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Jason Mackey: Troy Polamalu and the ‘compelling obligation’ that has led to him reconnecting with Pittsburgh | Football


PITTSBURGH — Troy Polamalu waited a few extra seconds before answering the question, either trying to gather the right words or not offend. It was the polar opposite of the Tasmanian Devil approach he employed on the football field, a trait nearly as distinguishable as his hair and something that made him not only one of the most revered Steelers ever, but a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Umm … honestly, I don’t know,” said Polamalu when asked why he’s become a more visible presence among Steelers alumni after largely disappearing for roughly the first five years of retirement. “I just feel it’s the byproduct of what we’ve been doing.”

On Friday afternoon, seated next to his wife, Theodora, in the Steelers-clad basement of the Babb, Inc. building on the North Side, the Polamalus were here to promote the 2024 Inaugural Resilience Bowl, a celebrity football fundraiser for the Neighborhood Resilience Project.

The Hill District-based nonprofit will hold a flag football tournament on May 21 at Acrisure Stadium to raise money for trauma-affected communities, relying on the popularity of not only Polamalu and other former Steelers such as Ryan Clark and Bryant McFadden, but Kurt Angle, Steve Byrne and a host of others, as well.

“Having a black tie gala didn’t match what the foundation is about,” Theodora said. “We wanted to do something special that would resonate with the city.”

We’ll talk more about the Neighborhood Resilience Project and the Polamalus’ involvement in it, but I first wanted to address the hesitancy in Polamalu’s voice when talking about why he’s been around more.

There was that rainy game against Seattle in October 2021, when Polamalu was feted along with other Hall of Famers such as Bill Cowher, Alan Faneca, Bill Nunn and Donnie Shell. Then last May, Polamalu took part in an event at the Mel Blount Youth Leadership Initiative, joining former teammates such as Joey Porter, Ben Roethlisberger, Casey Hampton, Ike Taylor, Jerome Bettis and more, later touring the team’s Hall of Honor.

This coming from someone who very much disappeared from the spotlight when the Steelers did not bring him back for the 2015 season, though Polamalu has denied any bad blood between him and the organization publicly.

The break likely gave him some needed space between playing professional football and transitioning to the next chapter of his life. But whatever the case, the switch began to flip around the time Polamalu was elected to the Hall of Fame.

“His commitment his entire career was here,” Theodora said, stepping in for her husband. “Even though we might live in California, this is still home to us. Our kids were born here. We have such a connection.”

The Polamalus remain Pittsburgh sports fans — not only the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates, but the Riverhounds, as well. They also keep tabs on their friends’ kids who are now playing for North Allegheny.

But they’re not fans of forcing things or operating in a way that might be best described as inorganic.

“A lot of this started when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Theodora continued. “The Steelers had reached out. They did so much with his introduction. But it wasn’t planned. It was just an organic way of things happening. That’s how we try to live our life. We don’t force anything.”

At that point, Troy had figured out how he wanted to proceed and how he’d talk about reconnecting with Pittsburgh. It’s an obligation, Troy said. But not necessarily in the true meaning of the word.

“It’s a compelling obligation,” Troy said. “That’s why it’s hard because no matter how hard you fight it. …

“He’s an introvert,” Theodora said.

“I’d much rather not do [much publicly], but that’s what is so hard about it,” Troy countered.

Theodora: “You also have so many examples of what that looks like with Joe Greene and Franco Harris. … His predecessors really paved the way for what the Steelers’ standard is when it comes to the community.”

Troy: “Mel Blount still has his events, too.”

At that point, I interjected. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But it just felt like the whole Polamalu situation city-wide needed to happen. Revered player didn’t leave on the best of terms. There’s some separation. Then finally a reconciliation of sorts that feels like a giant hug.

“The city has done a lot for us,” Theodora said.

“We’ve benefitted in a lot of ways, too,” Troy added. “We’re very grateful.”

So are Steelers fans, which takes us to next month’s event.

General admission tickets are either $10 (up to age 22 and 65-plus) or $20 (ages 23-64), while there are $300 Black & Gold tickets available that include a dinner and reception in the PNC Champion’s Club, plus premium seating, a silent auction, swag bags and more.

Rooted in the Orthodox Church and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, the Neighborhood Resilience Project aims to improve trauma-affected communities that deal with gun violence, poverty, racism, addiction and neglect.

In addition to food drives and backpack programs, the Neighborhood Resilience Project distributed more than 2,500 vaccines during the pandemic and features a free community health clinic.

“What’s really important is the resilience,” Troy said. “Carried out, it looks like independence.”

As Theodora explained, the relationship traces back to around 2007, when she started working with Rev. Paul Abernathy, an Orthodox Christian priest in the area who was also a combat veteran of the Iraq war and had ample experience with PTSD.

With the organization gaining considerable steam, around 18 months ago the Polamalus and Rev. Abernathy began talking about holding an event to raise money. The only problem is that they didn’t want to exclude anyone. So, they chose football.

“We knew in Pittsburgh we would get the support we needed to be able to accomplish something very special,” Theodora said.

Troy has insisted he plans on playing some running back, too; however, there was one problem that arose during our interview.

“I’m pretty nervous,” Polamalu admitted. “I still have to get out there and run. I can’t pull a muscle on the first play!”

Here’s thinking Troy will find a way to make it through and disrupt a play or two. If nothing else, maybe he could ask his older son, Paisios — who recently transitioned into tackle football from the flag variety back home in San Diego — for advice.

Troy and Theodora did not want Paisios to play tackle football until he was a freshman but eventually relented, allowing him to transfer to St. Augustine High.

“Seven-on-seven is great, as long as it doesn’t take them away from other sports,” Troy said. “I think it’s really important for kids to play every sport, especially before they get to high school.”

Youth athletics has been another culture shock for Troy and Theodora as their boys (younger son Ephraim) get older and compete in various leagues. Having their kids here, the Polamalus only really knew the Pittsburgh way of doing things.

“In California, it’s all in on one sport,” Troy said. “When we moved back to California, we were like, ‘Man, you’re not only all in on this, you’re home-schooling your kid and getting private chefs!’ That’s not what we learned in Pittsburgh.”

Troy’s unabashed honesty popped up again during our chat when I asked whether charity work like the Resilience Bowl might be part of his second chapter, his post-playing impact.

Not really, he said politely. It’s just a good cause and the Polamalus wanted to support it, the same type of organic way of doing things or compelling obligation that long ago endeared Troy and Theodora to their adopted city.

“It’s not our goal every day to go out there and be humanitarians,” Troy said. “Sometimes when it’s on a much bigger scale, it becomes a lot less intimate and not really the way that we like to give back.”

“We continue to receive so much love and support from the many years we lived here,” Theodora added. “It makes sense organically to come back and be a part of the fabric of different things that are going on here.”

(c)2024 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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