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Polamalu finds himself in the spotlight

Steelers safety a star, reluctant as he may be

After missing 11 games in 2009 with a knee injury, Troy Polamalu was named the league’s top defender in 2010. After missing 11 games in 2009 with a knee injury, Troy Polamalu was named the league’s top defender in 2010. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)
By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / February 5, 2011

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FORT WORTH — The Steelers’ secondary fancies itself to be football’s version of the Jackson 5.

According to safety Ryan Clark, he is Jermaine, and corners Ike Taylor, William Gay, and Bryant McFadden are Tito, Randy, and Marlon, respectively.

And Troy Polamalu, the do-everything safety who was named the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is Michael.

“Michael was the star. Troy’s a star,’’ the excitable Clark explained. “As reluctant as he is to be a star, he is.’’

To say that Polamalu is soft-spoken is an understatement. Reporters chatting with him during the Steelers’ interview periods this week at Texas Christian’s basketball arena strained to hear him speak, even while sitting just a couple of feet away.

Polamalu is a 29-year-old married father who welcomed his second son with wife Theodora in October.

He is loathe to talk about himself, particularly his playmaking ability, and much prefers to discuss his faith and spirituality. Of Samoan descent, Polamalu is deeply religious, wearing a simple wooden cross on his neck and making the sign of the cross after every play on the field.

But it isn’t hard to get others to open up about Polamalu.

Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been coaching defensive backs and defenses since 1976 — and was an outstanding pro cornerback himself — so he knows good secondary play.

LeBeau calls Polamalu one of the best.

“Troy compares favorably with any defensive back I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of ’em – that will tell you how good that I think that he is,’’ LeBeau said. “He’s just a modest man, which I think also contributes to his greatness. He doesn’t even look for the limelight, but he’s constantly thrust in it because he makes so many great plays.

“We all have our personality, but Troy’s playing ability, his value as a man, he’s a wonderful family man, he’s deeply religious — there’s no better model in all of sport for what all is good in America than Troy.’’

Publicly, Polamalu, an eight-year veteran, has come out of his shell a bit recently — thanks in large part to his hair.

Polamalu hasn’t cut it for at least seven years, though one story says it was in 2000, when he was at Southern California. It is thick, black, and curly, though there are strands of gray that color it now.

Generally, he wears it pulled back in a neat ponytail. But during games, he lets it down. It is so long that it covers the top of the “43’’ sewn onto the back of his Steelers jersey.

It is also down in his Head & Shoulders commercials, the ones that pit the quiet star as a comedian. In one, it grows larger and larger; in another, he hides his cellphone in his ample locks.

He first let it down in his rookie season, in a November game in San Francisco. He finished the season strong, and the hair’s been on the loose ever since.

But he doesn’t consider it a good-luck charm. “It’s more like my independence,’’ Polamalu said. “It’s become part of my identity, part of my body.’’

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers this week said that he will have to know where Polamalu is at all times during tomorrow’s Super Bowl. Polamalu’s versatility means that he could be lined up almost anywhere, and his range means he’s never far from a play.

Thursday, as he spoke of his teammates and spirituality and the yin and yang of his off-field vs. on-field demeanors, Polamalu was asked what he thinks about on the field and his answer was revealing.

“Most of the time, to be quite honest, I’m scared,’’ he said sheepishly. “I’m scared to give up a play. I’m scared to get run over, to make a mistake.’’

This season was a strong comeback from 2009, in which he lost 11 games to a knee injury.

In 14 games this year, he had 63 tackles, seven interceptions, a sack, and forced fumble — all despite playing with an Achilles’ injury for a good chunk of the time, an injury that forced him to sit out Wednesday and Thursday practices so that he’d be able to play on Sundays.

The other members of the Jackson 5 know they need Polamalu for their performances to be just right.

“Selfishly, we kind of take the credit for him being the star, which had nothing to do with us, which is fun because he won’t talk about it and we get to talk about him all the time,’’ Clark said. “When it comes to us, it’s not a lot of household names, so we sit behind as background singers, we do the dances, we choreograph well. Make sure you always come back to one mic, that’s what’s important.

“When I get older and I’m in the barber shop I’ll be able to tell people, ‘I played with Troy Polamalu,’ and I’ll be just like Jermaine [Jackson]: living off a dream.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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