Safety Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches an interception in front of tight end Evan Moore #89 of the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio.
(Matt Sullivan/Getty Images North America)
Cleveland guys aren’t supposed to admire or respect a Pittsburgh Steeler. It’s part of the code.
But it’s impossible not to admire or respect Troy Polamalu. He shattered that code with his unique style of play and his pursuit of spiritual peace and understanding.
Polamalu announced Thursday he would retire after 12 seasons in Pittsburgh, where his continued excellence was constant torment to the Browns. The praise and warmth for him began immediately after the announcement.
Polamalu played hard, he played fast and he played clean. He was a Hall of Fame player and a great teammate.
Off the field, his life revolved around family and spirituality rooted in a belief that a person could never truly know God except through humility.
He chased excellence in the humblest of ways.
There are a lot of people who know Polamalu a lot better than I did and spent a lot more time with him. But with a guy like Polamalu, any time spent with him left an indelible impression. You left feeling you learned something, that somehow his inner security -- he smiled and said the internal waters were turbulent -- had left a mark. He was that kind, that humble, that unique.
Browns fans know well how he made big play after big play when he saw the orange helmets. When Pittsburgh needed an interception, a sack, a fumble, it often seemed Polamalu provided it. Eight of his interceptions came against Cleveland, and he lost just three times to the Browns in 12 seasons.
But he was best defined in a couple of other moments.
The last time the Steelers were in the Super Bowl, Aaron Rodgers took advantage of the Steelers' secondary. Polamalu sat at a podium after the game and took responsibility, blaming himself because the coverage calls he made allowed the Packers to complete big passes.
After three or four minutes, the PR rep next to him said he could go. Polamalu said no, he was fine, and kept talking and taking responsibility. The PR rep again said he could go. Polamalu shook his head no. This happened two or three more times, until finally Polamalu had answered every question.
What he never said was he was playing with an Achilles tendon injury that meant any step he took could cause it to snap. Because of the injury, he played cautiously.
Polamalu missed two games with that Achilles injury, returned against the Browns in a game the Steelers needed to win and intercepted Colt McCoy on the second play of the game. Later in the game, he did his patented leap over the line to tackle McCoy as he took the snap from center. He reinjured the Achilles in that game as well, but he never once mentioned it after the Super Bowl loss.
The other moment came on a bench at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the Steelers' idyllic training camp home. There Polamalu sat for 45 minutes and explained his spiritual journey.
How he decided he had to find a way to know his God the best way he could.
How he spent offseasons reading every book he could find about every religion in the world, from Catholicism to Buddhism to Islam.
How that led him to Orthodox Christianity, a religion he found pure because he saw it as unchanged for 1,500 years.
How that led him to make a pilgrimage to Mount Athos in Greece, an ancient home of monasteries accessible only by boat, a place National Geographic called “the essence of isolation” with ancient monasteries carved into the mountains.
Polamalu didn’t want to know about Mount Athos; he wanted to feel it. That visit and consultation with one of the Orthodox Church’s spiritual leaders led him to believe that only in humility can one be complete.
Polamalu is a pacifist who played a violent sport because it involved surrender for the greater good of the team. He saw the same surrender for the greater good in the monastic lifestyle.
He is intensely spiritual but never forces his beliefs on others, saying that causes resentment.
His random acts of kindness for people are well-known in Pittsburgh but were never publicized.
In a sense, Polamalu embodied what the Browns have lacked -- the great player intrinsically part of the community where he played.