Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu was one of the most exciting players to watch on the field because you were never quite sure what he was going to do. It also made him one of the most frustrating—mostly to his opponents, but also sometimes to his coaches.
And to the quarterbacks he went up against in practice. While hosting former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher on his Footbahlin’ podcast, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger helped relay a story from early in his career when Polamalu got on his nerves on the field.
“He would do the card defense just to get extra reps. Like, why are you out there playing their defense? But then he would do his own thing”, Roethlisberger said. “The offense is gonna run our play, the defense is gonna run the other team’s defense. So even if they’re like, ‘We wouldn’t do that’, it doesn’t matter, you do what the card says”.
It’s typically the reserves and practice squad players who carry out the “card” units, or the scout team, those who simulate the upcoming opponent for the week to give the starters the looks they expect to see. Polamalu would volunteer, except he couldn’t help being Troy.
“He’s supposed to go back to like, deep half, and then all of a sudden he’d be over here intercepting a ball, and I’m like, ‘What are we doing?’”, Roethlisberger recalled. And Cowher relayed how the young quarterback would go up to him in frustration.
“‘Coach! Troy! He just jumps stuff all the time, he’s not even doing the things he’s supposed to be doing!’”, he recalled Roethlisberger telling him. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Welcome to my world! I hear you, I can’t control him either!’
“He’s coming over to me, he’s getting mad at me because of Troy. And I’m like, ‘What do you want me to do? Be like, Okay, Troy, you can’t do that’”?, he added. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘I get mad, too. I know your feeling. I have to deal with this on gameday! You’re dealing with this in practice’”.
Roethlisberger would later in the segment chalk it up to youth on his part that it would frustrate him so much—but also a bit of ego. “He was so stinking good, and he makes you feel really bad about yourself when the point of cards is supposed to make you feel good about yourself”, he said with a smile.
Polamalu was the Steelers’ first-round draft pick in 2003, the year before they made Roethlisberger the 11th-overall pick in 2004. The former is already in the Hall of Fame, and the latter will be as soon as he’s eligible.
Over time, they made each other better, carrying out a chess match on the practice field. I’m sure Roethlisberger taught Polamalu quite a lesson with his notorious pump fakes a time or two. Even Minkah Fitzpatrick admitted he had to learn from that, even though Roethlisberger was already at the end of his career and his pump fake was no secret.