PITTSBURGH — More than 6,600 days after Troy Polamalu hesitantly answered the call from a Pittsburgh area code to begin his NFL career, he and the coach who helped make the call will enter the next phase of their storied careers.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers Polamalu and Bill Cowher will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Canton, Ohio, becoming the first duo of player and the coach who drafted him, to get in in the same class.
“You wouldn’t take my call when I drafted you because you didn’t like the 412 area code,” Cowher joked as he interviewed Polamalu after the safety got the famed knock from HOF president David Baker in February 2020.
“It’s attached to bad weather,” Polamalu replied, laughing. “Snow in April, you know all that good stuff. I wasn’t too excited about that. Little did I know, it became home to me, my family, myself.”
A working relationship that began when Polamalu was 21 has evolved into a friendship between the coach and his former player, one that makes the dual induction even more special.
“He helped develop me and helped me as I matured into adulthood and really played a big father-figure role in my life, much like [former defensive coordinator Dick] LeBeau,” Polamalu said. “To have that confidence instilled in you, by a Hall of Fame coach. He’s also from Pittsburgh, and he really embodies that blue collar mentality, as well. To not only have that sort of influence earlier in my career, it’s also an honorable virtue that Pittsburgh stands by, blue collar work ethic.”
Their bond, though, was hardly instantaneous. Polamalu struggled during his rookie season in 2003 as Cowher tried to put his first-rounder in a variety of roles, at first attempting to shoehorn him into tightly defined positions. Finishing the season without an interception or a start, Polamalu’s confidence was low.
“That rookie season for me was also when I started to question my purpose and whether or not football was for me or not because my rookie season was not enjoyable, nor was it very successful at all,” Polamalu said. “So post-rookie season is where I kind of had a real conversation with myself that was like, ‘Listen man, either you’re going to go all in on this or all out, because if you’re not all-in, there may not be a career.'”
That was a turning point — in both his relationship with Cowher and his career.
“Troy needed a year to develop and adjust to being in the league,” Steelers owner and team president Art Rooney II said. “Bill helped him along with that. I know Troy appreciates that and it’s part of their relationship.”
They were together three more years, but Polamalu and Cowher found a rhythm that maximized Polamalu’s ability and brought the two men closer together.
“As humiliating as it was, if I had not gone through the process of that molding, of really being put through the furnace of adversity and doubt and really attacking that in a way that’s calculated, methodical, and not in an emotional way,” Polamalu said, “it was like, I’ve got to go about doing this the right way and that paying off. Because that paid off, it set in motion the rest of my career.”
In 2004, Polamalu earned the starting strong safety job over Mike Logan and exploded for five interceptions and 97 combined tackles. Cowher and LeBeau found the right combination of discipline and freedom that allowed Polamalu to maximize the innate skills that set him apart.
“I remember the more you got to know Troy, there was a reason behind the things that he did,” Cowher said. “… When Troy was on the field, you didn’t want to harness him. You wanted to let him play. If he got uncomfortable, that made me uncomfortable. We gave him a lot of leeway, and that’s why he’s going into the Hall of Fame — he’s a very special player. A very special person.”
After a 15-1 season in 2004, Polamalu helped the Steelers to their fifth Super Bowl in the 2005 season. He became known for his flowing locks spilling from beneath his helmet and his ability to transform from a soft-spoken enigma to a ball-hawking predator on the field.
Cowher resigned in 2007, and Polamalu continued to build his Hall of Fame resume with another Super Bowl win in the 2008 season and by making seemingly improbable plays — like the flying superman tackle of Titans quarterback Kerry Collins in 2010 that Polamalu now describes as taking a “calculated risk.”
“Unbelievable instincts,” former Colts and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said of Polamalu. “Defensive coaches want you to do a certain thing, right? You’re supposed to be in this position, that’s the way the defense is set up. Well, with Troy, that was kind of out the window. Even though he was supposed to be here, he could tell the ball was going to go over there. And he ends up over there and I’m like, ‘No, he’s not supposed to be there.'”
From a rocky start to a player who redefined the safety position, Polamalu will enter the Hall of Fame on Saturday as a part of its Centennial Class alongside Cowher during a weekend that will also feature the inductions of three other Steelers — Alan Faneca, Bill Nunn and Donnie Shell.
“It helps define my career,” Polamalu said of the induction. “I’ve been surrounded by a lot of Hall of Fame people in my life — obviously being drafted by a Hall of Fame coach. Having played already with two Hall of Fame football players, it’s an indication of my career, as well as that I’ve been surrounded by Hall of Fame people. And I’ve been very grateful for that.”