Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu's shoulder-length… (Getty Images )
PITTSBURGH — — Troy Polamalu stood next to his locker in the Steelers football complex this week with his hands behind his back, his long hair tied into pony tail, and a nervous smile on his face. He was surrounded by a throng of media who peppered him with football questions, and after each brief, soft-spoken answer, Polamalu would gaze back at the crowd with a look on his face that seemed to be pleading for the interview session to come to a merciful end.
Polamalu, the Steelers 29-year-old safety who was voted his team's MVP this season, might be the one NFL star who can legitimately be described as shy. In a Ravens-Steelers rivalry often remembered as much for its trash talk as its bone-rattling hits, Polamalu is the rare player who stands out by wishing the spotlight was somewhere else.
There are plenty of NFL players who feel weary when they're asked to answer football questions. Most of them realize it's part of the job, their way of connecting with the fans, but when they've heard the same question rephrased one too many times, their brain tends to shift into autopilot. Ask them, however, to describe their passions off the football field, and a huge percentage of them will launch into a passionate monologue about a subject like music, film, religion or finance.
But Polamalu doesn't fit into that category either. There is no topic he's particularly eager to discuss, even though he's the organizer of several charities and is a devoted follower of the Greek Orthodox religion. Putting a tape recorder or a microphone in his face is akin to asking a shy sixth grader to stand in front of the classroom and compete in the spelling bee. He'll do it, and he'll probably perform well, but only because he's too polite to say no.
"I'd rather not talk at all, to be honest with you," Polamalu said when asked if he ever wished he got questions about matters beyond football.
It's no coincidence that Polamalu's humorous appearances in a national ad campaign for the shampoo Head and Shoulders have him saying very few lines. Just being on the set was a bit of an uncomfortable experience for him.
"I kind of pinch myself when I am on a huge set and there are 100 people waiting on their hands and knees to serve you, and you have all these cameras and these different stars," Polamalu said. "That's when I pinch myself [and think] 'Where am I?' "
It's hard, though, to not wonder what makes one of the best defensive players of this era tick. Even his teammates find themselves somewhat in awe of his humility.
"He's a very deep person, and a very smart person," said Steelers wide receiver Antwan Randle-El. "He doesn't get involved in any mayhem [of the field]. On the field, he does his job, but once he gets off the field, he just wants to be the best person he can be, whether it's being a husband, a father, or a person. He does a lot of charity stuff, but he doesn't want it to be known. And that's good. He doesn't want to be seen. He just knows humility goes a long way. I think a lot of us understand that, but Troy is a guy who walks it and lives it every day."
When he was voted the team MVP this season by his teammates, the first time the award has gone to a safety since 1980, he was gracious in his acceptance speech, but also a little embarrassed.
"Football is such a perfect team sport," Polamalu said. "It's hard to make anybody, especially our team and the way we play on defense, a most valuable player. I've never been a fan of either award. ... If I was ever a coach I probably wouldn't ever have an award like this, just because it is such a team sport. I think people just vote because they have to vote."
Polamalu is currently nursing a sore ankle, and has missed several days of practice this week, but he'll almost certainly play this Saturday against the Ravens in the AFC divisional playoff. Privately, the Ravens would almost certainly celebrate if he turned out to be a late scratch from the lineup, because Polamalu has a knack for speaking softly but carrying a big stick when it comes to facing Baltimore.
When the two teams met at M&T Bank Stadium in a game that ultimately decided the winner of the AFC North, Polamalu's fourth-quarter sack and strip of quarterback Joe Flacco turned out to be the difference in the game. Polamalu, in his typical deferential style, still downplays his role when asked about the play.
"We had numbers coming," Polamalu said. "It would have either been me or [Lawrence Timmons] getting there. I think it might have been [more] painful if they had blocked it the other way and L.T. got there."
Three seasons ago, it was Polamalu's interception of Flacco, and his touchdown return, that slammed the door on the Ravens in the AFC Championship. For most players, that "pick six" would be remembered as the best play of their career. But Polamalu declined to answer where it ranks on his career highlight reel.
"I hope it ranks way low, because that means I've made more plays in the future," he said.