FORT WORTH, Texas
First, you notice the hair, which spills long and thick around his face and onto his shoulder pads. It is a remarkable head of hair, like Rapunzel's, like Medusa's, like Samson's. It has made him a celebrity, and it has earned him endorsements, and it has served as the perfect hiding place for the most humble superstar in sports.
Hair, however, is not what makes Troy Polamalu special.
Later, you will notice his accomplishments, which grow more bright and glistening every day. He has Super Bowl rings for his fingers, and a half-dozen Pro Bowls in his past, and a new defensive player of the year award. His honors have made him famous, and they have won him respect from his peers and admiration from his public.
Honors, however, are not what make Polamalu a star.
The truth of Polamalu is his heart. At times, all of Pittsburgh cannot contain it.
To know the best part of Polamalu, you must go to the worst moment of his season, when there were tears running down his face at the time and remorse in his voice.
It was mid December, and the Steelers had just played the Bengals, and Polamalu had made a mistake. He had intercepted a pass, and as he ran it back, he attempted to lateral the ball to a teammate.
It was a moment unlike Polamalu, and unlike the Steelers, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was livid. This is not how we play, he yelled at Polamalu. That is not what we do.
In the locker room, Polamalu wept openly. He apologized to his teammates for his "selfishness" and his "arrogance." He assured them it would never happen again. He addressed the media and talked of his regret.
Oh, and you might want to know this:
The Steelers recovered the ball.
And they won the game.
By 16 points.
This is what many do not fully understand about Polamalu: how much he cares, how high his standards are, how intently the fire burns for a quiet man with loud hair. This is what drives him, and this is what has made him a star, and this is the reason that so many believe he is the best defensive football player on the planet. Perhaps, he is one of the best ever.
"He's the best defensive back in the history of the game," said Ray Horton, the Steelers' secondary coach. "I coached Darrell Green. I saw Ronnie Lott. I saw Deion Sanders. They weren't as dynamic as Troy.
"This guy changes games. He's the smartest guy I've ever been around. He has the best instincts. There has never been anyone like him."
And yet Polamalu's own words slip out quietly. His eyes are soft. His words are unobtrusive. The NFL is stuffed with players who will tell you how good Polamalu is, but he is not one of them. His chest, as they say, is pound-free.
For instance, Polamalu is talking about winning defensive player of the year, and he sounds as if he is shocked that he was considered.
"It's kind of bad timing for it," Polamalu, 29, said. "When you're in the midst of the Super Bowl — that's the ultimate goal — you can't sit and focus on yourself. When I heard it, I was really surprised because I can name off 15 people who are more worthy than I am and 10 others who are more worthy on our defense."
Oh, there are other players who are humble and still others who try to carry it off. But Polamalu never changes. His performance can be a fireworks show, but his demeanor is as quiet as a monk's apprentice.
"That's who he is all of the time," Horton said.
Still, Polamalu is, perhaps, the most essential Steeler of them all. Since the 2009 season, the Steelers are 18-4 when he has played (including playoffs). They are 5-7 when he has not.
"I try to keep up with the other guys on our defense," Polamalu said. "All these guys play with such a tremendous tenacity, with great energy."
He does more than keep up. He makes fans notice. With safeties, that hasn't always been the case. Safeties have always had a hard time cracking the Hall of Fame. But with Polamalu and the Ravens' Ed Reed — and Polamalu credits Reed — there has been a surge of dynamic safety play.
Even Polamalu says he has studied six safeties — Reed, Rodney Harrison, Sean Taylor, Bob Sanders, Adrian Wilson and John Lynch — over their careers.
"I try to incorporate their style into my game," said the 16th overall pick in 2003 out of USC. "Some of it, I'm not capable of doing because they're more athletic. I've truly been part of a great system here. I think a lot of safeties dream about the system we have. I'm willing to bet you, you could take any of those safeties and they'd be just as successful, maybe more successful, than I've been."
And how about Polamalu? How would he like fans to remember him? For his commercials? For his competitiveness?
"They don't need to remember me at all," he says softly. "There are a lot of people who are more important than me to remember."
As he talks, Polamalu's hair was tucked behind him and shoved into a hoodie. Without it, he looks, well, unplugged. At such times, it is easy to wonder about the balance between his flamboyant hair and his unassuming personality. Perhaps the hair is a shield to keep people from looking too deeply.
He is an interesting man, Polamalu. He taught himself to speak Greek, for one thing. He once traveled to Mount Athos, a Greek island that does not allow women, to visit a cathedral. Horton says he's a funnier guy than people think, a bigger practical joker.
Also, he plays a little football.
Horton tells the story of a game against the Ravens two years ago. He had noticed on the films that when Baltimore lined up an offensive tackle named Adam Terry as a tight end in short yardage, Terry never went out for a pass. Horton casually mentioned it to Polamalu on Wednesday.
On game day, he was stunned to see Polamalu leap over the offensive line to sack Joe Flacco. When he called down from the coaches booth to ask what Polamalu was thinking, the explanation was that Terry was Polamalu's responsibility in the alignment, so why cover a player who never went out for a pass?
"I just hung up the phone," Horton said. "There was nothing to say."
Lately, Polamalu hasn't blitzed as much. Throughout the playoffs, he has hung deep, leading to suspicions that his Achilles' tendon is still bothering him.
Against the Packers, however, the Steelers could use all of Polamalu they can get. Between Aaron Rodgers and a talented set of receivers, the Steelers' secondary may be taxed.
Somewhere along the line, you figure Polamalu will make another memory or two.
Even if he quietly suggests you shouldn't hang onto it.