Finally Home: How Pittsburgh Won Over Troy Polamalu
Troy Polamalu came to Pittsburgh craving the California sun. Nearly a dozen years later, he shares a rare glimpse of the relationships he developed here — with his God, the Steelers Nation and the city he and his family now call home. One thing is certain: he never wants to leave.
Troy Polamalu’s first trip to Pittsburgh didn’t reveal a city that resembled “hell with the lid taken off,” as James Parton put it in 1868. Still, the California-born safety did not immediately perceive western Pennsylvania to be the kind of place he wanted to stay for long.
“I think I arrived at 11 at night,” Polamalu says, recalling his pre-draft visit in March 2003 to be checked out by the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I get to the Hilton and I call my agent and I [say], ‘I don’t want to play here in Pittsburgh, I already know.’ It was dark, and it was rainy, and it was cold. It just seemed like a miserable Northwestern — Seattle or Oregon — kind of day. [So] I call [my agent] and I tell him, ‘There’s no way I want to come to Pittsburgh.’”
On draft day, Polamalu says, “I got this phone call from the 412 area code. And I was a little disappointed — because I was like, ‘This is not a California area code.’”
Years later, the town — occasionally as dark, cold and rainy as Polamalu portrayed it — now is home for him, for his wife Theodora (another transplanted Californian) and especially for their sons, Paisios and Ephraim — and the boys’ father wouldn’t have it any other way.
“They’re native-born yinzers, and they’re gonna be raised [that way],” Polamalu declares. “It’s going to be something that I’m very proud to say will always be in their blood.”
For Polamalu, 33, what once was unimaginable has become the inevitable. He’s come a long way since that initial visit to Pittsburgh — far enough that he now envisions hanging around the town he once wanted no part of long after his playing days with the Steelers have ended. While many have speculated that 2014 may be his final season, at this writing Polamalu hasn’t disclosed his plans for next season. Still, with the possibility of a final snap drawing near, the soft-spoken athlete is ready to impart wisdom to a new generation of players and reflect on his position as part of the fabric of Pittsburgh.
“It’s just funny for me and for us how, I don’t know, maybe how my outlook has changed or how little I knew then and how much I actually thought I knew then,” he says. “It’s just ironic the way everything has worked out.
“Pittsburgh’s grown on us because I’ve played here for so long. We’ve been living in California for pretty much most of the offseasons. And the funny thing is, as soon as we get back to Pittsburgh it’s like, ‘Oh, man, we’re finally home.’”
Polamalu, who is of American Samoan heritage, was born in Garden Grove, Calif. He moved to Oregon as a child — but not before he had been “scandalized by sunshine,” as he puts it.
He returned to Southern California to play college football for the University of Southern California, and he would have much preferred to join Jerry Rice, Rod Woodson and Bill Romanowski of the Oakland Raiders upon turning pro.
But that was before Polamalu knew Pittsburgh — which he did not upon being summoned by the Steelers for that first memorable visit. At that time, he wasn’t even up on regional geography.
“When I came here to Pittsburgh on my visit,” he says, “I was like, ‘I have to have a Philly cheesesteak sandwich because I’m practically in Philadelphia.’”
In 2003, Polamalu was drafted 16th overall by the Steelers, who traded to improve their placement in the first round and gave away their third- and sixth-round picks to the Kansas City Chiefs to grab him.
“So I get drafted here, and my wife loves Pittsburgh — [but] I don’t. She’s into history and the architecture, seeing all these brick houses. It was just a really tough adjustment because I knew it was going to be tough for me to go from LA to the exact opposite of LA.
“I remember telling my wife, ‘If I ever tell you that I want to live here forever, you can slap me in my face.’ And here we are settling down in Pittsburgh, raising our children here. Because it’s our home now.”
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Success with the Steelers helped to ease Polamalu’s transition. He was a situational player as a rookie — an extra defensive back deployed when the Steelers anticipated their opponent would pass, and he wasn’t a very good one.
“My first year was so horrible, I should have been league MVP for the [opposing] offense,” Polamalu jokes.
Instead, in subsequent seasons Polamalu was selected eight times for the Pro Bowl, chosen first-time All-Pro four times and named the Most Valuable Player in the league — for the defense — in 2010. This run of individual on-field brilliance also included being voted the Steelers’ MVP in 2010 by his teammates.
With Polamalu, the Steelers won Super Bowls in 2005 and 2008 and an AFC Championship in 2010, before losing Super Bowl XLV to the Green Bay Packers.
When Polamalu was at his best, “I don’t think there was anybody better,” says linebacker James Harrison, a longtime teammate whom Polamalu regards as one of his best friends. “I don’t think there are too many people [who] would disagree with that.”
Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau has been in the NFL as a player or coach for 56 seasons, yet he considers Polamalu elite in at least one respect and unique in at least one other.
“He’s like a [Dick] ‘Night Train’ Lane or Lem Barney,” LeBeau says, recalling a couple of former teammates in Detroit’s secondary and a couple of fellow enshrinees in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — a likely destination for Polamalu eventually. “The splash plays that those guys made, you never know when one’s going to hit.
“I haven’t seen anybody [who] can play up near the line of scrimmage the way Troy can and then make the plays in space that he’s made.”
As he found his way with the Steelers, Polamalu found out how much his new team means to the people of his new city. That, too, took a little while to sink in.
“I had an interview coming out of college and I said I was excited to play at Three Rivers Stadium — but it was already Heinz Field by then,” Polamalu says. “So I really didn’t know too much about Pittsburgh. My friends were like, ‘Man, you get to play with [wide receiver] Hines Ward.’ I didn’t even know who Hines was. I didn’t know who the Rooney family was.
“I really didn’t know how much this city identified with the team or how much the team identified itself as a part of the city. This organization really identifies itself as a Pittsburgh team and embodies everything that history has taught us about what it means to be a person born and raised in Pittsburgh.”
Polamalu now respects and appreciates what that means well enough to want the same for his sons.
“I really didn’t see the value in Pittsburgh in terms of wanting to settle down here until we had children,” he explains. “There’s nowhere in the world that I can imagine raising our children other than Pittsburgh.
“I like the culture here,” he continues. “I love the blue collar-ness of Pittsburgh. Maybe it’s lost a little bit of that identity; you have more of the medical industry, which is more attached with the white-collar workers. But I still think it’s in the gut of this city.
“The identity of this city will always be that this country was built on the back of the mentality of people in Pittsburgh, and that’s the blue-collar worker. When everybody talks about a blue-collar worker, Pittsburgh’s gotta be the first city they talk about.
“And it has an identity, you know what I mean? People are proud to be from Pittsburgh. People aren’t necessarily proud to say they’re from LA or Orange County, or whatever it is. Pittsburgh carries a certain sentiment with it when you talk to people about it outside of Pittsburgh.”
Illustration by scott spillman
There is a price to pay for being an iconic member of a team with which a region so intensely identifies — especially for someone whose flowing hair makes him nearly impossible not to recognize. Polamalu insists he’s been able to live his life in Pittsburgh. In addition to all the adulation bestowed upon Steelers players by Steelers Nation, he’s also been given his space, even by those who would be most appreciative of a signature or a selfie with a Steelers player.
“People recognize that I’m an extremely private person, and I appreciate that about them,” he says. “There’s a time and a place, for example, when people know it’s OK to approach somebody.
“When I’m with my children, absolutely [I’m left alone]. If I’m alone, it’s a different story, which is great because people understand that. If you’re a celebrity in LA or Hollywood, they don’t care about your family. They’ll eat you up as well as your children. Here, that’s one thing I’ve really appreciated — they let me be a family man to my children.
“It’s definitely been a blessing.”
Polamalu is a man who counts such things, who takes his blessings neither lightly nor for granted. As such, he and his wife have devoted and dedicated themselves to charitable endeavors that provide for others the blessings the Polamalus hold dear.
The Troy & Theodora Polamalu Foundation is identified at Troy43.com as the family’s primary philanthropic initiative, established to “achieve all their various charitable goals while retaining the flexibility to react to acute needs as they arise.”
Providing permanent shelter to those in American Samoa displaced by the 2009 tsunami is an example of the latter.
The Harry Panos Fund for Veterans, a separate initiative from the foundation, is “dedicated to helping those who bravely served our country in foreign wars.” Theodora Polamalu’s maternal grandfather, Harry Panos, served as an artilleryman in battles on Okinawa and Saipan during World War II.
Troy Polamalu regularly is among the group of Steelers who visit the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., whenever the team plays a road game in Baltimore or Washington. He’s also one of the most often-requested players whenever the Steelers hear from Make-a-Wish America.
But his weekly visits to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC are the stuff of local legend.
“There are no cameras, no pomp and circumstance,” says Michael Shulock, a child life specialist in the Oncology Clinic at Children’s. “When he comes in, he says, ‘Who can I chat with today? Who can I play video games with today? Who can I draw with today?’
“Even though he can see they’re excited and happy to be around him and take pictures and have him sign stuff, he affects these kids probably more than he can ever imagine. It’s something he can’t know, the impact he has on these kids and their families.”
During Shulock’s eight years at Children’s, Polamalu’s visits have been a Friday ritual. Of late, they’ve been wrapping up at about 3 p.m., in time for Polamalu to leave and pick up his own kids.
Before his children got a little older, “He would be here for hours,” Shulock says.
“Up on the ninth floor we’ve become very comfortable with the fact [that] he’s here. I wouldn’t say it’s old hat; when we have newer staff, they can be a little awestruck. But for the older staff, it’s, ‘Oh, there’s Troy.’ He’s very natural with his ability to interact with everybody — and he’s so genuine. He spends time with the kids that makes them think they’re special to him.
“I can’t say enough that I don’t think he realizes what he does for the floor and for these kids.”
Polamalu is as passionate about the hospital as he is devoutly immersed in the Greek Orthodox Church.
That’s yet another aspect of Pittsburgh life he’s come to embrace: a concentration of Greek Orthodox churches that’s “for sure a part of our attachment” to the area, Polamalu says. It’s a commitment that turned out to be years in the making — for Polamalu, who had been raised a Protestant, and for Theodora.
“We both kind of went through a spiritual revival/revolution when we were deeply searching for religion — me personally, especially,” Polamalu explains. “I started asking questions in my own life. If I was born in Saudi Arabia, would I be a Muslim? If I was born in Utah, would I be a Mormon? If I was born in the Bible Belt, would I be a Baptist? I started questioning a lot about different religions and I did a lot of research, years of research. And I talked with Buddhist monks, Roman Catholic monks, with Greek Orthodox monks and priests and preachers, just trying to figure it out for myself.
“I not only studied the [Jewish] faith, I studied the Hebrew language. I read the Book of Mormon. I was just so thirsty for knowledge.
“But I always came back to Christianity. And I started studying a lot about the Christian Church, Christian history. I started studying about the New Testament and the Old Testament, which made me learn a lot about the historical church, that being the Orthodox Church.
“I started talking with Orthodox monks and a priest, and my wife and I decided to join the Orthodox Church, particularly the Greek Orthodox Church, my wife being Greek. We studied under a priest for almost a year before we were baptized into the faith.”
Third-year pro Shamarko Thomas is the heir apparent, or so it appears, to Polamalu’s strong safety position. As such, Thomas sent a text message to Polamalu last offseason, asking him how to be great.
“He didn’t reply immediately,” remembers Thomas, a former fourth-round pick from Syracuse.
The eventual response: “Define greatness.”
Thomas’ education on that subject was about to commence.
“[Polamalu] was like, ‘Greatness isn’t only about being a football player or winning championships or being the best in your sport. It’s about being a great father, about putting God first and just doing the right things in your life,’” Thomas recalls. “That made me realize there’s more to life than just playing football, man. That’s how you become successful, when you put God first.
“We started talking and I just asked him, ‘Can I come down there and work out with you?’ He invited me and right after [spring organized team activities] I went out there, out to San Diego. It was an amazing experience — just the routine and the way he lives his life.
“I’ll say nobody’s perfect — but he’s close to perfect. I can say that from the bottom of my heart. Not just because he’s Troy, just because that’s who he is. He’s one of the most humble men I’ve ever met in my life. He does everything right with his kids, his family and his sport. And he works really hard. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met in my life.”
Upon arriving at the Polamalu family’s house in San Diego, Thomas acknowledges he was nervous.
“Troy and I have been cool, but going to his house is a different thing. But they made me feel like I was at home,” he says. “His wife, she’s amazing. She talked with me all the time. She laughed and giggled with me. His kids are just fun to be around. They’re so excited, so playful. They’re all humble and you can just see where it all comes from. He’s the leader of the house.”
It was more than Thomas had anticipated or bargained for upon seeking Polamalu’s counsel. For a young player long on potential and short on experience, it was life-changing.
“It definitely surprised me,” Thomas says. “You ask a player like that, you expect him to say, ‘Workouts. Do this, do that.’ He turned it to a different level. He started talking about idolizing God and putting your family first. It was just an amazing experience, what he taught me. It made me understand how I had to mature and become a man.
“I was a little immature. You feel like you’re a young guy in the NFL, you’re around a lot of things. He just brought me to myself. He made me realize what’s more important than football at the end of the day. Coach [Mike] Tomlin tells us, ‘You’re football players, but you’re more than that.’ Troy just broke it down for me. I had an amazing talk with him. He helped me in my situation in life.”
Thomas isn’t sure when he’ll get a chance to assume Polamalu’s position, and he seems to be in no rush to take over.
“I’ll definitely learn everything I can while he’s here — and hopefully replace him someday,” Thomas says.
As of this writing, Polamalu has not confirmed that he will be playing next season. And while his appreciation for Pittsburgh indicates a strong likelihood that his family will continue to call the city home after he leaves the field, he hesitates to predict his own future.
“In terms of my life, I honestly live it day-to-day,” he says. “If you ask me to do something next week my reply is, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next week.’”
So it’s no surprise that when asked how much longer he intends to play, “I don’t know,” is as far as Polamalu is willing to go. That leaves open the possibility that 2014 will be Polamalu’s last season with the Steelers.
He already has contemplated life after football, suggesting out loud that “it might be tough just to be so close to everything and not be a part of everything.”
In the meantime, there remains unfinished business deep into his 12th NFL season.
“I miss being one of the younger guys,” he says. “[It was a] beautiful thing that we were able to help the older guys [win]. [Cornerback] Ike [Taylor] and I were just coming [into] ourselves when we started winning legitimate big games, Super Bowls, AFC Championship games.
“And now that I’m one of the older guys, I couldn’t imagine that feeling that those guys had later in their careers, [of not yet having won a championship.] It’s something that I’ve maybe taken for granted, I don’t know. I not only want that feeling [again] now, but I want the young guys to feel the way I did when I was younger.
“There are guys on this team [who] haven’t won a playoff game or even been to the playoffs in their third year. My second year, we were in the AFC Championship Game. My third year, we won the Super Bowl. I want them to experience that — because I also see a lot of young guys with potential. I want for them to be able to just taste what it takes. If we can win young, that can really set the table for the future of this organization.”
How can you accurately define a man such as that?
“Troy’s a good human being,” Harrison says.
And after a reluctant introduction, he’s one of us.