- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 2, 2006

DETROIT — His teammates call him the “Tasmanian Devil” and wear T-shirts that bear his likeness and the words “Samoan Headhunter.”

Troy Polamalu delivers devastating hits, makes wildly athletic plays and wears even wilder hair: long curly locks that haven’t been cut in five years and hang low enough to obscure the name on the back of his Pittsburgh Steelers jersey.

He plays, teammate James Farrior says, like a “madman.”

But that’s on the field. Off the field, the Steelers safety isn’t nearly so frightening.

Polamalu is asked whether his football success is more a product of his natural gifts or a desire to overcome a childhood that was, at times, parentless.

“The grace of God,” Polamalu says.

Football is a violent game, and Polamalu plays it with a passion. But it is more than just physical violence.

Football, Polamalu says, is “a very spiritual sport [because of] the challenges a man faces within the game: the fear of failure, the fear of gaining too big an ego, of making a mistake and everybody criticizing you.”

To keep that from happening, Polamalu is an especially diligent student of the game. He made a DVD last offseason of current safeties he admired in order to learn from their experiences.

He doesn’t, however, watch football for fun. Sunday’s showdown with the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL will be the first title game for the 24-year-old Polamalu, as a player or a viewer.

“My heart started beating so fast when I was watching part of the [Texas-Southern Cal] national championship game that I had to turn the TV off,” says Polamalu, a two-time All-American at Southern Cal. “I don’t really like that feeling unless I’m actually playing. That’s why growing up whenever I watched a game, I would leave and go start playing.”

Leaving proved critical to Polamalu’s life. His father was always absent and his mother often so. Polamalu already had committed some minor crimes by the summer after he turned 9, and he left to visit his extended family in pastoral Tenmile, Ore. He remained in Tenmile, communally reared in the fashion of his Samoan ancestry, until he went to college.

“There are a lot of Samoans in football because it’s closely related to a family atmosphere and the upbringing that a lot of Samoans have,” Polamalu says.

And yet, Polamalu doesn’t share his career with his wife, who unlike his aunt, uncles and cousins, isn’t mentioned in his press guide bio.

“I’m able to separate work from home,” Polamalu says. “I don’t have to bring my work into my family life. If you let the emotions of victory or defeat come home, it can really detrimentally affect your personal life. As long as she doesn’t know anything about football and can’t talk to me about a play that I missed, it’s best for our marriage.”

The marriage between Polamalu and Pittsburgh has been heavenly.

The Steelers moved up 11 spots to select Polamalu with the 16th overall pick in 2003 draft and struggled through a 6-10 season with him as a backup. In the two seasons since, Polamalu twice has been chosen for the Pro Bowl, and the Steelers have posted a 30-7 record and are on the verge of their first title in 26 years.

“A lot of people were saying we were crazy for trading up to take a safety, but when you get a chance to get a player of his rare ability, you do it,” defensive backs coach Darren Perry says. “We wanted a guy with a linebacker mentality who could cover like a corner to allow us to fully utilize our defensive package. Troy has done a tremendous job of learning how the pieces all work. That allows him to improvise a little bit.”

Those improvisations come in a scheme that puts Polamalu at times at safety, linebacker, corner and even defensive end.

“No. 43 can move any place he wants and make plays,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Gil Haskell says.

Polamalu made 187 tackles (second on the defense), four sacks and a team-high seven interceptions during his first two years as a starter. His apparent interception during the Steelers’ victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs — a play officials mistakenly overturned — became the playoffs’ signature moment.

And he continually astounds his teammates and coaches. As Perry says, “The more Troy gets comfortable, the more you’ll see from the kid.”

Now that’s scary.

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