Steelers legendary former safety Troy Polamalu was elected into the 2020 Class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night, becoming the first Steelers first ballot inductee since Rod Woodson was enshrined in 2009.
Looking back on it now, was there ever any doubt that Polamalu would get in in his first year of eligibility? Believe it or not, there kind of was. In fact, all the way up until the final days before Polamalu would learn his fate, there were rumblings from writers on social media that he wasn’t a lock.
In a weird, weird, way, I’m really relieved Polamalu made it in on his first attempt. And not because I would have flown into a fit of rage over a negative outcome. It’s just that, well, it would have been kind of weird trying to explain to future generations of Steelers/football fans why a man so other-worldly, a guy who was such an innovator at the strong safety position, needed multiple attempts to be immortalized into those hallowed football halls in Canton, Ohio.
I also would have felt a little cheated as a fan. I was raised on the legends of Mean Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris and Terry Bradshaw. Those men were all first ballot inductees, and even though I didn’t get to watch as much of their careers as any die-hard fan may have wanted to, their resumes spoke for themselves.
Woodson’s certainly did as I watched him write the first 10 years of it in Pittsburgh, and that’s why it was no shock that he made it in on his first try.
Polamalu was the first player of a first ballot pedigree I got to witness as a full-fledged adult, a bona fide superstar that spent his entire career with the Steelers while playing a vital role in helping them reach three Super Bowls and win two Lombardi trophies.
Make no mistake, Troy was every bit as important to those Super Bowl years as Ben Roethlisberger was. As Polamalu so often was during his career, he was humble and gracious upon learning he was inducted to the Hall of Fame on Saturday, going so far as to say he was simply asked to be the “lead singer” of a great group of defenders.
Modest, but simply not true, Troy.
This was a guy that kept other guys—opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators—up at night. This was someone opponents had to account for at all times. This was someone that could change the game with not just his actions but his mere presence on the field.
Like Greene, Blount and Lambert, Polamalu’s resume, one that included eight Pro Bowl appearances, four First-Team All-Pro selections and a Defensive Player of the Year award (2010), spoke for itself.
But unlike those first ballot legends of the 1970s, I didn’t have to rely on folklore when it came to Polamalu’s greatness. I got to witness it for myself, and he clearly passed the eye-test. To put Polamalu’s style in a box would do it no justice. Describing the prime seasons of Polamalu’s 12-year career in Pittsburgh is sort of like describing Michael Jackson’s singing career during the Thriller and Bad days—you couldn’t quite put your finger on what you were witnessing, but you knew it was iconic.
You couldn’t coach what made Polamalu so great. The instincts he had, where he just “knew” when to jump over the line of scrimmage to stop a quarterback sneak. How about the ability to creep up to the line of scrimmage before bailing back into his safety spot right before the snap and having the athleticism to be where he had to be when the football arrived?
I got to witness the Ronnie Lott of my 30’s and 40’s, with the added bonus that he just so happened to be a Pittsburgh Steeler.
And while there is no morality clause when it comes to voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, how about what a special person Polamalu was during his time as a Steeler? We’re talking about a man that, by multiple accounts, had his own parking spot at Children’s Hospital and would just show up unannounced on a fairly regular basis and develop personal relationships with the kids he interacted with. We’re talking about a man that has been known to just show up on street corners and clothe and feed the homeless.
We’re talking about a player in Polamalu that was so humble and unassuming, it gave him a certain mystique that only added to his legend.
It’s a shame that Alan Faneca, a former guard whose resume is on par with Polamalu’s, once again missed out on getting into the Hall of Fame. But I witnessed former Steelers center Dermontti Dawson, like Faneca, the gold standard for his position during his playing days, miss out on multiple tries before finally making it in 2012—or 12 years after his retirement.
When it comes to offensive linemen, it’s sometimes hard to quantify what they meant to their team and the era in-which they played.
But Polamalu has his fingerprints all over the game of football, from the vicious hits, the acrobatic interceptions and the clutch postseason moments that, again, were so important in bringing the Steelers championship success.
Believe it or not, even after Polamalu retired following the 2014 season, people were doubting his first ballot credentials, but I’m glad those doubts didn’t mushroom into a growing sentiment that he wasn’t worthy.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame would no longer have the same prestige if Troy Polamalu wasn’t a first ballot inductee.