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Starkey: Polamalu goes deep

| Sunday, June 10, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

The Steelers finally made their new offensive coordinator available to the media Tuesday. But rather than listen to Todd Haley talk about David Johnson's blocking technique, I opted for something a little deeper.

OK, a lot deeper.

I opted for a chat with Troy Polamalu.

I've spent nearly a quarter-century in this business and hope to spend a quarter-century more, but I doubt I'll find an athlete as fascinating or as humble as this one.

Images of Polamalu's first training camp, in 2003, remain vivid. He'd arrived late because of contract issues. He said he felt sick to his stomach on the all-night flight from Los Angeles and “ashamed” when he showed up.

Early on, he often sat alone in the Latrobe dining room, ice packs strapped to his hamstrings. So clearly the new guy. Painfully shy. Desperately wanting to contribute.

Now look.

The man turned 31 in April. Is it possible? He is entering his 10th season, headed fast toward the twilight of a magnificent career. If there is any justice, someone already has begun to carve the hair into Polamalu's Hall-of-Fame bust (a job, after all, that could take years).

Polamalu broke personal tradition to attend organized team activities this spring, working around his training schedule with Marv Marinovich (Todd's father) in California because he sensed a calling.

He's one of the old guys now. His wisdom and guidance are needed. That is why you find him introducing himself to anonymous recruits in the Steelers' South Side dining room. As if they don't know who he is.

“More than any other year, the face of this franchise has changed,” Polamalu said. “We lost a lot of great leadership.”

Our conversation veered in various directions. There was no rigid plan. Polamalu's at his best, on and off the field, when he is free to cover ground like only he can.

We talked about football, of course, but mostly as a vehicle to propel us toward infinitely more important topics. Like this little doozy: 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,” Polamalu 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.”

Polamalu has looked closely at the personal struggles of transcendent athletes such as Michael Jordan, Walter Payton, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali.

“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 said. “Obviously it's a struggle on my family. But my wife (Theodora) is so amazing in how she helps me and just leads our family. I'm so blessed to have that.”

Other topics ...

• His initial trip, last summer, to his ancestral home of American Samoa, where he plans to run a football camp for years to come: “You know, we had 600 kids on a football field. Some of them didn't have shoes. Just to see the passion in these kids, it was really, really awesome. The whole island is officially like a Steeler island. All 600 kids had Terrible Towels.”

• The suicide of fellow Samoan and USC alum Junior Seau, who was a friend, though not a close one: “The day after (Seau's death), my family sat down with his mother, his father, his older brother, who he was really close with. We did the traditional Samoan ceremonies, what's proper after a death. I just felt so sorry for the community that surrounded Junior. But it also should put things in perspective, just to be thankful for what we have.”

• The aftermath of Seau's death: “I felt horrible for his mother. For the family's sake, I hope they find something wrong with his brain because I can imagine, as a parent that has a child commit suicide, you would feel like you failed. I don't know.”

• The palpable fear that greets him every game day: “People are paralyzed on a football field. People die ... You just never know when it's going to be your last moment. I was the kind of guy who would never talk to my wife on game day. Now I'm the guy who's like, ‘I love you.' I want my children to know I love them because I don't know what's going to happen out there. I'm not trying to play the martyr here. I love football. It's something we choose to do. We all know how much of a gamble it is to play this game.”

Polamalu says people often ask how many more years he will play. His customary answer is short, but predictably deep:

“I've never thought about the end of my career. I've had this growing motto in my life to live day to day — and when you live day to day, it's hard to talk years.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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