- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Troy Polamalu, one of the most disruptive players in the NFL, is so soft-spoken you have to lean forward and focus intently to understand him.
Sitting for an interview this past week, the Steelers' strong safety, clad in a loose-fitting gray sweatshirt, had his trademark hair wrapped up in something of a bun. For all its streaming glory on game day -- when he's really flying, his hair goes completely parallel to the field of play -- those black, curly locks can be compressed to the size of a fist.
Frankly, Polamalu dislikes questions about his hair, which hasn't been cut in seven years, going back to his senior season at USC. The media might be forever fascinated, but it's not who he is, he says. He is a deeply spiritual man who practices the Greek Orthodox faith and prays daily. The stoic Polamalu prefers to let his super-sized game speak for him. Thus, it was a surprise when he responded to a clichéd query about the curious correlation between his hair and personality, i.e., hair up=cool, hair down=crazy.
"I was in the grocery store one time, and my rubber band broke and my hair fell out," Polamalu said earnestly. "I just flipped. I just saw a lady carrying her baby and I tackled her and the next thing I know, I was in handcuffs."
By the time this began to register with listeners, Polamalu was laughing.
"No," he said. "I don't think it's any big deal. When I let my hair down, I just let it down. It's more comfortable in my helmet."
Comfort is the very thing Polamalu does not bring to opposing offenses. The Arizona Cardinals, who meet the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday, have a trio of dangerous receivers -- Larry Fitzgerald alone has produced 23 catches for an NFL-record 419 yards and five touchdowns in three playoff games, plus Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston both topped the 1,000-yard mark in the regular season. Polamalu, a mere 5-foot-10, 207 pounds, might play the most pivotal role in keeping Kurt Warner's passing game in check.
According to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the safety has never played better. Polamalu, believe it or not, has been more successful than the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him No. 16 overall in 2003 draft. He has now been voted to five straight Pro Bowls and, in terms of pure production, compares favorably to Baltimore's Ed Reed and Indianapolis' Bob Sanders.
Polamalu is a true genetic oddity. He runs a 4.35-second 40, benches 405 pounds, has a vertical leap of more than 38 inches and has rare instinct coupled with hand-eye coordination. Along with Patriots linebackers Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel and Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, he is one of the league's most versatile players.
"There's no longer those 6-5, 250-pound safeties," Polamalu said Monday, "because you also have to have a safety that is able to cover guys like Larry Fitzgerald, but also be able to tackle guys like Brandon Jacobs."
After missing five games with rib and knee injuries in the 2007 season, Polamalu has played in all 18 of the Steelers' games this season. In five previous seasons, Polamalu had 10 interceptions; this year alone he had seven.
Polamalu launched the Steelers into Super Bowl XLIII with an interception of Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco and a spectacular 40-yard return for a touchdown late in the game.
When Baltimore tight end Todd Heap stayed in to block blitzing linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, Polamalu "freelanced" into coverage and followed Flacco's rookie eyes to the ball intended for Derrick Mason.
And yet, his over-the-top stop of Flacco on fourth-and-1 at the end of the first quarter might have been just as critical.
Lined up wide of the left tackle and several yards off of the line of scrimmage, Polamalu veered sharply to his left just before the snap and rushed into the gap between left guard and center. He vaulted over the head of 6-3, 315-pound guard Ben Grubbs and slapped a headlock on Flacco, who never got to the line of scrimmage.
"He's so versatile," said Matt Williamson of Scouts, Inc. "They ask him to do so much."
Sometimes, Polamalu will float close to the line of scrimmage, then backpedal frantically, either into the deep middle or on an angle toward the sideline. He can run as much as 35 to 40 yards before the snap -- and that's not including the times he races back toward the line of scrimmage and blitzes the quarterback.
"No one else in the league can do that," Williamson said. "His anticipation and flat-out speed? As good as he is, I think he's underrated."
Scouts say Polamalu has as much freedom within the context of the defense than perhaps any player since Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. This is among the reasons Harrison and Woodley combined for 27½ sacks this season.
"We always know where he's going," LeBeau said. "But we're not always sure how he's going to get there."
Polamalu, always humble, gives credit to free safety Ryan Clark for allowing him to tear around the field.
"Maybe I'm his alter-ego," Polamalu said. "He's the serene one. I'm the crazy guy that always makes the mistakes."
Polamalu's hair remains a target of teammates.
"Yeah, long, flowing locks," Harrison said. "You want to run your fingers through it. That's what you think of when you think of Troy Polamalu, hair flowing out of the back of the helmet, either knocking somebody else out or knocking himself out."
While Polamalu downplays the whole hair thing, nose tackle Casey Hampton knows better.
"I think he tries to act like you know, it's just his hair," Hampton said. "But when he takes a picture, he combs it out. He makes it look big and stuff like that.
"That's his thing. He likes the big hair."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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