Why Troy Polamalu Is Impossible to Replace

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers were not-so-secretly hoping that Troy Polamalu would choose to call it a career, making things easier on the storied franchise as they look toward the future. Luckily, the team and the safety appear to be on the same page.

After an unbelievable 12-year run in the NFL, Polamalu informed the Herald-Standard on Thursday that he was retiring from the game of football. “It’s all about family,” he said in a phone interview with the paper. “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.”

Despite having two years remaining on his contract, the former All-Pro realized this week that the time was right to walk away from the game. He told the Steelers organization of his decision on Wednesday evening, and the team issued a statement on Friday.

“Troy is a shining example of a football man in the way he loved the game, the way he respected the game and the way he played the game,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in a team-issued statement. “It’s a shining example of the window into who he is. He is a legendary Steeler and a legendary man. I congratulate him and wish him nothing but the best moving forward.”

Polamalu’s play had been in decline over the past few seasons. Last year marked the first time since 2007 that he hadn’t recorded an interception. But this recent slide will do nothing to tarnish his legacy: a career that consisted of eight Pro Bowls, four First-Team All-Pro selections, and a 2010 AP Defensive Player of the Year award. There is no doubt that Polamalu will in the Hall of Fame one day, but the mark he’s left on the Steelers franchise far exceeds his dominance on the field.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Steelers knew they were getting a great player when the selected the former Consensus All-American with the 16th-overall pick in the 2003 draft. Still, they never could’ve predicted how special he would become, and what he would ultimately mean to the organization as a whole. Said team chairman Dan Rooney:

“…he’s been a tremendous leader, really a leader by example, not only as a great football player but as a great person. He has influenced many people both on and off the field, which was really an important part. We’ve been fortunate to have great players throughout the years, but he of course would be one of the top players. He did everything with dignity and responsibility, and it was special to have Troy be a Steeler his entire career.”

For these reasons, the Steelers found themselves in quite the predicament heading into the 2015 season. Here was one of the most iconic players in franchise history, still mulling over whether or not to continue with his career. And here was a team who was ready to move on without him. Could the Steelers really cut Polamalu? Or worse, could the organization really picture him in another uniform? Fortunately for all parties involved, the ball hawk never had any intention of playing for anyone else. For him, it was about whether or not he still had the desire to play at all. That indecision became the beginning of the end for Polamalu.

“But when I started this process and started to debate whether I should come back or should I play, that was kind of the sign for me to say ‘Whoa, if you’re just even debating it maybe you shouldn’t play anymore,’ because what I do know about this game is it takes a lot –a lot – of commitment just to be an average player.”

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

You can’t have any doubts if you’re going to continue to play a game like football. Once they begin creep in, it’s time to reevaluate your priorities. For Polamalu, it became important to put his family first. It didn’t matter that he was already considered one of the best to ever play the position. He never concerned himself with things like that. Which is what he continued to tell friends who said: “‘Troy, you played 12 years in the NFL, you won Super Bowls, won individual awards. You have a legacy,'” Polamalu told the Herald-Standard. “And I just kept saying, ‘First of all I don’t care about a legacy. Second of all I play the game because I enjoy it.'”

His love of the game and belief in his team, that’s what the Steelers are going to miss most about the absence of No. 43. He patrolled the secondary with instincts and fearlessness. He was an emotional leader and a physical presence on the field. Polamalu will finish his career with 32 interceptions, but those numbers are nothing compared to what he really brought to the franchise. He was the constant leader both on and off the field. He set the tone. He was the heart of the team.

The Pittsburgh Steelers may some day find someone who can fill up the stat sheet like Polamalu. But like we said, he was so much more. And that’s something that can’t easily be replaced. 

All statistics are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.