Picking Polamalu: "A lot of energy to a need position"

Written by Dan Gigler on .

troy draft presserTroy Polamalu is introduced to Pittsburgh media at a 2003 press conference.

A draft week trip in the wayback machine, 10 years ago to the selection of Troy Polamalu (who based on these old pics, has barely aged a day -- only now the hair is longer).

Both Ed Bouchette's news story and Gerry Dulac's below (with throwback look!) are terrific hindsight reads in light of Polamalu's career as one of the greatest defensive and most popular players in Steelers history -- and certainly the most electrifying.

It's also interesting that Ed Bouchette's story notes Polamalu's history of concussions -- years before it was a hot-button issue in the NFL.  

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Never in their history had the Steelers drafted a pure safety in the first round or made a trade to move higher in the first round. 

troy draft minicampThen head coach Bill Cowher and  Polamalu at the Steelers' 2003 minicamp.Yesterday, they did both. 

The Steelers wanted Southern California safety Troy Polamalu enough that they surrendered their draft picks in the third and sixth rounds to ensure they would get him. They moved from 27th to 16th, switching choices in the first round with Kansas City and sending the Chiefs the 92nd and 200th picks in the draft. 

What the Steelers got in return was the best safety in the draft, the best at USC since Pro Football Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott and an immediate, necessary injection of speed and talent into their slumping secondary. 

"This kid is going to bring a lot of energy to a need position," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations. "He's special. He's going to create a lot of excitement and he's going to help our defense immediately." 

In the second round, the Steelers drafted Alonzo Jackson, a defensive end from Florida State they will use as a situational pass rusher. Even though he weighs 266 pounds and stands 6 feet 3 1/2, the Steelers will convert him to outside linebacker. 

They're hoping he can help them with their pass rush quickly and develop into an all-around outside linebacker. They've done that with others, turning college defensive ends such as Joey Porter, Jason Gildon and Clark Haggans into outside linebackers. But none of them weighed as much as Jackson as a rookie. 

In order to draft the unheralded Jackson, the Steelers passed over such players as quarterbacks Dave Ragone and Chris Simms, linebacker Antwaan Peek, cornerback Dennis Weathersby and tight end Jason Witten. 

Clearly, they were not going to pass up a chance to go get Polamalutroy draft minicamp 2The Jaw and The Hair.

"He has a great nose for the ball, very instinctive," Coach Bill Cowher said. "You can never get enough of those defensive football players. We feel we have a very solid safety situation right now." 

Solid enough that they will end their pursuit of veteran safety Sammy Knight, an unrestricted free agent. Polamalu, who is 5-10, 206, should step right into the starting job Lee Flowers vacated and team with safety Brent Alexander and cornerbacks Dewayne Washington and Chad Scott in the secondary. 

The Steelers slipped on pass defense from fifth to 20th last season and even added another coach in the secondary, Darren Perry, to help out. Offenses took advantage of their lack of speed in the secondary to throw more often on them last season. Their pass defense has evolved to where they use their strong and free safeties almost interchangeably and more like left and right safeties. 

"I think it's the way the game has evolved," Cowher said. "I think speed is such an asset. I watched this kid play. He's playing the game faster than a lot of people are on the field." 

The draft yesterday also might have solidified the position of halfback Jerome Bettis for at least another season. First, the Steelers did not draft a back on the first day, and Cowher issued a good report on Bettis, who has returned from Los Angeles and will begin working out with his teammates here this week. 

"Jerome is doing great. I think Jerome is going to prove some people wrong this year." 

The Steelers had some interest in Penn State halfback Larry Johnson if they had stayed at No. 27 and Polamalu had been picked. Johnson was drafted at No. 27 by the Chiefs. 

Cowher said Polamalu was the player they wanted from the start and they were determined to get him. 

"We felt he was too good a football player to pass up," Cowher said. 

They laid some groundwork during the week by calling teams and offering trades to move up in the draft. New Orleans had two first-round picks, at No. 17 and No. 18, but declined the Steelers' offer to switch. The Saints wound up trading those two in order to move up to No. 6. 

Kansas City was amenable to a deal, but the Steelers had to wait first to see what San Diego would do at No. 15. The Chargers were known to be interested in Polamalu. When San Diego made a trade that put Philadelphia at No. 15, the Steelers felt reassured, and when the Eagles drafted Miami defensive end Jerome McDougle at No. 15, the Steelers consummated their trade with the Chiefs, took Polamalu and quietly celebrated. 

"When the player's there that you want ... you go get him," Colbert said. "That's what we felt we had to do and we did it. And we're excited about it. Your guy's there, he's affordable, you better pull the trigger when he's there." 

Giving up a third-round pick is no small thing. The Steelers have found good and even great players on the third round, such as Joey Porter and Amos Zereoue (1999), Hines Ward ('98) and Jason Gildon ('94). But they have not drafted a starter after the second round in this century. 

Polamalu, who grew up on the West Coast, broke out in a Samoan celebration dance, the Paualuga, with his uncle after the Steelers drafted him. The Steelers hope he helps prevent receivers from dancing through their secondary the way they did last season. 

"He has got a presence on the field," Cowher said. "What we need to do is make sure he's comfortable with what we ask him to do and allow him to have the ability as fast as he has shown that he can." 

The one concern some teams had was Polamalu's history of concussions; he has had four. Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Steelers neurosurgeon, cleared him. 

"We wouldn't go up and get a player if we had any doubts about his talent, his personality, his character, or his health," Colbert said. "He has had injuries, he's had concussions. We had him in here. He met with Dr. Maroon and came away with no problems." 

Most teams did not rate Jackson highly because they play 4-3 defenses and he does not fit easily as an end or outside linebacker in that style. But the Steelers have a long, successful history of drafting such players and turning them into outside linebackers. 

"Bill has done a good job in the last few years of taking people and standing them up and making them good outside linebackers," Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "So his track record is proven and he sees a lot in this young man, as I do. 

"There's still a couple things he needs to work on but he is an excellent pass rusher."

And, Gerry Dulac's feature story on the future Steelers' star ... 

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Kennedy Pola was in the backyard of his home in La Crescenta, Calif., waiting for his nephew to arrive for a Samoan family gathering. The guest of honor hadn't even arrived when Uncle Kennedy heard a loud roar in the house. 

20030427appolamalu 230Polamalu picks off Penn State while at USC in 2002."I said, `What happened,' and they said, `The Steelers just took Troy,' " Pola said. "He wasn't even here. He was still on the freeway." 

The reference was to Troy Polamalu, the Southern California safety whom the Steelers selected with the 16th overall pick in the NFL draft yesterday. 

When Troy Polamalu arrived at his uncle's house, his family immediately yanked him outside and had him take part in a dance known as the Paualuga, which is Samoan celebration dance. He was dancing and celebrating with his family, something he does around loved ones, but something he doesn't do on the football field. 

"He plays for his faith and he plays for his culture -- the Samoan people," said Pola, who knows his nephew as well as anybody. 

Kennedy Pola is the running backs coach at USC. He knows his nephew on and off the football field. And he's not sure which side of Troy's personality is more impressive. 

"He's a man of God," Pola said. "He's family oriented, but, on the field, he lays it all out. He gives everything he has." 

Southern California has produced five Pro Bowl safeties over the years, including Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. It is a position at USC that carries tradition and greatness. Polamalu is the latest in that line, but his path to greatness actually took him from an Orange County suburb to a small town in Oregon before returning to Los Angeles. 

Polamalu grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., but moved to Tenmile, Ore., when he was 9 years old. He was dispatched by his mother, Suila, who did not want him growing up like his older brother, Kaio, near the tough neighborhoods and gangs of Los Angeles. Polamalu moved in with an uncle, Salu -- his mother's brother -- and an aunt and cousins. 

Talk about a change of lifestyle. 

He went from the second-largest city in the country to Tenmile, a town of 150 people located in the southwest corner of Oregon. His school, Douglas High School in Winston, Ore., had an enrollment of 400 students. The closest big town had 4,000 people. 

"My mom sent me to live with her brother, who is the chief of our family," Polamalu said. It was a curious reference for an uncle, but, as part of Samoan tradition, the chief is the person was holds the family together. 

"He is a disciplinarian and kept me straight," Polamalu said. "It was a great move for me. My mom wanted the best for me. 

"I think [it was] a very selfless decision my mother made. A lot of my siblings and cousins had fallen into adversity." 

Polamalu is the youngest of five children. Kaio, his older brother, played at Texas-El Paso. He also had three older sisters. 

"I had raised my children as a single mother, and my oldest son was not a good role model at the time," Suila said last night. "He was hanging around with different kids. I didn't want Troy to grow up with that life." 

In Oregon, Polamalu learned more than just a simple life. He developed a hobby -- woodworking -- which continues to this day. 

It is the second year in a row the Steelers used their No. 1 pick on a player with artistic talents. Guard Kendall Simmons, their No. 1 pick last year, enjoyed graphic designs and majored in visual communication/graphic arts at Auburn. 

"It was something I always did to get away and indulge yourself with things and not get stressed out," Polamalu said. "Hopefully, somebody there will let me work in a woodshop." 

But Polamalu does most of his carving on the football field. 

He was a team captain and USC's first two-time All-American since offensive tackle Tony Boselli (1992, 1994). What's more, he developed a reputation as a big hitter -- "He plays safety like Junior Seau plays linebacker," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations -- making 281 career tackles at USC. Of those, 29 were for losses, totaling 106 yards. 

But, in an age of players celebrating even the most mundane plays, Polamalu doesn't believe in being demonstrative after a big hit. He limits his dancing and celebrating to family functions. 

"The first point anyone should get about me is I'm very spiritual," Polamalu said. "My Christian ethic causes me to give everything I have and be humble about everything. It's not just you that's the root for your success. To me, the most selfish thing anyone can do, not to judge those people, is to do that." 

Getting Polamalu to move from Oregon back to Southern California was not difficult. 

First, his uncle was the Trojans running backs coach, hired there by former Pitt Coach Paul Hackett. Kennedy Pola had his last name shortened -- it was Polamalu -- because "He didn't want to have to go through the same problems I have," Polamalu said, laughing about the pronunciation of his last name (Poe-a-MA-lu). Another uncle shortened his name, too. His name was Al Pola, who played at Penn State in the 1960s. 

Hackett wanted Polamalu, even though he missed all but four games of his senior season in high school because of a bruised kidney, torn back muscles and a sprained shoulder. He wanted him for some of the same reasons as the Steelers -- character. 

And Polamalu wanted to come home. 

"Southern California has a very distinctive smell," Polamalu said. "I smelled it as soon as I got off the plane. It's not a good smell, but it smells like home. The Oregon smell is beautiful -- pine needles and fresh air -- but Southern California is home." 

Now Polamalu has a new home -- the strong safety position in the Steelers secondary. 

The Steelers liked everything about their newest player. When he ran for NFL scouts in March at the USC campus, he was timed at 4.33 in the 40-yard dash and bench-pressed 225 pounds 25 times. 

"He hits like a linebacker and covers like a corner," Coach Bill Cowher said. 

It might not have happened if his mother didn't move him away from the gang-influence of Los Angeles. 

"There are different types of adversity you face in Southern California," Polamalu said. "I think my mother made the decision for me because I had some older brothers and sisters who faced a lot of adversity, which took them longer to overcome. I didn't have to go through what they went through. They're all doing great now." 

So is Troy, who might have to adapt his celebratory dance to the 'Burgh. 

Perhaps the Paualuga Polka.

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