The Vertical Game of Football

–with Troy Polamalu

It starts with heat: nearly a hundred degrees on the practice field at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe. The sun blares. Sweat rolls as the Black and Gold swelters through another workout in week one of training camp.

Mercifully, the bull horn shrieks. Trainers rush ice-soaked bandages and drink coolers to the sidelines. Steelers exit the field—all except “43.” Strong safety Troy Polamalu stays another half-hour, ratcheting up the intensity as coaches drill him with a football-throwing machine. He catches 10-yard bullets with one hand—another, another, another—until a coach protests: “Okay, TP, no broken fingers on my watch—you’re done!”

Minutes later, the field has been abandoned for showers and lunch. Troy’s silhouette remains on the hazy landscape. Now he’s taken to pushing a tackle dummy uphill—a private benediction, of sorts. The fatigable heat is no match for the internal fire that engulfs him in these moments. Finally, he leaves the field, pensive, and meanders to the dorms— still working his inner game.

This is classic Troy, teammates, and coaches say. “He’s definitely an inspiration,” comments second quarterback Charlie Batch. “He probably puts in a harder workout in practices than he does on the field. People say you want to put the work in as to where it’s easy when you get out on the field, and he’s a prime example of that.

A lot of people in his situation would probably take it for granted, blessed with his speed, blessed with his instinct, and not put the work into it. He’s one of those guys who want to be greater than he already is.

Troy’s wired-and-wild athletic prowess, combined with quiet modesty, has won the hearts of not only Steelers Nation (he got the second loudest applause on training camp opening day, trailing Big Ben), but everyone who recognizes in him a depth of character beyond X’s and O’s. He is soulful, conscious and divinely connected. As the saying goes, he “came in knowing.” What sparked his core flame? “I was born with the spark turned on,” he says—meaning, a desire to know God.

Walking the Monk’s Path

Troy leads the way down a wooded path used by monks on St. Vincent’s campus, an environment that nurtures his spirit. “I’m inspired by the monks’ presence,” he says, sometimes rising early for their 6:30 chant. Most days, he takes respite in the basilica (he recently told WTAE-TV’s Sally Wiggin that he spends more time in there than on the practice field).

As we talk in-depth about life outside the huddle, it’s evident: Troy is not an NFL superstar who happens to be a spiritual person. He’s a spiritual person who happens to be an NFL superstar. Discussing matters of divine inquiry is Troy’s rendition of entering the Heinz Red Zone. He alights when asked about mysticism. Get him going on any ancient religious philosophy and it doesn’t take instant replay to realize Troy’s mind is as expansive as the plays he makes on the gridiron. At 25, he’s a young sage, quoting the Tao Te Ching and Bhagavad-Gita with ease. He knows Bible scripture like Whisenhunt knows offensive rushing, and dots his speech with it — not for display; simply as a matter of context — to define the relevancy of whatever life throws his way. And yet, he maintains, “it’s a matter of how I live, not what I say.”

Again, his teammates concur. “Knowing Troy, who he is, how he carries himself, he brings light to the team,” comments offensive guard Alan Faneca. “Everybody respects that.”

“He’s definitely one of those guys who lead by example,” Charlie says. “He’s not a talker when he gets out there but you see the work he does on the field and produces every Sunday. When you put that combination together, yea, he’s one of those guys that you’re going to follow.”

Still, Troy “honestly don’t know, or has even looked into” whether his intensely serene nature sets a tone for the Steelers. “We have a very close team. The guys get along very well. I wouldn’t know how I add or detract from that. In football terms, the talent level [around the league] is pretty even. It’s the unity of the team that can really separate it from any other. We enjoy waking up and seeing each other every day at camp.”

When complimented on his talent, Troy deflects praise—then, upon reflection, edits his response. “No, I know what it is. It’s a divine blessing. There are times when I struggle and take credit for it but the truth is I’m blessed and I shouldn’t get ANY credit for it. People can say ‘I’m blessed’ in an egotistical manner. I say it in the humblest manner because I truly AM blessed in that way. But football will never be everything for me.”

Being the most ebullient defensive player on the Steelers’ roster “is not about football, it’s about life,” he says. “Football is part of my life but not life itself. Football is what attaches me to this world and provides a living for my family, but what’s really beautiful is that football gives me confirmation of how I can carry out my faith. It’s my way to glorify God.”

While he views the team’s 2006 Super Bowl win as “really beautiful and a blessing,” wisdom shines through when he adds that “success in football doesn’t matter. Success in anything doesn’t matter. As Mother Teresa said, God calls us not to be successful but to be faithful. My prayer is that I would glorify God no matter what, and not have success be the definition of it. If I can be content whether making a big play or getting a touchdown scored on me, then I’d be happy being faithful and not successful.”

In a sense, nonattachment to outcome is part of Troy’s competitive advantage. “You watch him play and, I mean, that boy is free,” says Phillip Bobo, a former receiver for the Los Angeles Rams and Washington State. “You don’t get to be as good as Troy is unless you’re led by love.”

Two Sides of the Same Troy

In person, Troy is kind, demure, contemplative—a far pass from his on-field image as one of the league’s fiercest players. He’s grown weary of speculation about his “split personality”—as if his real self morphs into a raging Animus Maximus on-field.

“People think I have these two faces. I’m the same person. I live my life with a passion and that includes how I play on the field. Obviously, football calls for physical contact but that’s just part of the game. If it were ballet, I would approach it with the same passion.”

To illustrate, he cites Jesus’ time on earth. “Look at the passion for life that He lived as portrayed in the Stations of the Cross—that fight that He had in Him, as well as the love He shared with others. There’s no difference.”

Indeed, what sets Troy apart is his knack for keeping love at the center of his sport—“love not for football but for life,” he clarifies. “Football, in general, has it backwards. They think this inner anger, this hatred, is what drives football and becomes the physical aspect of the game. But love overcomes all things. My love to glorify God through my playing will far outweigh anybody’s hate for me.”

You won’t hear comments like that from just any athlete, according to Pittsburgh Tribune columnist Joe Starkey, who’s been covering local sports for seven years. “Troy’s definitely the most interesting athlete I’ve ever interviewed,” Joe says. “He looks at things in a deeper way. His free-spirited style of play, and how good he is, does help the team. There are many leaders in this locker room but Troy’s the guy who shows up, works as hard as he can, then cuts loose on the field. He’s a very soft soul away from the game but you won’t find a more maniacal player—that’s what people find so fascinating.”

Troy wants to set this record straight. Aside from unfastening his infamous locks, Troy doesn’t have a “game face” that he puts on. It’s all authentically him. “When you have spiritual qualities, — or however people or various religions would define them, — if you separate yourself from these qualities, or put on a face with or without them, there’s something inauthentic about that.”


Gina Mazza
Gina Mazza
Word provocateur | creative muse | author | book editor | publishing consultant | content writer | freelance journalist | creativity coach | poetess | intuitionist | conscious evolutionist | Everything Matters, Nothing Matters

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