TAMPA, Fla. -- The last time Troy Polamalu confronted the Arizona Cardinals, his immediate pregame preparation was astonishing. Polamalu, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro Bowl safety, describes it simply as divine.
The Steelers were in Phoenix on Sept. 30, 2007 for a regular-season bout against the Cardinals. Polamalu rested as he was driven into the early morning for more than an hour to Florence, Ariz. Polamalu is a Greek Orthodox Christian. He journeyed to meet what he calls his Abbot Father Ephraim and to worship in a monastery. The services began at 3 a.m. MST and lasted until nearly 7 a.m MST. Then the trek back to Phoenix.
Then kickoff at 2:15 p.m MST.
"Some people might see that as a lot, but I saw it as a must, an opportunity to see my spiritual father," Polamalu said. "I go there five to six times a year because that is where he is. This life that I struggle to live, I try to do so in the eyes of my spiritual father."
His journey for worship and further understanding of his faith has taken him to Greece, Turkey and beyond. In fact, when coach Mike Tomlin took over the Steelers in 2007, Polamalu missed Tomlin's first camp because he was abroad in his worship and studies. Tomlin understood then and he approved Polamalu's Arizona excursion.
Polamalu's defensive backfield coach, Ray Horton, said: "We lost the game ( 21-14), but Troy played a great game and showed everyone his heart, his character and his commitment to his passions in faith and in football. This is a player who is an absolute joy. A joy to coach. A joy to have as a teammate."
Polamalu will not be hard to find in Super Bowl XLIII.
Look for the player with the black, flowing hair, the Samoan with the penchant for grating hits and for producing pivotal picks. The guy who knocks the ball loose, who shows for short-yardage situations as stunningly as he does for deep balls thrown anywhere on the field. A player who no matter how much Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner will attempt to influence from the pocket, will remain focused on the ball, on breaking the back of the Arizona offense.
This is a player's player.
A coach's fantasy.
But that is the thing about Polamalu. He is real, live, a throwback and a futuristic player in one, a sixth-year pro who already has distinguished himself as one of the NFL's elite talents, no matter the other players or positions tossed into that discussion.
He is a new father, a proud husband, a passionate man in all he does, one who always attempts to separate emotion from mental acumen. The way Polamalu sees it, he can worship in an encompassing manner, be a loving father and husband and still seek to knock ball carriers and receivers around. He can do all of that by employing the passion for life that helps define him.
"There are times I am happy," Polamalu said. "There are times I am sad. But I always try to separate emotion from the need to reach for something stronger, deeper. And then no matter the emotion, I can reach for a stability that helps me accomplish what is the goal. My joy in my life comes from my strength in my life and in my experience with God. That cannot be separated from football. It is all the same to me. It is one. I am one with it."
Thus, he plays, he lives, with a humility that is profound. In his last matchup, against Baltimore, he said he wished he was as good as Ravens safety Ed Reed. In this Super Bowl matchup, Polamalu keeps saying that Arizona safety Adrian Wilson is far more talented. Looking you dead in the eye, Polamalu says these things with such sincerity and intensity that he appears to honestly believe them.
He may, indeed, but his teammates know better.
"Troy ..." said Pittsburgh safety Tyrone Carter, gathering his thoughts before speaking again. "Troy is one of very few. There really is not a word or a phrase or anything I can say about him that gives him what he deserves. He is everything. He is quiet, humble, accountable, so talented. As a football player, he has everything. And what I love about him is that I will give him advice about a play, or something I see, and he listens and accepts it and puts it to use. Here I am with no Pro Bowls advising a multiple Pro Bowl player. And he pays attention more than most rookies would. Now, on the plays when I am not on the field with him, he will ask me to be his eyes. And we talk about what I see from the sidelines. And he listens again. The way he impacts our defense, our team and the impact he has on games is tremendous."
|Gregory Shamus / Getty Images|
|Troy Polamalu's timely interception in the AFC Championship Game helped seal the Steelers' trip to Super Bowl XLIII.|
» Video: Polamalu's interception for TD vs. Ravens
There is great affection for this player among all the Steelers.
As Polamalu finished his Wednesday Super Bowl media session, as he walked to join his Steelers teammates for practice, Dick LeBeau walked past him. LeBeau is the Steelers' defensive coordinator. Without a word, LeBeau looked at him, smiled, extended his arm to Polamalu's shoulder, gave it firm hold, looked him again in the eye, both smiled, and LeBeau walked on.
Not a single word necessary.
This player dramatically helps form the nexus of these Steelers. He is age 27 and at 5-feet-10 and 207 pounds plays much taller, much bigger, with an air of ferociousness that makes offensive players take note of where he is aligned and if he will be steamrolling their way. An intelligent player who in the AFC Championship Game made a critical fourth-down, short-yardage stop by leaping to tackle quarterback Joe Flacco by remembering that when a certain Ravens lineman was in a certain position, that meant run all the way, according to a Steelers scouting report. A report he remembered and utilized during a frenetic moment in that game.
Polamalu has heard Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's name mentioned "every other question," he said, since arriving here for his national, group interviews. In pure emotion, it must be grating to Polamalu. Mentally, though, he gets it. There is a job to help do against a dynamic receiver. It is a paramount task toward gaining his second championship ring.
"Football is a great passion for me, and this game brings me great joy," he said. "We have a big job ahead of us with this opponent. Their offense is complex and versatile."
Before walking away, he looked away, and then spoke softly, barely audible, as is his way: "Our team is strong. I like the chance we have. I know where the strength in my life and in my game lives."