Talking Troy

An all-time Trojan great says goodbye to the game he loved so much . . . and we say goodbye to Troy Polamalu.

Now he's a part of history -- officially. USC history, Pittsburgh Steelers history and football history.

At the age of 33 and after 12 years in the NFL following four at USC, Troy Polamalu has moved on to retire from the game as he waits his turn for first-ballot College Football and NFL Hall of Fame inductions. Not that Troy is thinking about any of that as he decides where to put his creative energies.

But at least it's given us a chance to reflect on one of the greatest football players, and truly special human beings, any of us are likely ever to come across in sportswriting -- if we're really lucky.

Which we knew we were that July day we'd been hired to cover USC football 13 years ago and hustled down to campus to see if anything was going on. Got there just in time to catch a summer throwing session with two groups led by Carson Palmer -- for the offense -- and Troy for the defense.

I've said it before. My first thought: "How bad could these guys be with those two as captains? Forget that 6-6 season from 2001, this Trojans team is going to be special."

But for a USC program that had struggled to a 37-35 record the previous six seasons, that kind of rebirth wasn't happening. Hard to believe they didn't understand what that pair would mean. Maybe as good a 1-2 captain duo as ever came down the college football pike.

And while there have been other Heisman Trophy winners come along to succeed Carson, Troy may not have anyone walk exactly in his footsteps. Because it was about so much more than football for the young man who extracted himself from the gang turf of Santa Ana that had swallowed up his older brother and headed off to tiny Tenmile, Ore., at the age of eight where he could be the Troy he knew he wanted to be.

"It's all about family," Troy told's Jim Wexell. "I live here in Pittsburgh now, and since the end of the season I've had a chance to enjoy my family on a level I never had before. It was awesome."

Classic Troy.

And while we can focus on his 12 seasons, his eight Pro Bowls, his four first-team All-Pro selections with 15 playoff games and three Super Bowls, winning two, Troy was about much more than numbers, as Wexell who covered him as a Steeler, notes.

Troy "may have been a bigger factor throughout his career in the locker room and team meetings than on the field," exell said, despite Troy's play-everywhere, do-everything defensive skill set.

That USC was there for the three-star athlete who could dunk a basketball in grade school is one of those program-changing moments USC just has to thanks its lucky stars for.

"I believe God named me Troy for a reason," he told Steve Bisheff a couple of years back. "I was born to come here."

And the journey continues with many more special times to come, like in 2020 when Troy heads into the NFL Hall of Fame where USC Dad Dave Baker is running the show these days. For USC fans, what will make it special is that just one full-time safety has been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in the last 26 years. Troy will make it two.

With another Trojan alum, Ronnie Lott, who went in as both a corner and safety, USC maybe can boast of two of the best three safeties of all time (with NFL interceptions leader Paul Krause of Minnesota or Baltimore's Ed Reed, eligible in 2019).

Troy could be the first true safety who has played in the league in 40 seasons (only Krause has made it in that time) when he's inducted in unless someone gets there first, says Peter King in his Monday Morning Quarterback column this week.

Here's how King, one of 46 Hall of Fame voters, describes Troy: "a unique player in NFL history, a safety/linebacker/cover guy who blew up people, was as instinctive as they come and played with the kind of dignity so few men have consistently shown over long careers . . . Polamalu was a unique player -- so smart, almost predatory at the line of scrimmage, good at matching wits with quarterbacks on pass routes and judging snap-count timing."

"Dignity" says it all. Troy had it that first day I saw him. And surely had it as a grade-schooler who knew he needed to grow up in Oregon.

And as he did last week in deciding it was time to retire and move on to whatever the next challenge in his life will be. Maybe it'll be more woodworking. Troy would show us the furniture he made in college.

Maybe continuing with his campaign to make it possible for youngsters in Samoa to play football. Or mayor of Pittsburgh, if he so chooses. Surely he'll make his foundation even more of a part of whatever he chooses to do with it.

We also owe King for getting this quote from Dick Lebeau, Troy's defensive coordinator for 11 of his 12 NFL years, and a 56-year NFL legend.

“Troy is a once-in-a-lifetime player," Lebeau said. "I have never seen an athlete in the secondary, at any level, do as many things at the absolute highest level as Troy did. He could play linebacker; he played linebacker more than people know. He could go deep with wide receivers in coverage. He could blitz. He was a great tackler. He was an excellent run player. All the raw material you’d want in a defensive back, he had the best.”

"The best." Think about that. How blessed USC has been to have a Troy Polamalu pass this way. And turn the program around. Maybe as much responsible with Carson for what happened here as Pete Carroll was.

And then he came back to pick up his degree. Maybe if we're lucky, Troy will be able to spend more time here now.

And as already been suggested on the Peristyle, we have to hope the arrangements are under way to have him lead the Trojans out of the tunnel for the opener next year -- or maybe the Stanford game or UCLA. How about all three.

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