"This team could become something special."
A play Troy Polamalu made nearly 11 years ago made me say the following statement to my dad. While he made many, many plays that led to numerous reactions of amazement over the next decade, the play that made me realize that the 2000's Steelers could be on their way to being something special will always be my favorite "Troy Polamalu moment".
It was Week 8 of the 2004 season. Fresh off of shocking the Patriots and ending their 21-game winning streak with a 34-20 victory at Heinz Field, the Steelers at home again the following week against the Eagles, who came into town boasting a 7-0 record. Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens were the best quarterback-wide receiver combo in the NFL, and the Eagles were considered a shoe-in to reach the NFC title game for a fourth straight year (which they did, advancing to Super Bowl XXXIX).
The Steelers, 6-10 the year before, were 6-1 heading into that game, and there was guarded optimism around Steelers Nation that this Steelers team could start a run similar to the one coach Bill Cowher began back in 1992, when Pittsburgh started a run of six consecutive playoff runs and a trip to Super Bowl XXX. The team had experienced some rough seasons as of late, suffering four non-playoff seasons in a six-year stretch, which is why, even after the impressive win against the Patriots, Steelers Nation wanted to see another win of that caliber to become true believers.
Pittsburgh started the game with their foot on the pedal and never took it off. Rookie Ben Roethlisberger, showing early sings of brilliance that we have grown accustomed to, staked Pittsburgh a 14-0 lead after two possessions. Jerome Bettis, starting for the first time that year, smashed the Eagles defense for 149 yards.
With the offense humming and the packed crowd at a frenzied pitch, it was time for the defense to dig in. The defense had received much of the blame for why the Steelers had struggled in recent years, finishing 16th and 15th in total defense in 2002 and 2003, but with the emergence of a couple players on that side of the ball that included a young, long-haired kid with the name that went across the entire back of his jersey, the defense was starting to show signs of what was to come.
Trailing 24-3 in the third quarter and looking to gain any momentum on offense, the Eagles decided to get their best player, Owens, involved by feeding him the ball on short outs. The Eagles didn't count on Troy Polamalu shutting each pass play down. Sure, Owens caught seven passes, but he was hit and brought to the ground instantaneously by Polamalu for little gain on nearly every reception.
On one particular third and long, Owens caught another short route, and once again, Troy was there. Showcasing the speed, strength, and hitting force that made him one of the all-time Steelers greats, Troy flung Owens to the grond like a rag doll to force yet another Philadelphia punt. Troy, who we all know by now is a soft spoken individual, broke from character and made the "imcomplete pass" motion with his arms. The crowd ate it up, along with his teammates, who were on their way to another dominating win in what would become a 15-1 regular season.
It was that play when I began to believe that the new era of great Steelers teams was about to begin.
At that time in my life, the standared for great teams was the mid-90's Steelers. Of course, like all Steelers fans, I knew about the 70's Steelers and their greatness. But unfortunately, you don't entirely grasp something's true magnitude unless you experienced it first-hand. But I do remember the mid-90's, when Three Rivers Stadium would rock with each Greg Lloyd sack and every Bettis spike after one of his touchdowns. There's the aura which exists around great teams, the feeling in the air fans share, the feeling they're watching something they'll never forget. And the first time since the 1997 season, watching Troy throw down Owens, the feeling was back.
The Steeles kept that feeling for the remainder of Troy's career. The Steelers expected to win, the fans expected to win, and more often than not, they won. They won division titles, they won Super Bowls, they won with the spirit and passion that Pittsburgh fans love, and they were led by the Tasmanian Devil. On more than one occasion, Troy picked the Steelers up when things looked bleak, when belief could begin to waffle. When Troy Polamalu was on the field, you always had the thought that something special might happen, and on many occasions, it did.
Friday was tough for many Steelers fans. We'll miss Troy Polamalu as a player, and the era of Steelers football that he represented. What I'll miss most is what I would often think about every time I saw Polamalu following that game against the Eagles so long ago: As long as we have this guy on our side, you can't ever count us out.
Thanks for making a new generation of Steelers fans believe, Troy. And thanks for helping give us our own players, years and moments that we can remember for a lifetime to come.