Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Trojans in the NFL

Former Trojan standout Troy Polamalu is on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated, sporting the trademark mane that should be familiar to USC fans.

Polamalu is the subject of Nunyo Demasio's cover story, titled, "The Mane Man."
What distinguishes Polamalu -- aside from the hair -- is the multitude of roles he plays in the Steelers' defense. At times he ambles to the line of scrimmage, then sprints back before the snap to become a third cornerback. Other times he'll jog up from his safety spot to become a fifth linebacker. But his most exotic role is as a pass-rushing end, in essence giving Pittsburgh a 4-4 formation; he'll even occasionally execute a stunt with a defensive lineman. In a Sept. 18 victory over the Houston Texans, Polamalu came at quarterback David Carr from all angles, tying an NFL record for a safety with three sacks. Only linebackers Porter and Clark Haggans have more for the Steelers this season.

The 2004 Pro Bowler's play at the line compels opposing coaches to pay special attention to him in their game plan, often using motion and shifts to force him to stay deep, where he has a tendency to bite on play-action. "If you don't know where he is, he'll kill you," says Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He's all over the field." The Packers got a firsthand look on Sunday, when Polamalu made six tackles and recovered two fumbles, returning one for a 77-yard touchdown in a 20-10 Steelers victory.

Polamalu so effectively masks his intentions that keeping track of him is a challenge. The quirkiest disguise is when he moves up, faking a blitz, then turns his back to the offense as if he's about to return to the secondary. At the snap Polamalu will suddenly whirl back around and rush the quarterback. "The thing that puts teeth into those moves is the fact that he can [do so many things]," says Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "So when he's at the line of scrimmage, the offense has to say, 'He may be coming.' If he turns his back to go deep, they're saying, 'Oh, no, he's going deep.' And then he wheels from that and blitzes. So you're dealing with the element of surprise."

Polamalu's frantic movement and ravenous appetite for ballcarriers earned him the nickname Tasmanian Devil from fellow starting safety Chris Hope last season. "It goes with the way his hair goes all over the place and the way he runs," Hope says. "He's always into something. If you look at our film, he's always diving, scratching, clawing under a pile. He's always full speed, going 125 mile per hour."

Once the whistle blows, though, Polamalu appears to be the most serene person on the field. He often helps up an opponent he just walloped, then saunters back to the huddle, head down, saying a silent prayer. He hardly chats with teammates and never talks trash. Porter has heard the safety curse on the field only twice, both times shocking his teammates.

Defensive end Kimo Von Oelhoffen noticed Polamalu's idiosyncrasies during the safety's first NFL preseason game, in 2003. "I love to watch him," says Von Oelhoffen, a 12-year veteran. "He [just] smiles between plays. Then it's Bing! Bing! Bing! He's all over the place."


Polamalu grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., the youngest of five children (he has a brother and three older sisters) in a household headed by his divorced mother, Suila. During the summer of 1989, when Troy was eight, the family took a trip to tiny Tenmile, Ore., where his Uncle Salu and Aunt Shelley lived with their three sons, one of whom, Joe Polamalu, played football at Oregon State. Troy was struck by the pastoral setting. "This was a complete contrast to my life in L.A.," Polamalu says. "I saw horses in the field, sheep, cows, beautiful green trees. I'm thinking: Dang, this is awesome."

After a week Suila was ready to drive back to California, but Troy asked to stay behind for a while. His mother agreed, and when she called a few days later, Troy cried and pleaded for more time. Realizing that rural Oregon was a better environment for her child, Suila allowed him to remain with his aunt, uncle and cousins. Troy grew into a star running back and defensive back at nearby Douglas High in Winston, and didn't return to Southern California until 1999, as a highly prized freshman for the USC Trojans. At USC, Polamalu embraced his Samoan heritage, joining Polynesian dance clubs and learning the Samoan language from friends. After his freshman year he took his first trip to American Samoa to visit his mother, who had moved there in 1996 after remarrying.

Success in football was also part of his heritage. His brother, Kaio Aumua, played at Texas-El Paso; his cousin Nicky Sualua was a tailback for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Dallas Cowboys; and Troy's uncle Kennedy Pola played fullback at USC from 1982 to '85 and is now the running backs coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Polamalu maintained the family tradition at USC, where he was a two-time All-America and one of three finalists for the 2002 Thorpe Award.

It was at USC, too, that he had his last haircut -- in 2000, when as a sophomore he was told to do so by a coach. Polamalu's mane is now so long that it obscures the name on the back of his jersey, revealing only the first and last letters, but he has no plans to cut it again unless his wife, Theodora, insists. "It's a part of you," he says. "It just feels like an appendage. I guess I'd save a lot of money on shampoo and conditioner, rubber bands.... "
In the same issue, Peter King has a related story on the number of young defensive players making a big impact this season:
The Jets followed middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma's young leadership to the playoffs last year, and now two contenders -- Cincinnati (with Odell Thurman) and Seattle (Lofa Tatupu) -- have rookie middle 'backers calling defensive signals.

[...]The most accomplished of the young bunch, and certainly the most recognizable, may be Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who in just three seasons has become a force in the league, ranging all over the field, hair flowing as he delivers game-changing plays.

RELATED: Polamalu and his wife, Theodora


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