Published February 01, 2011
ARLINGTON, Texas – Troy Polamalu was a few minutes late as he strolled toward his podium on media day at the Super Bowl when teammate Ryan Clark spotted him.
Polamalu's hair was in a ponytail, covered by the hood on his gray Pittsburgh Steelers sweat shirt.
"They want to see your hair," a disappointed Clark shouted at him. "Head & Shoulders is gonna be mad, Troy!"
Polamalu chuckled a little before taking a seat in front of a throng of reporters and finally flipping the hood off his head.
"It takes me about 45 minutes to get ready every day," he explained Tuesday before breaking into an impromptu infomercial for the line of shampoo he endorses.
A few minutes later, Hines Ward tried on an outrageously large Polamalu-like wig that someone handed him.
"Hey, Troy!" Ward yelled over from the booth next to Polamalu. "Check me out."
Clark got his hands on it, too, and immediately saw dollar signs.
"Can I get a deal? I need a deal, too," he said with a big laugh before wondering, with the curls covering his eyes: "How do you do this, dude?"
Polamalu is used to all the teasing, and his hair has made him one of the most recognizable athletes in all of sports, let alone the NFL. He turned down a chance to try on a long, blond wig that resembled the hairstyle of Green Bay's Clay Matthews, a fellow former Southern California star who Polamalu beat out for the AP Defensive Player of the Year award.
But whose hair would win in a battle?
"Hmmm," Polamalu pondered for a second. "I can say mine's more expensive."
Truth is, he's much more than just a head of long, luscious black locks. The star safety is the hard-hitting disruptive force behind the Steelers' big-time defense. He's also a guy the Packers know they need to be aware of at all times Sunday night.
"I don't think he's feared, but you definitely account for him," Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings said. "You want to know where he's at on the field at all times because a guy like that, he's huge in making those game-changing plays and you don't want to give him the opportunity to do that, especially on this stage because it'll ignite their team."
That's exactly what Polamalu has done his entire career with the Steelers, since coming to Pittsburgh as a first-round pick out of Southern California in 2003.
"Troy's a beast, man," Ward said. "He just does things that, even if he's supposed to be in coverage, he'll get out of coverage and make a play. He has a sixth sense, where the ball is going to go. He watches a lot of film, he knows a lot of route combinations."
His presence on the field clearly makes a difference for the Steelers. During the last two regular seasons, the Steelers are 15-4 when Polamalu plays, but 6-7 when he doesn't. He missed two games this season with a right Achilles' tendon injury, and 11 last season with a pair of left knee injuries.
"Playing with Troy, it's like having a front-row seat to the circus every week," Clark said. "It's amazing."
Still, there's no way Polamalu is changing the way he plays. Not even when he's sitting on the sideline wishing he were delivering those famously ferocious hits.
"I think that's all part of the game, dealing with the injuries and the fear of getting injured," he said. "When you see somebody running, you're like, 'Man, I know this is going to hurt, but I've got to do this because this is what I have to do for the love of my family, to support my family, because I don't want to let my brothers down.'"
That's not in Polamalu's game plan. Ever. He has the freedom to freelance in the secondary and drop out of coverage, and more often than not, makes the right call — frustrating opposing offenses regularly.
"That time clock that he has with the quarterback, he understands that the quarterback has only so much time," Jennings said. "Once that quarterback makes that read, Troy is flying to the ball already. You can't coach that. That's something that's instinctive."
Polamalu tied for second in the NFL with seven interceptions, and has 27 in his eight seasons. He punishes opposing players with hard hits that force fumbles — he has seven in his career — and change games, all with his hair flapping behind him.
"As soon as he hangs his cleats up, he's going to the Hall of Fame," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said, "and I want to take the bus ride so I can be there."
His popularity is soaring among fans around the country, who have made his No. 43 Steelers jersey the top seller in the NFL. Yep, more than Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or even Michael Vick.
"I've got to buy my own jersey to get them out to my family," Polamalu said. "I think that was probably the reason why, but I don't know. The Steelers emblem is worldwide."
Sure, Troy. It has nothing to do with the way you play.
Always humble and soft-spoken, his demeanor off the field belies his aggressive and man-possessed approach on it. When Clark saw that Polamalu had won the Defensive Player of the Year award Monday night, he sent him a text message.
"Congrats, man," the text read. "You deserve it. I love you."
Polamalu sent back a response that hardly surprised Clark.
"He was like, 'Well, that's our award, so let's go try to win this trophy," Clark said. "He can do all these great things on the field and you'll never hear him talk about it. He's an amazing guy."