July 10, 2010
The first thing you notice when talking with Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu(notes) is that his off-field demeanor couldn't be any more different than the makeup of the scud missile you see on game day. Face-to-face, Polamalu is so soft-spoken, one has to push the microphone closer when interviewing him, and he's far more comfortable talking about others than himself.
This week, his first focus wasn't on the knee that is recovering well after costing him 11 games in 2009 (the most in a single season in his seven-year career), nor was it the legal travails of one Ben Roethlisberger(notes). Polamalu was fully about helping to coach and advise the Zoom Blade team from Orlando, Florida in the national 7-on-7 tournament. Polamalu went to high school at Douglas High in Winston, Oregon, about 170 miles south of the games played this week. Polamalu played safety and running back, made All-State in baseball, and All-League in basketball, and had warm memories about his time there.
"It was a small town," Polamalu told me. "I loved how everyone went to school together from kindergarten to the 12th grade; everybody knew each other. I loved that everybody played every sport, and I think those experiences are lost nowadays."
From Douglas High, the heavily recruited Polamalu went to USC, where he learned a great deal from head coach Pete Carroll. But Polamalu didn't see the "rah-rah" side to Carroll that everyone else talks about. To him, "it was more that you loved him as an individual, and you wanted to make him happy, and that's where the motivation was. He was great to play under in college - an awesome coach and a great person. It's going to be weird seeing him on something other than cardinal and gold [team colors], though."
As much as Carroll had an effect on him, there's no question who Polamalu's favorite coach is - to ask him about Steelers defensive coordinator [and long-overdue Hall-of-Famer] Dick LeBeau is to understand just how much a coach can mean to a player. How did it make Polamalu feel to know that LeBeau was finally getting his due as one of the greatest defensive coordinators of all time?
"There's no question that he is the greatest coach of all time," Polamalu said, sounding as definite as a very soft-spoken guy can be, "and there's no question to me that he is the epitome of what a Hall-of-Famer should be. You're talking about a guy who played in the NFL and was very successful, with 63 interceptions - he reminds us of that all the time (laughs). He had the most consecutive starts at cornerback - over 100 games. He's been a special-teams coach, a coordinator, and a head coach. He's been part of the game longer than anybody who didn't own a team. So, to me, he's the most deserving guy ever, and the Hall of Fame people are lucky to have him as part of it."
Part of the value of that relationship is LeBeau's ability to take Polamalu's specific skills and move him into every kind of defensive set imaginable - from playing center field against the deep ball, to kamikaze blitzes from just about anywhere. "It's a level of trust, communication and understanding, most importantly, That's the relationship that Coach LeBeau and I have."
Of course, I had to ask him about Roethlisberger, and the four-to-six game suspension that the quarterback faces. One thing Polamalu wanted very much to impart to those who are worried about the 2010 Steelers as a result of all the off-season turmoil is his resolve to see things right.
"One thing that's been kind of a good experience for us is that we've won games without Ben; people don't seem to understand that;" Polamalu said. The Steelers have a 5-4 record in the nine regular season games in which Roethlisberger has not played since his 2004 rookie season. "He's missed quite a few games in the NFL, and we've done well because our defense understands that we need to apply that much more pressure. I think that this will be no different in that way, the only thing that's different is the publicity that's brought to the subject. There's no question that we can't win a championship without Ben, but there's also no question that we can win games without star players."
Polamalu said that his knee is holding up well after surgery to repair the torn PCL that cost him so much of the 2009 season; he seems ready for training camp and one of the Steelers' most interesting seasons in recent memory. If he's healthy, there's no question that Troy Polamalu will be a bastion of consistency in an uncertain environment.
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