Polamalu intercepted city's heart by doing 'everything the right way'
McKeesport native Mike Logan was one of the first people in Pittsburgh to get to know Troy Polamalu when the Steelers drafted Polamalu in 2003.
A first-round pick from the University of Southern California, Polamalu was brought in to eventually replace Logan, then a safety pushing 30 years old. A respected veteran, Logan knew his career had reached the point that he would become a mentor.
But a funny thing happened: The protégé provided guidance for the mentor.
“You're thinking that I'm going to come in and take him under my wing, but it was almost reversed,” Logan said. Polamalu ended his Hall of Fame-caliber career at strong safety when he retired Thursday. “I learned so much from him as an individual about his faith, about his life, about what he wanted to represent, what he wanted to leave as a lasting legacy. And I truly appreciated that from him.
“You could see the maturity in him from Day 1. He earned my respect from Day 1, and he has it until this day.”
It's all part of the legacy Polamalu has left upon the Steelers, fans and countless others in Western Pennsylvania.
“Thanks Troy for the memories,” read a message posted to the Twitter account of former Steelers coach Bill Cowher. “You inspired so many w/your Preparation, Passion & Professionalism. A CLASS ACT! An Honor to coach u!”
Polamalu helped lead the Steelers to AFC championships and two Super Bowl titles. He was named to eight Pro Bowls — the National Football League's equivalent of an all-star game — and was honored as an All-Pro four times. Most observers believe he is a lock for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“A player like Troy comes along once a generation, or once in a lifetime,” said Jerome Bettis, who played three seasons with Polamalu and will enter the Hall of Fame this summer.
“We're just fortunate to have had him with us, for many reasons,” Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said. “... He's a top guy … at the top of the list. He just did things that were really important. He always had the game in mind — that was always important — and just doing the right thing.”
Polamalu's talents went beyond the playing field.
He made weekly, nonpublicized visits to cancer patients at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. The hospital is one of the primary beneficiaries of The Troy & Theodora Polamalu Foundation. So is humanitarian aid to American Samoa and antipoverty and hunger initiatives through Focus+ Pittsburgh, an Orthodox Christian group whose goal is to fight poverty in the region.
Children's workers marveled at Polamalu's attentiveness. Mike Shulock, a child life specialist in the hematology/oncology clinic, said he hopes the visits will continue.
“When he comes in, his genuineness makes the kids feel very much at ease,” Shulock said. “He makes the kids feel like they are the most important person in the room.”
With his family- and faith-oriented image and his trademark long, curly hair — he went more than a decade without cutting it before doing so to raise awareness for veterans' issues — Polamalu arguably was the face of the Steelers franchise during the past 12 years.
His popularity beyond the field was exhibited, in part, by a national endorsement deal with Head & Shoulders shampoo, whose parent company, Procter & Gamble, took out a million-dollar insurance policy on his hair. He is the only Steeler to appear on the cover of the “Madden” NFL video game — he shared the 2010 cover photo with former University of Pittsburgh wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
Polamalu's appeal also reached into local, nonsports magazines.
“Troy's become a very visible part of the nonprofit and fundraising scene of Western Pennsylvania,” said Whirl publisher Jack Tumpson, commending the work Polamalu and his wife, Theodora, have done. “Their commitment to philanthropic endeavors and the Pittsburgh community is huge.”
James Haught, 34, of Canonsburg said he was “saddened” to hear from his boss about Polamalu's retirement.
“I really didn't have too much time to think about it. And then when I got home and I saw what was on all the social media and all the stuff, it was kind of hard to watch because then you realize that you're not going to see him flying around on the field anymore,” Haught said while at Burgh's Pizza & Wing Pub in Bridgeville. “It's pretty sad.”
On the other side of the bar late Friday afternoon was Joe Wharton, 37, an area native who moved back to the North Hills after living in a variety of locales nationwide and worldwide.
“Troy signified Pittsburgh so much that no matter where you were, where you went ... everyone everywhere knows who Troy Polamalu is,” Wharton said. “He's one of a kind.”
Said Haught, “He was a likable guy who did everything the right way. We need more people like that in sports.”
‘Best in the game'
On the field, Polamalu is considered by football insiders to have revolutionized the safety position. His trademark plays ranged from hard-hitting yet by-the-book tackles to highlight-reel interceptions to sacks and forced fumbles.
He is famous for his ability to time the snap of the ball and leap over offensive linemen to disrupt an opponent's play. Bettis, the Steelers' No. 2 all-time rusher who works for ESPN, said Polamalu “in his prime was the best in the game.”
Former NFL safeties and current national NFL analysts Solomon Wilcots of CBS and Matt Bowen of Bleacher Report said they are convinced Polamalu is destined for the Hall of Fame.
“It is very hard to control the game the farther away you are from the ball on defense,” said Wilcots, who works for NFL Network. “The farther away you are, (offenses) can throw away from you.
“Troy still found a way to come out of nowhere and hurdle over the line of scrimmage and sack the quarterback. He can come out of nowhere in a critical playoff game and intercept Joe Flacco and score a touchdown.”
Polamalu's resume includes being named to the Steelers' all-time team (even though it was selected just four years into his career). He was a stalwart on four Steelers teams that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense and five that allowed the least yardage in the league.
Since Polamalu became a starter in 2004, the Steelers have not had a losing season.
“Polamalu is one of the most popular (Steelers) players in a long time, as much as anyone on the Super Bowl teams (of the 1970s),” said former Steelers linebacker Jack Ham, a Hall of Famer.
Polamalu was as popular among his teammates, coaches and peers as he was among fans.
“I don't know anybody in the NFL who doesn't like Troy,” said former Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden, a teammate of Polamalu's for six seasons. “If you have an issue with Troy, you've got to look at yourself in the mirror. That's the type of guy he is.”