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Harris: Polamalu braced for worst in 2009

| Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It takes a lot to worry Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.

Polamalu was one worried football icon last season.

Polamalu suffered more than a knee injury that knocked him out of 11 games in 2009. He also lost peace of mind as he watched his star-studded career — including five Pro Bowl appearances in seven years — flash before his eyes.

"Yes, it was a concern," said Polamalu, who attended the team's mandatory minicamp last weekend. "The hardest thing was if I would have injured it again, the doctor was saying that it will be a career-ending injury, most likely.

"I had to face that."

Facing the reality of suffering a torn ligament in his left knee, Polamalu reluctantly wore a brace — although not all the time, as the Steelers requested.

Polamalu, who hates how the brace restricts his movement, loves playing football. At 29, he isn't ready for the retirement home.

If he didn't wear a brace last year, Polamalu was told there was a possibility his career would end prematurely.

So ...

A man's got to do what a man's got to do.

"In the past, I had to wear a brace because it was career-threatening. A career-ending injury if I would have sustained another injury," said Polamalu, explaining why he didn't play down the stretch last season despite coach Mike Tomlin leaving the door open for his return.

Polamalu injuring the knee twice last season — coupled with his unsettling injury history that cost him 19 games since 2006 — is why I believed the Steelers would select a safety such as USC's Taylor Mays early in this year's draft. Mays fell to the San Francisco 49ers in the second round.

Much to my surprise, the Steelers took Florida offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey in the first round, Virginia Tech outside linebacker Jason Worilds in the second round, SMU wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the third round and Ohio State outside linebacker Thaddeus Gibson in the fourth round. The team addressed Polamalu's injury history by signing two undrafted free agents at safety.

Which means the Steelers are counting on Polamalu making a full recovery.

That said, I had no idea that Polamalu's injury — watching a replay of his knee bent under his body in last year's opener against Tennessee will turn your stomach — was as potentially devastating as he described.

Asked how close he came to actually having surgery instead of electing to rehabilitate his knee — a process that took 4-to-6 months — Polamalu said it was touch and go for a while.

"It depends on how it heals. If it didn't heal correctly, I guess maybe I would have needed surgery," Polamalu said. "And if I would have needed surgery, it would have been career-threatening."

Not to mention season-threatening for the Steelers, who finished 9-7 one year after winning Super Bowl XLIII — including a 5-6 record in games Polamalu missed because of injury.

That's why Polamalu — who prefers training on his own during the offseason and isn't a big fan of participating in minicamps and voluntary practices — wanted to test his knee during recent team workouts.

He said his knee feels much better. However, he added some words of caution.

"Right now, I feel fine," Polamalu said. "(But) I don't know what happens when we start tackling."

Since the Steelers don't play flag football, Polamalu's words are chilling.

On the bright side, Polamalu is excited about the Steelers' defense again.

"You can point your fingers at a lot of things, but we were still one game away from the playoffs last year," Polamalu said. "We still lost (all) seven games by seven points or less. We didn't have that bad of a year.

"We're going to have a lot more team chemistry this year. (Defensive end) Aaron Smith is healthy. (Linebacker) Larry Foote and (cornerback) Bryant McFadden are back. Chemistry is the difference, especially what kind of defense we play. We play with a lot of communication, a lot of feel.

"Teams are making that final push, thinking this is going to be the last season for a couple of years (due to a potential lockout). The (New York) Jets are making a push, trying to get talent. The Steelers are making a push, trying to get chemistry. That's been the key to our success."

Along with Polamalu's return to the lineup in 2010.

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