When the Steelers traded up from No. 27 to No. 16 in the 2003 draft to get safety Troy Polamalu, the move carried plenty of risk. More than six years before the NFL became appropriately sensitive to the risks of concussions, Polamalu was considered to be a significant concussion risk.
With three concussions sustained at USC, many feared that the Steelers shouldn’t have rolled the dice on Polamalu. The Steelers downplayed the potential downside, at a time when the Steelers were hoping to improve a defense that had surrendered 30 or more points eight times during the 2002 season.
“Players are going to get nicked, especially players who play as hard as he does. I think he’ll probably deliver a few more blows than he’ll take,” G.M. Kevin Colbert said at the time.
Polamalu did, becoming a versatile player whose calling card ultimately became the ability to create controlled chaos. With the freedom to move around, Polamalu developed a knack for being in the right place at the right time, sparking havoc and planting continuous doubt in the minds of quarterbacks who were never entirely sure that the guy wearing No. 43 wouldn’t pop up and pluck the ball out of the air. And when that happened, his frenetic broken-field running skills left some to wonder why he didn’t return kickoff and/or punts in Pittsburgh.
Polamalu’s skills and abilities resulted in eight Pro Bowl berths, four first-team All Pro selections, and a defensive player of the year award for an iconoclastic player who spoke softly, didn’t cut his hair for 12 years, preferred working out alone, avoided weightlifting, and followed a diet that prompted him to routinely speak out against Gatorade, a significant NFL partner.
Even though he grew up in California with an ethnic background not typically to the Western Pennsylvania melting pot, Polamalu quickly became synonymous with Pittsburgh.
“I feel I approach what I do and my living as a football player the way they do, in this blue-collar mentality,” Polamalu said in 2006. “That’s a term thrown around a lot, but to say it and live it and to experience it — even though it’s a high-paying job like a football player — it’s no different to a hard-paying construction worker, a landscaper. It’s a blue-collar mentality.”
The question now isn’t whether he’ll make it to Canton but when. It’ll probably happen on the first ballot, depending on the other players and coaches with whom he’ll be competing when he’s first eligible in five years.
Regardless on when he gets a bust with a free flowing bronze mane, Polamalu retires as one of the rare commodities in modern-day professional sports: A truly great player who spent his entire career in one city. The Steelers of the past decade have plenty of players who fall into that category, which says plenty about the franchise’s ability to contend more often than not.