It is amusing to consider, on the day of Troy Polamalu's retirement, that in the weeks leading up to the 2003 NFL Draft, doubts had started to drift in among the game's scouts and decision-makers about the USC defensive back with the 43-inch vertical, 4.3 speed and ability to decipher increasingly complex and multidimensional offenses.
For months, Polamalu had seemed a certain first-round draft pick, blessed not just with physical gifts but with a thirst for film study that, ultimately, would make him a transformative player. But in the part of the year when overanalysis leads to paralysis, questions had begun circling Polamalu. In his hunger to be near the ball, would Polamalu leave his safety position to get closer to the play? Would he fly up on everything and allow a deep pass to go over his head? Could Polamalu play the pass?
Twelve seasons, 35 interceptions (including three in the postseason), 12.5 sacks, eight Pro Bowls, two Super Bowl championships and one Defensive Player of the Year award later, there are no more questions about Polamalu. He and Ed Reed, the rival from the Baltimore Ravens whom Polamalu considered the greatest safety in football history, changed how defenses approached the oncoming spread offenses. He seems almost certain to one day be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It is fitting that Polamalu, whom the Steelers drafted 16th overall in 2003, leaves the NFL in the same offseason that Dick LeBeau has left the Steelers. Both are Pittsburgh legends with large responsibility for what had been the most recent incarnation of the Steel Curtain defense. It was LeBeau's trust in Polamalu that set the strong safety free. LeBeau did not confine Polamalu to one part of the field. Instead, he gave Polamalu parameters for what his role on the play was to be, and he let Polamalu use his instincts from there. And so Polamalu blitzed on some plays, played the run on others and looked like a center fielder sometimes, too. He confounded quarterbacks, who first had to figure out where Polamalu was on the field before snapping the ball. Pro Football Focus graded Polamalu as ranking second against the run among safeties since 2007 and third versus the pass.
"He gives you unlimited flexibility," LeBeau told me in a 2006 interview for The New York Times. "He can play the deep perimeter. He can play as a linebacker support player. He can blitz. For a defensive coordinator, he's ideal. You can put him anyplace."
But what made Polamalu such a compelling figure was his incongruity. He was a fearsome defender who made a staple of a play in which he faked a blitz and then whirled around -- his long black curly hair streaming from his helmet -- to run to the deep part of the field. That showiness belied Polamalu's whisper-quiet personality. He has long been one of the most introspective, thoughtful people in football. He and his wife are active in charities, and stories are legion in Pittsburgh of Polamalu secretly picking up dinner tabs for strangers. On Friday, a story emerged that Polamalu had paid the funeral expenses when a Texas A&M player was killed in a car accident.
One of the pleasures of covering him: Though he was never the most talkative person in a locker room, when he did speak, he was unfailingly interesting. Polamalu was deeply religious -- he spent offseasons reading books on religion -- and took a broader view of most subjects than you would expect to find in a locker room. He was immensely popular with fans and revered by his own teammates, not just for his extraordinary talent but for his gentle demeanor.
During training camp before the 2013 season, when Polamalu was returning from a calf injury that had limited him in 2012, he reflected on what watching from the sideline was like.
"It's tough watching any game," he said. "But it's a great spiritual learning process for me. It's very humbling. But it also gives me a sense of appreciation for what I do have when I am healthy."
What he did was often spellbinding. But injuries bedeviled Polamalu in recent years, although he won the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year award despite a lingering Achilles injury. And the youth movement that has played out on the Steelers' defense over the last three years made Polamalu's departure seem inevitable.
Last season, he started in 12 games but did not record a sack or an interception -- only the second time in his career that had happened. The Steelers wanted him to retire, although they would have released him if they had to. But the respect for him among the decision-makers in the organization was so great that the Steelers allowed Polamalu, who will turn 34 later this month, time to contemplate his future. He told the Uniontown Herald Standard that he finally decided on retirement while in church earlier this week and that the considerable time he has been able to spend with his wife and two children had made an impact. In the end, Polamalu told Jim Wexell of Scout.com, he never considered playing anywhere else.
Third-year pro Shamarko Thomas could replace Polamalu at strong safety. Last season, Polamalu invited Thomas to California to train with him -- the first player to be so tabbed. The workout, Thomas said, was "like a karate movie with some ninja stuff." But during that week, Polamalu also schooled Thomas off the field. He taught him, Thomas said, to put God and family ahead of football.
Thomas said he had matured because of the time he spent with Polamalu. And he left California with advice that reflected what made Polamalu so effective and so respected.
"He always told me," Thomas said, " 'Don't talk about it, be about action.' "