lot of the times (predictions) are wrong. The oddsmakers probably never had the Cardinals or the Steelers in the Super Bowl anyway. All of that stuff is really thrown out the window. Once you get between the lines, you're just worried about the play that is at hand. You can never really give any credence to that."
As he finished saying that, Polamalu spied teammate Kendall Simmons coming closer to his podium. It's a recurring gimmick on media day, to have one teammate interview another. Simmons rattled off questions about Polamalu's hair, what's on his iPod and so on.
Finally, Simmons asked whether Polamalu was disappointed he'd miss Bruce Springsteen's halftime show.
"Yes," he said quietly. "I like the Boss. It would be sweet if he had Courteney Cox come on stage too and dance with him."
Simmons looked blankly at Polamalu. He didn't have the foggiest idea what Polamalu was talking about. Why would Simmons know that, in Springsteen's 1984 "Dancing In the Dark" video, the Boss hauled a 19-year-old Cox up onstage and danced with her?
Why would Polamalu know it? He would have been three at the time.
But Polamalu just sat there, smiling that beatific smile, looking at Simmons as he stammered for a follow-up.
As Colbert said, "a little unusual."
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