The Mane Man
He is soft-spoken and self-effacing off the field,but when Steelers saftey troy Polamalu hits the gridiron,his hair comes down and the rampage begins by NUNYO DEMASIO
His hair is wrapped in a white towel,turban-style,Troy Polamalu sits in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room after a spirited practice,quietly watching and impromptu competition among teammates.Spurred by trash talking,several players--some shirtless and abrefoot,with baggy grey sweatpants--are trying to touch the 12-foot ceiling.Polamalu smiles slightly as the 6'3" linebacker Joey Porter takes a running start and grazes the ceiling after whiffing on his first attempt.When 6'1" reciever Nate Washington crouches and then swats the tiles to emphatically end the contest,Polamalu grins.Despite a vertical leap that has been measured at more than 40 inches,Polamalu has stayed out of the fray."I've always been the observer who learns from toher people," he says in a near whisper.
That reticence dissapears on game days,when Polamalu unbundles his long locks and is transformed from a shy,self-effacing 24-year-old into one of the leagues fiercest players,known for a hyperactive style and haymaker hits.Taking center stange in Pittsburgh's miserly 3-4 defense,the 16th pick in the 2003 draft is the forefront of a new breed that is changing the way defense is played in the NFL.Says Steelers Wide Receiver Hines Ward,"When (Troy) lets his hair down,he becomes a warrior."
What distinguishes Polamalu--aside from the hair--is the multitude of roles he plays in the Steelers' defense.At times he ambles to the line of scrimmage,then sprints back before the snap to become a third cornerback.Other times he'll jog up from his saftey spot to become a fifth linebacker.But his most exotic role is as a pass-rushing end,in essence giving Pittsburgh a 4-4 formation;he'll even occasionally execute a stunt with a defensive lineman.In a Sept. 18th victory over the Houston Texans,Polamalu came at quarterback David Carr from all angles,tying an NFL record for a saftey with three sacks.Only linebackers Porter and Clark Haggans have more for the Steelers this season.
The 2004 Pro-Bowler's play at the line compels opposing coaches to pay special attention to him in thier game plan,often using motion and shifts to force him to stay deep,where he has a tendancy to bite on play-action."If you don't know where he is,he'll kill you," says Patriots coach Bill Bellichick."He's all over the field."The Packers got a firsthand look on Sunday,when Polamalu recovered two fumbles,returning one for a 77-yard touchdown in a 20-10 Steelers voctory.
Polamalu so effectivly masks his intentions that keeping track of him is a challenge.The quirkiest disguise is when he moves up,faking a blitz,then turns his back to the offense as if he's about to return to the secondary.At the snap Polamalu will suddenly whirl around and rush the quarterback."The thing that puts teeth into those moves is the fact that he can (do so many things),"says defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau."So when he's at the line of scrimmage,the offense has to say,'He may be coming.'If he turns his back to go deep,they're saying,'Oh,no,he's going deep.'And then he wheels around form that and blitzes.So you're dealing with the element of surprise."
Polamalu's frantic movement and ravenous appetite for ballcarriers earned him the nickname Tasmanian Devil from fellow starting saftey Chris Hope last season."It goes with the way his hair goes all over the place and the way he runs," Hope says."He's always into something.If you look at our film,he's always diving,scratching,clawing under a pile.He's always full speed,goung 125 mile per hour."
Once the whiste blows,though,Polamalu appears to be the most serene person on the field.He often helps up an opponent that he just walloped,then saunters back to the huddle,head down,saying a silent prayer.He hardly chats with teammates and never talks trash.Porter has heard the saftey curse on the field only twice,both times shocking his teammates.
Defensive end Kimo Von Oelhoffen noticed noticed Polamalu's idiosyncracies during the saftey's first NFL preseason game,in 2003."I love to watch him,says Vol Oelhoffen,a 12-year veteran."He (just) smiles between plays.Then it's Bing!Bing!Bing! He's all over the place."
At times Polamalu's untames play can go over the edge--he has picked up three personal fouls this season,including two in the space of four snaps agaisnt Jacksonville on Oct. 16th."I'm passionate about everything I do," says Polamalu."You have to play so aggresively,and it's hard to find the fine line."
While Polamalu's physical tools are apparent--he was times at 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a predraft workout and has exceptional strength and size--it's his cerebral approach to the game that has helped him master his multiple roles.Not long after the season ended,he watched more than 20 hours of game film over a two-week stretch at the Steelers practice facility,studying the league's top safeties.He reviewed ever defensive play in the 2004 season for the Broncos (John Lynch),Cowboys (Roy Williams),Eagles (Brian Dawkins and Michael lewis),Patriots (Rodney Harrison),Ravens (Ed Reed),and redskins (Sean Taylor),compiling a three-hour DVD of thier highlights and mistakes."In a game with a lot of great athletes the mental edge is what you (have to) have,"says Polamalu,who led the Steelers in interceptions (five) last season and tied for second in tackles (97)."I need to get better because all these (other) people are getting better."
Polamalu grew up in Santa Ana,Calif.,the youngest of five children (he has a brother and three older sisters) in a household headed by his divorced mother,Suila.During the summer of 1989,when Troy was eight,the family took a trip to tiny Tenmile,Ore.,where hus Uncle Salu and Aunt Shelley lived with thier three sons,one of whom,Joe Polamalu,played football at Oregon State.Troy was struck by the pastoral setting."This was different from life in L.A.," Polamalu says."I saw horses in the field,sheep,cows,beautiful green trees.I'm thinking:Dang,this is awesome."
After a week Suila was ready to drive back California,but Troy asked to stay behind for a while.His mother agreed,and when she called a few days later,Troy cried and pleaded for more time.Realizing that rural Oregon was a better environment for her young child,Suila allowed him to stay with his aunt,uncle,and cousins.Troy grew into a star running back and defensive back at nearby Douglas High in Winston,and didn't return to Southern California until 1999,as a highly prized freshman for the USC Trojans.At USC,Polamalu embraced his Samoan heritage,joining Polynesian dance clubs and learning the Samoan language from friends.After his Freshman year he took his first trip to American Samoa to visit his mother,who had moved there in 1996 after remarrying.
Success in football was also a part of his heritage.His brother,Kaio Aumua,played at texas-El Paso;his cousin Nicky Sualua was a tailback for the Cincinatti Bengals and the Dallas Cowboys;and troy's Uncle Kennedy Pola played fullback at USC from 1982 to '85 and is now the running backs coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars.Polamalu maintained the fmaily tradition at USC.where he was a two-time All-America and one of three finalists for the 2002 Thorpe Award.
It was at USC,too,that he had his alst haircut--in 2000,when as a sopgmore he was told to do so by a coach.Polamalu's mane is now so long that is obscures the name on the back of his jersey,revealing only the first and last letters,but he has no plans to cut it again unless his wife,Theodora,insists."It's a part of you," he says."It just feels like an appendage.I guess I'd save a lot of money on shampoo and conditioner,rubber bands..."
After he speaks,Polamalu ties his locks up into a bun,the way he keeps it when not playing.But come Sunday he can't wait to let it down.