The year was 2003 , and the Steelers had just come off a 10-5-1 season and a divisional loss to the Titans in the playoffs . On their way to visit Colorado running back Chris Brown for his pro workout day, GM Kevin Colbert and Head Coach Bill Cowher 's last thought was "how we are going to draft a safety for our defense" ? While they were abut 1,000 miles away, there was a guy who would figure into their future draft plans getting ready for his pro day in Southern California named Troy Polamalu.
The Steelers believed they had a verbal deal in place with Super Bowl 37 MVP Dexter Jackson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and were dead set on selecting a running back in the draft . The Steelers were prepared to offer big money (far above the "normal" standards the Steelers usually offer free agents) to Jackson. It was set , the Steelers had their choice of running backs (Brown or Larry Johnson) with their pick at #27 in the draft.
If not for some late night , last minute swooping in by the usually low spending Arizona Cardinals , coming in and offering Jackson a "deal he couldn't refuse," Polamalu would not have been a Steeler! "Coach Cowher and myself were doing the college scouting circuit," Colbert said, "and we ended up flying to Colorado to work out Chris Brown, the running back. We were flying on a private jet, luckily, and we had to make a stop in Nebraska to pick up fuel and check our messages, and we found out the optimism we had of maybe signing Dexter was gone, because he had decided to join the Arizona Cardinals. So it left us a little disappointed at that point. We wanted to get the veteran guy, but it also opened up the opportunity that now maybe we can draft a guy.It just so happened that Troy Polamalu was working out the same day we were traveling to Colorado … By the time we go to Colorado, we found out Troy had a super pro day, and now we got really excited about the opportunity to maybe draft him."
Many of the particulars, now 11 years later, Colbert and Cowher remember vividly. They had already spent some time with Penn State running back Larry Johnson -- "He was our No. 1 running back," Cowher said -- and prior to the Jackson contract falling through he was probably the pick at 27 if he was still on the board. The plane had stopped in Omaha to refuel when Colbert heard a voicemail from longtime front office exec Omar Khan. Khan didn't just blurt out the reality (that the Steelers had somehow lost out on Jackson), recalling, "I would never just leave bad news like that on Kevin's phone." Instead, he left a simple message to call him back ,
In fact, Jackson had been slipping away for a few days, only the Steelers didn't totally know it. "We had progressed with that negotiation and the visit and the physical and the whole bit," Colbert said, "and thought we were in a good position, and we were looking to get an agreement done." As some in the organization at the time recalled it, when it came down to actually getting Jackson to put final pen to paper on the formal contract, he became difficult to track down.Jackson's agent, Peter Schaffer, was in communication with Khan, but "no one could get the kid on the phone," said one person involved in the deal. "No one knew where he was. It seemed like they were buying time, maybe for something else." Schaffer also assumed Jackson was going to Pittsburgh, with Cowher lobbying the player hard over the phone. Both teams had similar offers on the table (roughly $10 million over four years), when Jackson instructed his agent that if Arizona came up to $13.5 million on its offer, he'd go there, otherwise it was Pittsburgh.
Much to everyone's surprise, the Cardinals said yes. Khan got the news that Jackson had indeed signed elsewhere, while Colbert and the scouts were on the road, so he had the task of passing it along. If Jackson signed the Steelers' deal, no way they trade up to get Polamalu, and, with his stock soaring, Colbert doubts he would have been there with Pittsburgh's original pick, 27th overall."If Troy was there when we were picking, we may have still taken him," Colbert said. "But certainly we would not have traded up.And of course we traded up in the first round and Troy became really a legendary safety, a perennial Pro Bowler, and possibly a Hall of Famer. So we were very fortunate."
Losing a key free-agent target was part of the business, and hardly an isolated incident, but Colbert took it a little more in stride than Cowher did. Cowher was not pleased when Colbert had to break the initial news to the coach on the way to Colorado. "Kevin told me, 'You might want to sit down for this,'" Cowher said. "We weren't real happy about what took place." Cowher's Steelers had plenty of Schaffer's clients on the roster -- they had a good working relationship -- and in his mind Cowher knew this was part of the business, but he was still a little miffed as he headed to the Colorado workout.Schaffer, based in Denver, happened to run into a Steelers delegation there, so Colbert tried to run interference.
Colbert to Schaffer: Coach isn't really in a talkative mood about this.
Schaffer to Colbert: No, no I really want to get this straight.
Colbert to Schaffer: Maybe we can do that, but today's probably not the right time. We need to let this simmer a bit.
Schaffer was undeterred, so he approached the coach anyway.The Chin emerged, and he launched into Schaffer.
Schaffer on Cowher: Oh yeah, he did, big time. I had to explain to Bill, who thought we were going to get 30 percent higher in a half hour? Really, it was 15 minutes because Rod didn't even take the full hour.
Cowher: I said Peter, now is not the time for us to discuss this. I think I probably said some other things as well. I was not appreciative of how it went down, and I just told him I know you represent a lot of our players and we'll continue to deal with you in the future, but now this is one of those that, let's move on … And you should probably move on right now and talk to somebody else, because I don't want to talk right now.
As Schaffer was walking away, shaking his head, Colbert couldn't help chiming in.
Colbert: I told you -- you shouldn't have talked to him.
Cowher can say now that "it was just the business, and it's all part of it," but in the heat of the moment, and before the Steelers were anywhere close to knowing they were going to land Polamalu, Cowher's pulse was raised."I don't believe in hypotheticals," Cowher said, "but I do believe that things happen for a reason, and I do know for Troy Polamalu that Pittsburgh is the place he was meant to be."
It was the following morning, while still in Colorado, when Colbert and Cowher started hatching a new plan. The Steelers had received some good news the night before as Tim Lewis was absolutely raving about Polamalu's workout. Safety was now a primary need. In a perfect world, the team would have signed a proven veteran for that position. "There's a lot of learning and communication that has to go on at the safety position," Colbert said, "so usually if you're looking for a safety we'll always look at free agency first."
But suddenly Plan B, or in this case, Plan P, began looking quite attractive."I recall it specifically," Colbert said, "we were sitting at the Lewisville, Colorado Courtyard Marriott, coach and I having breakfast. And, again, it's not that texting or instant information … I remember us talking about (Polamalu's pro day performance) and it was great. It was a good feeling to know that, ‘OK, this guy might really be special.' Because he was a special player, but when you have a special workout on top of it, it really puts the icing on the cake and got our minds thinking about, ‘How can we get this guy?' That's when we really started to think maybe we're going to have to trade up to get him."
Cowher found himself using that same word, special, the more time he spent on following evaluations of Polamalu. He saw a prospect who could play nickel corner, dime corner, strong safety and probably free safety, too. "He was one of those guys who the more you watched him, the more he kind of grew on you," Cowher said. "There are certain things you watched him do that no one else could do. He just had that great feel for timing, an unbelievable acceleration -- a burst -- and very understanding and knowledgeable of the game."
Polamalu knew a lot was riding on his pro day outing.He had missed the Orange Bowl and suffered through what he referred to as "an injury-plagued senior season." He had put in long hours with trainers making sure he was at his best when the scouts arrived en masse. He had heard rumblings that the Steelers and Ravens were two teams particularly high on him (Colbert wouldn't want to consider what it would have been like having to face Baltimore for a decade with Ed Reed, the Ravens top pick in 2002, and Troy Polamalu as their safety pairing). That would've been a nightmare for Steeler Nation!
"I remember my agent saying before my pro day that I was going to go late first or be a second-round pick," Polamalu said. "But he also told me you really can't rely on any of those estimations. When I visited Baltimore, their defensive backs coach Dennis Thurmond, he was my defensive backs coach at USC, and he said Pittsburgh had interest in me (in the first round). And he really liked for Ed and I to play together in Baltimore, but to draft two safeties would have tough for (general manager) Ozzie Newsome to do at the time."
The more the Steelers studied Polamalu the more they fell in love with him, and he ultimately ended up with a top-10 grade on their board. So when the Chargers, who needed safety help after losing Rodney Harrison in free agency, passed on him, it was time for Colbert and the Steelers to pounce. They did plenty of homework ahead of time that April, lining up potential trade partners."We really didn't think he'd get to 27," Colbert said.
Through his preliminary work he knew the Chiefs, at pick 16, were looking to trade down (targeting that same Larry Johnson later in the round; had the Steelers stayed at pick 27 and Polamalu been drafted elsewhere, Johnson very likely would have been Pittsburgh's pick, too). Cowher had a strong relationship with Chiefs GM Carl Peterson, and they spoke several times in the days leading up to the draft, working out the intricacies of the trade the morning of the draft."I told Carl, listen, if the player we want is here (at pick 16), then we'll do this deal," Cowher recalled. "So we came to an agreement. And he said, ‘I know who you want.' And I go, ‘OK, whatever.'" Peterson feared the Steelers were moving up to get his back, but, alas, Johnson was destined to go 27th regardless.Pittsburgh dealt a third-round pick and a sixth-round pick to get to 16 – those Chiefs' picks were eventually used on Julian Battle and Brooks Bollinger – and the Steelers had their man.
His career got off to a rough start in Pittsburgh. Polamalu avoided all media reports on him and even got a little pep talk from Steelers owner Art Rooney late in the season. In 2004, when LeBeau arrived, Polamalu's career took off in his aggressive, hybrid scheme, and Pittsburgh began to feel like home.
"You think of all the guys who have played here for a long time, and they've really become a part of the Steeler family," Polamalu said. "I've always considered myself -- since I've come here -- to be like a native Pittsburgher, and now I have two native Pittsburgers, two sons that were born here. So Pittsburgh is definitely home to us, and the Rooney family and the Steeler Nation is definitely a family to us as well."So forgive Polamalu if he refuses to mull how close he may have come to wearing something other than the black and yellow. Even if somewhere deep inside, he knows it may have all turned out so differently."Troy, he knows exactly what happened, but he'll never make a big deal about it," Colbert said. "We're all just fortunate we've been able to have him as long as we have."
Imagining the Steelers vaunted defense without Troy Polamalu being in it is hard to do . Yes, while he has lost a step and may not be at his peak , he is still a leader by example and throughout his 11 years as the Steelers safety and impact player , he has been the leader through his actions . Named captain this season , you can see some of the influence in the younger players , particularly one Jarvis Jones . In a recent post by BTSC's Dale Grdnic , Jones goes about saying "We can't worry about what everyone else is saying or what they are doing .We just have to control what we can control, and at the end of the day we're the ones who are playing this game. And we're the ones who have to go out there and produce. So, what we need to do is stay tight here and do what our coaches ask us to do and do it right." This reminds me of Troy in his rookie year specifically not reading the press and media about his performance , just going out there and getting his job done . It is this ideal that Troy imparts on the Steelers team and defense that will definitively improve them from the so-so performances of the past two games . I salute a true and dedicated , faithful leader in Troy Polamalu , by far the best safety ever in Pittsburgh!!