The story of Troy Polamalu, who retired this week after 12 superlative seasons with the Steelers, can be told in a plethora of ways.
It can be told using large, spectacular moments, like when Polamalu sealed a trip to Super Bowl XLIII for the Steelers by intercepting Joe Flacco and weaving through the Baltimore Ravens for a late touchdown.
It can be told using smaller, everyday football plays: Polamalu blowing up a stretch play, deflecting a pass or delivering a solid hit to prevent further yardage. His pre-snap movement could be a highlight reel all its own, a wild-haired man running around, wreaking havoc before the ball was snapped.
Polamalu was the ultimate competitor between the lines, a ferocious, reckless, unpredictable force of nature who destroyed game plans, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and anything else that got in his way. He played the safety position in a way few could even comprehend, much less emulate.
Dick LeBeau, a Hall of Famer and Polamalu’s defensive coordinator for all but one season, called him the greatest safety he has ever seen.
That said, recounting his career in Pittsburgh strictly through the lens of football smacks of shortsightedness. It's missing much of what the man is about.
Polamalu’s greatest achievement was transcending football. For every on-field highlight there exists a story of random charity, such as picking up a restaurant tab for a complete stranger. His ferocious hitting and vicious playing style has a counterweight, too, in the form of his near-constant presence at Children’s Hospital. Polamalu is such a fixture there that he has his own parking space.
He didn’t and doesn't visit sick kids because that is what athletes are expected to do, popping in for an hour or two, then leaving. He formed real, tangible bonds. No one really heard about it, though, because Polamalu never sought recognition for it, probably thinking that it wasn’t something that deserved public adulation.
Given the microscope that the modern-day athlete, especially the star athlete, is under, it is surprising when there isn’t some sort of incident to look back on. Polamalu has a clean sheet. No dust-ups with media, no incidents with fans, not even the slightest hint of something untoward on his docket. He was perhaps the only true personification — and then some — of the much talked-about, never really seen “Steeler Way.”
Polamalu represented a fascinating contrast — an incredibly introspective, thoughtful athlete, unflappably calm bordering on serene away from the field, and a terror on it. When he spoke about changes to the game, ones designed ostensibly to protect players, he was blunt about the nature of football, and the risks associated with it.
It was a relief that he stepped away from football when he did, retiring instead of trying to squeeze one more season out of a body on a clear decline. His concussion history dates back to high school, and the way in which he discusses concussions leaves open a very real fear that he could suffer debilitating effects later in life.
No player deserves the fate that the game so often brings them later in life, but Polamalu’s light, the goodness the he so obviously spreads to everyone around him, makes it logical to hope for all the world that he dodges that fate.
My favorite aspect of Polamalu’s career is that for all his brilliance on the field, and according to former safety partner Chris Hope, he was an extremely intelligent, analytical player, he had little interest in watching the sport on television. His passion instead was and is soccer.
How fitting that he loves soccer, known as “The Beautiful Game.” For 12 Hall of Fame seasons, he imparted a kinetic, manic beauty onto a violent position in a brutal sport. No one else played football like he did, and no one else ever will.
Polamalu is a Pittsburgh sports legend. He is arguably the most beloved local athlete of his generation. His impact will be felt and spoken of for decades after his retirement. He is one of the greatest football players of all-time. And yet, he is a better person than he was a player.
Watching him play was a privilege. Knowing that a guy wearing the hometown uniform was as good as advertised away from the field was a source of civic pride. May he enjoy a long, fruitful life after football. Few, if any, did it better.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of "The Starkey & Mueller Show" 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 The Fan.
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