Polamalu spent his first year at USC as a backup where he became a hybrid player, playing at both safety positions. While he was only a backup player at the time, Polamalu still made his mark in the eight games in which he played, collecting two sacks, two forced fumbles and blocking a punt. He would become a full-time starter at the strong safety position the following year. He added three blocked punts and two forced fumbles in his second season and saw time on punt return duty.
In 2002, his last year at USC, Polamalu would start in all games except for one against Pac-10 rival California, giving him thirty-six total starts in his college career. He made sixty-eight tackles for the season, nine for losses, as well as four pass deflections. He earned All-American honors from Walter Camp and ESPN, while earning second-team honors from The Sporting News. These accolades would make Polamalu the first two-time All-American selection for USC since offensive lineman Tony Boselli. He became an All-Pac-10 first team member twice and was awarded the Most Inspirational Player Award by his teammates. Polamalu was named a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s best defensive back, along with then-Ohio State safety Mike Doss and, the eventual winner, then-Kansas State cornerback Terence Newman.
Polamalu finished his career at USC as a three-year starter. In all, he made 278 total tackles with twenty-nine of them being behind the line scrimmage, six interceptions, thirteen pass deflections and four blocked punts.
Polamalu was drafted 16th overall in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Polamalu was actually the team’s second option at safety, as they had planned on signing Dexter Jackson that off-season. Jackson, the reigning Super Bowl MVP with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, even had a verbal agreement to sign with the Steelers, only for him to back out at the last minute and sign with the Arizona Cardinals instead. The Steelers then went to “Plan B” and drafted Polamalu instead.
The Chargers, who had the 15th overall pick, had a major need at safety to replace Rodney Harrison but instead chose to go with quantity over quality, forgoing the opportunity to select Polamalu by trading down and acquiring Sammy Davis and Terrence Kiel. The Steelers, ecstatic that Polamalu slid past the Chargers, quickly made a move to bring Polamalu to their team. The Steelers believed so much that Polamalu could have a positive impact on their defense that they traded up from the 27th spot to the 16th spot, originally held by the Chiefs. The Steelers traded away the 92nd and 200th overall pick for the rights to switch first round picks and select Troy Polamalu. Essentially, the trade was Polamalu for Larry Johnson, Julian Battle, and Brooks Bollinger (the Bollinger pick was subsequently traded to the Jets in the same draft). Polamalu has the distinction of being the only safety ever drafted by the Steelers in the first round
The Steelers use Polamalu in a high percentage of defensive plays and in a wide variety of defensive roles. In only his third season (2005), he tied the NFL record for most sacks, three, in a single game by a safety. The 2007 Pro Bowl was his third consecutive Pro Bowl appearance; he started at strong safety for the AFC, playing next to the Baltimore Ravens starting free safety Ed Reed. The competitive spirit they share stemming from their teams’ divisional rivalry was evident, as the two battled for possession of an overthrown halfback pass from former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber; Reed came down with the interception. Polamalu made the AP NFL All-Pro Second Team in 2005, and was named to the First Team in 2006.
Polamalu’s first Super Bowl appearance was in Super Bowl XL in 2006, when the Pittsburgh Steelers gained the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl with a 21–10 win over the Seattle Seahawks (and former USC teammate Lofa Tatupu).
On July 23, 2007, before training camp, the Steelers gave Polamalu the biggest contract in team history extending him through 2011. In an article on ESPN.com, Polamalu said, “I did not want to be a player who is jumping from team to team. I’ve always felt comfortable here, I think this organization, this tradition they have here, is very legendary and I always wanted to be part of this.”
Polamalu was named a reserve to the 2008 Pro Bowl despite having no interceptions and only playing in eleven games during the 2007 season. Polamalu’s injury-plagued 2007 season led him to partake in a California rehab program. He suffered a hamstring injury late in his off-season workout, causing him to miss Pittsburgh’s 2008 training camp. He returned to practicing with the team days after the camp’s conclusion, however. Polamalu was named to the 2009 Pro Bowl as the AFC’s strong safety after being given a unanimous vote by five experts. He was joined by his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates James Harrison and James Farrior on the AFC Pro Bowl team. Polamalu’s 4th quarter interception return for a touchdown in the 2009 AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens helped the Steelers clinch a victory en route to another Super Bowl appearance.
In the spring of 2008, NFLShop.com reported that Polamalu’s #43 jersey was the 15th-highest selling jersey in the NFL. The only Pittsburgh Steeler to sell more was Ben Roethlisberger’s #7 jersey, at the 10th spot.
Polamalu is of Samoan descent and was raised by his mother’s family. Polamalu’s uncle Kennedy Pola is the offensive coordinator for USC and formerly coached the Jacksonville Jaguars for five years. Another uncle, Aoatoa Polamalu, played nose tackle at Penn State from 1984–1988.
Polamalu is married and has two sons named Paisios, born on October 31, 2008, and Ephraim, born on September 16, 2010. His wife Theodora is the sister of former NFL player and USC Trojan alumnus Alex Holmes and current USC starting right guard Khaled Holmes. Polamalu resides with his family in Pittsburgh during the football season and in San Diego, California, during the off-season.
Polamalu’s favorite pastimes include surfing, growing flowers, making furniture and playing the piano. Despite Polamalu’s hard-hitting style on the gridiron, he is known off the field as a soft-spoken family man. Polamalu is also well read in the history and theology of early Christianity, which ultimately led him and his wife Theodora to convert to Greek Orthodox Christianity in 2007. He makes the Sign of the Cross after every play (from right to left, in the Eastern Orthodox manner, as opposed to the Roman Catholic manner of left to right). Among his spiritual activities is a pilgrimage to Orthodox Christian sites in Greece and Turkey, taken in 2007. He seldom gives interviews, but when he does, he often speaks of the role his spirituality plays in his life. Polamalu has said that he tries to separate himself from his profession as much as possible, including not watching football games at home. He prays after each play and on the sidelines. His children, Paisios and Ephraim, are both named after well-known Greek Orthodox Christian saints.