By Daniel Johnson, Staff Writer
On Jan. 18, 2009, the AFC Championship Game was being played in Pittsburgh, PA between two of the most bitter rivals in the league: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. On Pittsburgh’s side was second year coach Mike Tomlin, and the Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison. On Baltimore’s side, rookie head coach John Harbaugh patrolled the Ravens sideline as his rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, was leading the offense. Each side defensively featured a gluttony of the game’s best, including Ray Lewis, widely considered the greatest defensive player of his generation.
Fast forwarding in the contest— with four minutes and 40 seconds left in the game, which would decide who would advance to the Super Bowl XLIII— Pittsburgh held a 16-14 lead against the Ravens. Baltimore has the ball on their 28 yard line, seeking an opportunity to drive down the field into Steelers’ territory for a score. Four plays into the key drive, Joe Flacco steps back to pass. James Harrison puts his shoulder pads into Flacco’s hip moments after he releases the football, leveling the quarterback into the ground.
As the ball travels, the camera follows the traveling pigskin to its target. As the camera follows the football, for an instant, the football disappears in the wintry Pittsburgh night. Then, the camera viciously jerks itself as it tries to find the ball for its national audience. What the audience sees is a blur of long hair in Steeler black and gold. The Pittsburgh player caught the ball and he is cutting and weaving through Ravens’ players as he scores the game sealing touchdown for Pittsburgh. And hundreds of miles away, a 13-year-old boy was jumping up and down on his bed in his bedroom, for at that moment, his favorite player had just put his favorite team into the Super Bowl.
On April 10, Troy Polamalu retired from the National Football League. The long-haired safety from Southern California walked away with one of the most impressive resumes in recent football history. The one time Defensive Player of the Year made eight Pro Bowl teams, five All-Pro selections and a spot on the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s.
His long hair, a traditional look for American Samoans, has become his trademark look for the average person. This has helped Polamalu to be featured in national ads for Head and Shoulders. He was also featured in a remake to the famous “Mean” Joe Greene Coca-Cola commercial that aired during the 2008 Super Bowl (the one he got Pittsburgh to with the interception against Baltimore). Though my favorite player, Polamalu was never seen as a cultural football icon like Ray Lewis, Brett Favre or Peyton Manning. But, that’s okay, because for this fan, he was simply a football player who did not need the accolades like other players.
When I first got into football back in the early 2000s, I always enjoyed defensive players over their more celebrated counterparts on the other side of the ball. My favorite players were Ray Lewis, Ronde Barber, Junior Seau and Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter, who I credit as the player that made me a Steelers fan. Even when Porter left the team following the 2006 season, I do not remember being as sad as I am now about Polamalu’s retirement.I have vague memories of Steelers in the early 2000s like Tommy Maddox and Plaxico Burress. Polamalu, Hines Ward, Ben Roethlisberger, all were the first players I remember from young to old.
I remember watching Ben Roethlisberger get drafted in 2004. I remember watching Hines Ward hoisting the Super Bowl MVP in 2005. I remember watching Polamalu fly around the football field in the whirl of long hair and a barely controlled chaos. I remember him jump over the offensive line against the Tennessee Titans, and strip sacking Joe Flacco in an important division game back in 2010, and the one handed interception against the Chargers. And I remember getting his jersey for Christmas. I remember naming my fantasy football team “Samoan Steel”. I remember during football season, making him my laptop background. And that is why I was so sad he retired. Joey Porter made me a fan, and it was Troy that made me love the sport.