By Joe Starkey
It won't be the absurd acts of athleticism I'll remember most about Troy Polamalu, although I will say this: If I'd pay to watch one defensive player in his prime play a single snap on the chance he'd perform some superhuman feat, it'd be a toss-up between Polamalu and Lawrence Taylor.
It won't be the hair, either, although I still recall his Aunt Shelley telling me, “When he came home one summer (from college), he told me he couldn't afford any more haircuts. He said, ‘I don't have time for them, anyway.' ”
I asked Troy about that on April 26, 2003, the day the Steelers, in one of the more inspired moves in franchise history, traded up 11 spots to draft him. He'd been late to his own party, caught in Santa Ana traffic on the way to his uncle's house. He was by himself in his car when he learned he'd be wearing black and gold.
He came to the phone during the party, just after performing a traditional Samoan dance called a siva. Much like Troy's playing style, the dance was described as a “fantastic mix of grace and power.”
He told a story of earning extra cash in college by boogying at luaus with his Polynesian dance group. He laughed when I asked about the hair.
“I guess I don't really care too much about my physical presence,” he said. “I'll do anything to cover my face.”
It won't be Polamalu's monastic dedication to his craft or his penchant for timely plays that I'll remember most, either, although I can still hear Heinz Field exploding as he intercepted Joe Flacco and returned it for an AFC title-clinching touchdown. I can still see him raising the ball with two hands like an offering to the football gods as he crossed the goal line.
But there was something else. Something much deeper.
Polamalu was the rare athlete who acknowledged the inner strife that accompanies any rise to superstardom.
Money. Fame. Ego. Privilege. Temptation. Many of us envy it, willfully ignoring the fact that those things do not feed the soul. They cannot sustain a person.
They are much more likely to damage him.
I can't tell you how many athletes I encounter who are unable or unwilling to navigate the simple, “Hello, how are you?” interaction. It has either become lost through years of living in a distorted sports world or seems somehow beneath them.
Troy knows he's not important.
With Troy, the conversation usually started like this:
Me: “Troy, how are you?”
Troy: “Fine, thank God. How are you?”
Look at all the broken lives of retired athletes. Stories of ruin emerge daily, in many forms. Polamalu studied the personal struggles of transcendent sports figures such as Michael Jordan, Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. Much as he admired them, he desperately wanted a normal family life with his wife, Theodora, and later their two children.
“It takes a tremendous struggle to try to stay together (as a family) in this sort of environment, especially when you want to be at the peak of it,” he once told me. “Obviously, it's a struggle on my family. But my wife is so amazing in how she helps me and just leads our family. I'm so blessed to have that.”
Polamalu truly appreciated his gifts. His actions revealed as much. His actions were a tangible testament to his gratitude. He visits Children's Hospital so often that he has his own parking space. He does not merely visit sick children. He builds relationships with them. He wants no publicity for it.
I asked him once, as we were sitting outside the locker room at minicamp, “How does a man maintain his spiritual life amid the trappings of NFL fame and fortune?”
“I don't know if I'm successful at that,” he said. “But to me, there is no greater arena to culture that. You face so many passions. You're fighting ego, pride, avarice. Obviously this business is filled with a lot of temptations. But it's the best place, I feel, to overcome them.”
Near as I can tell, he overcame them.
That's what I'll remember most.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.
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