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The boy was a freshman in high school, 5'8" and maybe 135 pounds, every ounce of it speed, muscle and stones. He made the varsity football team at Douglas High in Winston, Ore., and late in the summer his team played in a preseason jamboree against other local clubs. When the boy got his chance to play, he ran down a ballcarrier and threw himself into the tackle with such adolescent force that both kids were knocked silly. Laid the wood to him—that's how his coach, Neil Fuller, would remember it 15 years later. And maybe that's the day people began to realize that Troy Polamalu was a little bit different.
Football is widely ruled by technicians, killjoys and personality police. But artists emerge, and they play the game as if it were jazz and not math. Joe Namath was an artist standing in the pocket, with white shoes and a quick release. Dick Butkus was an artist in pursuit of mayhem, forearms at the ready. Barry Sanders was an artist working in tight space, like liquid on cleats. They executed, but they also entertained. Polamalu, the eighth-year strong safety of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is their descendant, turning defense into a form of expressionism.
Late on Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the Steelers, champions of the AFC North with a 12--4 record, will open their playoff run by hosting their bitter rivals, the Ravens. The 29-year-old Polamalu will be the most dynamic player on the field. He will blitz from the line of scrimmage, defend passes 50 yards into the secondary and tackle running backs from sideline to sideline for a Steelers' defense that allowed just 62.8 rushing yards—a staggering 27 less than the second-best run defense—and a league-low 14.5 points per game.
Polamalu will do all of this in a frantic and unpredictable manner, as if he were playing a sandlot game with friends. "I never know where Troy is going to be lined up," says Steelers linebacker James Farrior, who receives the defensive signals from coordinator Dick LeBeau and calls them in the huddle. And Polamalu will do it with a distinguishing riot of curly black hair falling from the back of his helmet in a way that only accentuates his urgency and brands his performance like the signature at the bottom of a painting.
The artistry might look like this: On the last Sunday of the NFL regular season the Cleveland Browns lined up first-and-goal at the Steelers' two-yard line. Seven Pittsburgh defenders fanned across the line of scrimmage, with the four others positioned in a line five yards behind them, Polamalu on the outside right. As Browns quarterback Colt McCoy shouted cadence, Polamalu shuffled two steps sideways and then bolted toward McCoy while the other 21 players remained frozen. Just as the ball was snapped, Polamalu launched himself over the top of Browns center Alex Mack and left guard Shawn Lauvao. Mack rose and flipped Polamalu into the air as he narrowly missed grabbing McCoy's jersey. "That one," says Farrior, "is definitely not in the playbook."
(It probably should be. Fifteen weeks earlier Polamalu did the same thing—the Titans had first-and-goal from the one when Polamalu, anticipating the snap count, leaped over guard Leroy Harris to sack quarterback Kerry Collins for a two-yard loss.)
Or the artwork might look like this: On Dec. 12 Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer threw a slant to Terrell Owens. Polamalu, positioned 20 yards deep in the secondary, sliced in front of T.O., intercepted the pass and ran it back 45 yards for a touchdown, breaking the plane of the goal line while soaring parallel to the ground outside the field and reaching back inside with the ball. "There's no defensive player in the history of the NFL who has had the freedom Troy Polamalu has right now," says Rodney Harrison, former All-Pro safety and current NBC analyst.
That freedom begins with the singular construct of the player. The passion Polamalu showed as a high schooler in Oregon (where he moved from Southern California around age eight to live with his aunt and uncle, and where, says Polamalu, "If the jayvee had a game, we didn't have enough people left for a scrimmage") has never ebbed. As a freshman at USC in 1999, he stripped a running back of the ball on the first day of live contact. "From Day One he had this knack for running to the ball and just tackling people," says Bill Young, Polamalu's first defensive coordinator at USC. "Most players will find the ball and then [get set for the tackle] slowly, because they're afraid to commit and get embarrassed. Troy just went straight to the ball."
The Steelers drafted Polamalu with the 16th pick in 2003. As a young player he attacked hard and was frequently burned. "Teams used it against him," says Kennedy Pola, Polamalu's uncle and a longtime college and NFL coach who is currently the USC offensive coordinator. "His second year, AFC championship against New England: pretty ugly." In that game the Patriots employed double moves and play action against Polamalu and the top-seeded Steelers, slicing up the league's No. 1 defense in a 41--27 upset win.
Eventually, Polamalu grew comfortable in LeBeau's complex, zone blitz--heavy 3--4 defense. And LeBeau learned how to employ this distinctive athlete, a 5'10", 207-pound coil of power with a 43-inch vertical leap. "He's got stop-to-start acceleration that's second to none," says LeBeau. "He can blitz, he can play at the line of scrimmage against the run. He can tackle in the open field to keep big plays from becoming bigger plays. He's a great pass defender. And he's got great football instincts."