The Steelers' Troy Polamalu: A Pittsburgher at Heart

Todd FlemingAnalyst IJune 8, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates as confetti falls after they 27-23 win against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Pittsburghers have a lot of pride in their city, much more so than many denizens of other U.S. cities who view their city as little more than a location, the place where they hang their hats and go to work.

We take pride in the city’s blue collar roots, in the fact that the steel industry, Pittsburgh’s signature industry for many years, was one of the key industries that built our great nation.

We take pride in the city’s tremendous sports heritage. Despite being a relatively small city, it boasts three of the most storied professional teams in sports.

Yes, I am even including the Pirates here. Despite their struggles of recent years, the team has one of the greatest traditions in all of baseball. I grew up on a steady diet of stories about players like the great Roberto Clemente and, to this day, one of my few regrets is that I never had a chance to see him play at the old Forbes Field in Oakland.

Even those of us who are scattered to the winds almost never lose our identification with the city of our birth. I’ve lived in Germany, Korea, Virginia, Ohio, California, and Colorado. And, in all that time, I have not once considered myself anything other than a Pittsburgher.

The elitest reporters in the White House press corps who are unaware that any U.S. cities exist that aren't named New York or Los Angeles recently laughed when it was revealed that Pittsburgh would host the next G-20 Summit.

But, for those who live or grew up there, no city matters more. 

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Trust me when I say that is a special quality about the Three Rivers City. Very few other cities inspire that same kind of intense loyalty.

That is why Troy Polamalu’s answer to a recent question on ESPN was so interesting. He was asked, “Do you consider yourself a Pittsburgh guy now, or are you a California guy in Pittsburgh?”

Troy answered, “I would say I’m a Pittsburgh guy, yeah. I live in Pittsburgh. I scrape snow off just like everyone else. I’ve had a Primanti sandwich. I’m a part of Pittsburgh. I get mad when the Pirates don’t win, when the Pens don’t win.”

I don’t think he could have given a better answer. My first thought was that this guy gets it. He is indeed a part of Pittsburgh.

Not only is he identifying with the city’s other professional teams, he is identifying with the activities of everyday Pittsburghers, like shoveling snow, and taking part in notable Pittsburgh traditions, like eating a Primanti sandwich.

That latter is one Pittsburgh tradition I can’t even identify with since I detest cole slaw, although I have made more than a few pilgrimages to the Original “O” in Oakland just for a hot dog or journeyed down to the Strip District for a Benkowitcz fish sandwich.

My only caution to Troy is that he needs to get over that getting mad about the Pirates losing thing for a few years or else he may need to schedule some anger management sessions with Jack Nicholson.

Troy’s answer is all the more remarkable considering he was once identified as a Southern California kid, another area that inspires its own sense of civic pride.

He’s not the first former Trojan to become Pittsburghized. Lynn Swann also pulled off the trick, later running for governor of Pennsylvania.

The way Troy answered that question helped vault him near the top of my all-time favorite athletes. Truth be told, with his class and sportsmanship both on and off the field, he was already near the top.

It was this same sense of civic pride that was on display when the Steelers hurried back from their visit to the White House so they wouldn’t miss the Penguins play.

It is also this same sense of civic pride that makes us smile when we see Mike Tomlin at the Penguins game in a Penguins game jersey or when we see the Penguins rooting on the Steelers in their playoff run.

It was this sense of shared Pittsburgh pride that caused many Pittsburghers to want to throw up when they saw Bill Cowher wearing Carolina red while cheering on the Hurricanes against the Penguins.

It wasn’t that he did anything terribly wrong. But, seeing a guy we think of as being a “Pittsburgh” guy rooting for another city’s team is a tough pill to swallow.

Plenty of Pittsburgh sports stars choose to stay in Pittsburgh. They play for the city and become part of the city.

I don’t think that sense of shared loyalty between teams is anywhere nearly as prominent in other cities that boast multiple professional sports teams as it is in Pittsburgh.

When it comes to the Penguins, none of those guys are native Pittsburghers now that Ryan Malone is no longer on the team. Heck, most of them aren’t even Americans.

It doesn’t matter. They become part of the city’s culture and most of them love it. They embrace it.

The players we like the best are those who act like it is a privilege to play in Pittsburgh, as opposed to those who act like the city should feel privileged to have them.

If a player embraces the city, the second part takes care of itself and we do indeed feel like the city is privileged to see them play.

When a player is drafted by a Pittsburgh team, he isn’t just being drafted by that team. He is being drafted by the city.

If a player doesn’t get this, in the tradition of Barry Bonds and Plaxico Burress, our collective response is, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out of town.”

One caveat to this is that plenty of players do embrace the city and still find themselves leaving town. This has been especially true of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who seem to field a new team every year. That is the sad reality of today’s salary cap/free agency/financial environment.

It is also why Pittsburghers are having such a hard time identifying with the Pirates. It isn’t so much that they aren’t very good. While that is a part of it, the bigger issue is that there isn’t any stability.

It is hard to root for a player and a team that could and probably will change in the next five minutes.

That Pittsburgh civic pride is one reason why we embrace a guy like Sidney Crosby so much, a player who despite his incredible skills accepts less than his market value so that the Penguins have more money to sign other players.

That is why we feel a sense of pride when players like Hines Ward and Casey Hampton say they would like to retire as Steelers. 

That is also one reason it was so easy to continue to root for Rod Woodson long after he was no longer wearing Black and Gold due to no choice of his own. He still maintained a restaurant in the city and raised his family there. 

He never said a bad word against the city despite, perhaps, having some cause for it.

That is why we are so excited to see one of the greatest hockey players in the history of the game, Mario Lemieux, in the Penguins’ owner’s box.

They all became Pittsburgh guys. And we love them for it.

I won’t soon forget how Troy Polamalu answered a seemingly innocuous question.

Troy is one of the best safeties to ever play the game. He is a two-time Super Bowl champion. He is one of the most important players on the league’s best defense.

But, most importantly, he is a Pittsburgher.

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