I'd be lying if I said I was stunned by the news I woke up to Friday morning about the retirement of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu after 12 glorious seasons.
Truth be told, I was more than prepared for news of a retirement, a release or even that he would be playing 2015 with another NFL team. However, that didn't stop me from googling all things Troy just to gauge the reactions of the Steelers community, as well as the NFL as a whole, and that's when I stumbled upon an article from Profootballtalk.com discussing No. 43's Hall of Fame candidacy and whether or not he'll have to wait for induction once he becomes eligible in five years. (By the way, the tone of the article seems to be that Polamalu will have to wait longer than you think for such an honor.)
Of course, for once in my life as a Steelers fan, I don't care how long it takes Troy Polamalu to get into the Hall of Fame, because, like millions of other fans of the black and gold, I got to experience his entire career right before my very eyes; that was way more rewarding and enriching than any first ballot induction could possibly be.
As you might expect, the aforementioned article compares Polamalu with Ed Reed and cites how the two might have to battle it out for induction since their careers paralleled one another in both time and greatness. The article also talks about the lack of representation of safeties in Canton, and the writer even tries to make a case for Donnie Shell, who played in Pittsburgh from 1974-1987 and was part of the 70's Super Bowl dynasty, as maybe the greatest safety in team history.
Donnie Shell was a great story as an undrafted free agent and is probably one of the most under-appreciated members of those legendary Steelers teams that won four Super Bowls. As the article accurately mentions, Shell had a fairly decorated career in his own right. He posted 51 interceptions, was named to the Pro Bowl five times and started many games in the '70's for a defensive unit that is considered by most to be the greatest in the history of the NFL.
As Ivan Cole's great article on Troy points out, if you're under 40, you may not be able to appreciate the greatness of legends such as Joe Greene. I'm 42, which means even I was too young to appreciate the dominance of a player like Greene in his prime. However, I was fortunate enough to watch the likes of John Stallworth, Franco Harris, Mike Webster, Jack Lambert and Shell play for several years after those glory days of the 1970's were a distant memory.
I remember Shell and what he brought to the table. However, no disrespect to Donnie Shell, but he was no Troy Polamalu.
While some players need statistics, championships, honors and awards to paint the entire picture of their greatness, just watching No. 43 in his prime was all the evidence you needed to realize you were witnessing a legend, an artist, one of the all-time greats the NFL has ever produced--regardless of position.
How many times did Polamalu change a game by making one of those, as Kevin Colbert put it,"inhuman" plays that almost defied description? How many times did you witness the closing speed, the athleticism, the gifted hands, the instincts?
Oh, those instincts.
There must be countless stories of how, right before a play, Polamalu just "sensed" something was coming and would switch responsibilities with another defensive back. Remember the interception Polamalu made against the Falcons in Week 1 of the 2010 season, when he switched assignments with Bryant McFadden and intercepted a Matt Ryan pass on the sideline? (By the way, the athleticism he displayed by actually making the play almost defies words.)
Speaking of instincts, that historic time he intercepted Joe Flacco in the 2008 AFC Championship game at Heinz Field and raced 43 yards for a touchdown perhaps illustrated Polamalu's instincts perfectly. Everyone talks about the way he jumped in the air to pick off the pass and the athleticism he displayed by zigging and zagging his way for a score. But what always impressed me about that play was that Polamalu seemed to know where Flacco was throwing the football, and how he raced to where he needed to be even before the ball was released.
As someone who has played my fair share of football, sometimes I'll read a play and almost surprise myself by breaking on a pass and intercepting it. But imagine being able to do that on a regular basis, where it isn't a surprise to you or anyone else?
Polamalu was a weapon other teams had to design their game plans around and a hero for fans like me, who were fortunate enough to see him play for 12 years.
I remember being a 36 year-old idiot, pacing back and forth in my darkened Crafton apartment that famous night when the Steelers and Ravens clashed in an epic battle for AFC supremacy back in January of 2009. As the final quarter progressed, the game was just too close for comfort for me, and I couldn't even stand the thought of Pittsburgh losing the AFC championship at home to it's most hated and heated rival.
However, while I didn't have the TV on, I heard the screams of joy coming from right outside my window, and I knew something special had just occurred. When I turned on my set a second later and spotted Polamalu sitting on the bench as his teammates congratulated him, I knew the Steelers top hero had saved the day yet again, and this time, he rescued an entire fan base from enduring what probably would have been one of the most painful losses in franchise history.
Even discussing Polamalu's Hall of Fame candidacy seems silly, considering the body of work. But, again, who cares about such things?
I got to experience the greatness of Troy Polamalu for 12 years, and a Hall of Fame induction, or when it happens, won't change that experience one bit.