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Troy Polamalu Changed Pittsburgh Steelers History

When Chuck Noll released a player, he told him that it was time to get on with his life’s work.

No one had to say that to Troy Polamalu, because the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t have to go through the pain of releasing him.

Ten days shy of his 34th birthday, Polamalu told Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider that he’s retiring after a 12-year career.

While it wouldn’t be surprising to see Polamalu do significant work in his post-football life and maybe even make the world a better place, he’s already done quite a bit of work that merits a look back.

Polamalu won two championship rings, made eight Pro Bowls, was a four-time first team All-Pro and the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

But those are just lines on a resume.

What Polamalu really will be remembered for is the way he played the game. It was a thrill to watch him dart around the field like a pinball and return interceptions with his hair flowing out of the back of his helmet like the tail of a comet.

No one should expect what happened in the 1970s to ever happen again. But as the Steelers went to three Super Bowls in a six-year period, winning two of them, Polamalu blended the spirit of Franco Harris and Mean Joe Greene.

Just as Harris ended the Steelers’ four decades of irrelevance with the Immaculate Reception, Polamalu provided a collection of history-altering moments that can be cherished by Steelers fans too young to remember Harris’ miracle.

How fitting it is that Polamalu’s career coincided with the rise of YouTube. His highlight plays will get plenty of clicks long after streaks of gray encroach those legendary locks.

Without some of those jaw-dropping feats, the wait for One for the Thumb in Pittsburgh might be 36 years and counting, and the Steelers might be going on two decades without even appearing in a Super Bowl.

Had Polamalu not pick-sixed Joe Flacco late in the 2008 AFC championship game, there might have been no Super Bowl XLIII for the Steelers. Had he not lowered the boom on Flacco’s throwing arm and forced a fumble two years later, the Steelers would not have won at Baltimore in December and earned a first-round bye. That would have made the road to Super Bowl XLV a lot steeper.

Who knows if the Steelers would have even won Super Bowl XL in 2005 had Polamalu not returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown in Green Bay. That gem has been overshadowed by others more recent and more dazzling, but it helped the Steelers win a game without Ben Roethlisberger. They snuck into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed that year, so they needed every win they could get.

Polamalu or no Polamalu, there almost certainly would still be just four Lombardi Trophies at the Steelers headquarters had they not drafted Roethlisberger in 2004. That pick is as important to the modern-day Steelers as the 1974 draft was to the Steelers in the 1970s.

But the Steelers began building that championship core long before the 1974 draft. The seed was planted when they drafted Greene in 1969.

In the same way, the Steelers’ transition from perennial bridesmaid to a multiple-championship outfit began during the 2003 offseason when free agent safety Dexter Jackson, crowned Super Bowl XXXVII MVP with the Buccaneers two months earlier, chose to sign with the Cardinals instead of the Steelers.

That made safety a priority in the draft, and the Steelers traded up 11 spots to take Polamalu with the 16th overall pick.

Just like Greene in the 1970s, Polamalu was a transcendent Steeler who played defense in a way that no one ever had.

Greene, a defensive tackle, would line up at an angle before the snap to confuse the offensive line. Polamalu made his impact by never playing one definitive position. He just roamed the field like a ball-seeking missile. He could blow up plays in the backfield like Greene, but he did it not by lining up a certain way but by anticipating the snap and just hurdling the line of scrimmage.

Greene and Polamalu also served as pop-culture ambassadors for the Steelers defense, Greene with his famous Coca-Cola commercial and Polamalu with his Head & Shoulders ads.

That hair not only has made Polamalu some money, but it amplified a style of play that evoked plenty of oohs and aahs.

There should come a day when a sculptor is tasked with carving out a likeness of that hair for a bust in Canton.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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