LATROBE — The most famous hair in football is now flecked with more than a few strands of gray, and Troy Polamalu knows it.
Entering his 10th season, the perennial All-Pro Pittsburgh Steelers safety talks openly about being closer to the end of his Hall-of-Fame career than the beginning. He repeats the phrase "I'm trying to just take each day as it comes" it's almost as if it's on a loop.
The thoughtful 31-year-old has always been about more than football — at one point during Organized Team Activities he and free agent safety Myron Rolle engaged in a spirited talk about overpopulation — yet he understands he's at the point in his career where he needs to start thinking about those who will be around long after he's gone.
It's why he broke from tradition and showed up at OTAs this spring rather than work out in California. It's why he spent time at wide receiver — yes, wide receiver — during a drill earlier this week to give rookie defensive backs some insight into how things will look in Sunday night's preseason home opener against the Indianapolis Colts.
"He could be back sitting on a water cooler hamming it up but he's not," secondary coach Carnell Lake said. "He's adding his input, ‘This is what I see. You might want to see this or that."'
Even if there have been few players in NFL history who have done it quite like Polamalu, whose combination of athleticism and instincts have made him one of the best players of his generation.
The Steelers have relied on his playmaking to make them a perennial Super Bowl contender. Now they're relying just as heavily on his leadership after a mass exodus in the offseason left Polamalu as one of the most experienced players in a locker room in the midst of a transformation.
Aaron Smith, Chris Hoke, James Farrior and Hines Ward are gone. Suddenly, the guy who still vividly remembers being the anxious rookie in 2003 is one of the oldest guys in the huddle. He knows it's time to start acting like it, both in deed and in words.
Leading by example has never been an issue for Polamalu. Now, however, he knows his words and his off-the-field habits are just as important. It's one of the reasons he traveled cross-country for three weeks of OTAs, sacrificing valuable time with his family during the offseason so he could help the newcomers get a feel of what's required at a place that lives by the motto "the standard is the standard."
"We lost some great leaders this past year and Troy realizes that and he realizes he has to take a bigger, not necessarily a more vocal role, but a visible one," safety Ryan Mundy said. "Things that are voluntary, he's making a point to be at to show that ‘Hey I am one of the leaders on the team and you'll see my face."'
Polamalu, in typically understated fashion, brushes off the idea that he was trying to prove a point by being at OTAs. The way he figures it, it's better to get to know the new guys sooner rather than later.
Maybe, though it has never been an issue in the secondary. Veteran Ryan Clark is the spokesman. Cornerback Ike Taylor is the trash talker. And Polamalu is the quiet straight-A student.