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Looking back at the career of Troy Polamalu

"I believe God named me Troy for a reason," he used to say. "I was born to come here."

Troy Polamalu felt a greater power led him to USC, and if it did, we should all feel very grateful.

A few days after the future Hall of Fame safety announced his retirement from the Pittsburgh Steelers, it seems only appropriate to look back to where it all started for him, to where the roots of his great football career were first planted.

Some of us were not only fortunate to watch him play in college, we were lucky enough to cover him and discover he was just as special off the field as he was on.

It was always difficult to believe this athlete who threw his body around with such disregard on the grassy floor of a football stadium could look up at people with such soft, kind eyes, away from it.

You'd watch the vicious tackles, then a couple of hours later, you'd listen to that calming voice in the locker room. Or observe him interact with other players or with young kids who loved to crowd around him.

He was the ultimate football anomaly. A young man whose helmet-jarring hits knocked down ball carriers and whose kind, soothing soul warmed the hearts of everyone who was around him.

I can still remember Matt Grootegoed, the terrific sophomore linebacker who played only a few feet away from Polamalu in USC's 2002 defense, trying to put into words what his senior teammate meant to the team.

"I can't even begin to explain it," Grootegoed said. "He was like a mentor to everyone, but it is more that that. It's his spiritual presence."

It isn't often that you hear the term "spiritual" associated with a football player, but almost everyone who has been around Polamalu uses that term.

Part of it was his background. He grew up in the mean streets of Santa Ana, realizing even at the young age of eight that his future was somewhere else. He traveled to a small town called Tenmile in Oregon to vacation with an aunt and uncle for three weeks, then begged his mother to let him live there permanently.

As difficult a decision as that had to be for his mom, she eventually gave in, something Troy believed was preordained, just as much as his eventual arrival at USC.

Tell me, has any other school in college football history produced two safeties the equal of Ronnie Lott and Polamalu? One already in Canton, the other soon on his way. And while we're at it, can someone please explain to me how Polamalu isn't already in the USC Athletic Hall of Fame?

That's something that should be rectified immediately.

All this guy has done since leaving USC as an All American is become a perennial All-Pro, making it to eight Pro Bowls and winning two Super Bowl championships. He and that distinctive long, flowing mane belong right there, next to Terry Bradshaw, on the Mt. Rushmore of all-time Steeelers' greats. And right next to Lott on USC's all-time first team defense.

Maybe the most violent of all players of his generation, it was hardly a surprise that Polamalu suffered several concussions along the way. This is an athlete who only played at warp speed. Never once did you see him ease up on a football field.

For his own welfare, and for the peace of mind of his family and so many of his fans, retirement comes at a good time. This is not someone you want to see get carried out on a stretcher in his last game.

Before Polamalu's last home college game at the Coliseum, Pete Carroll, his coach at the time, looked over at him and smiled.

"Troy is an amazing football player and an amazing person," Carroll said.

Maybe an even more fitting tribute occurred a few weeks earlier, after another stirring home victory at the Coliseum. I was standing a few feet away in the locker room when an elderly gentleman in a USC windbreaker, accompanied by what looked like his grandson, approached Polamalu in front of his cubicle.

"You don't know me," he said, identifying himself as a former Trojans athlete from years back, "but I just wanted to tell you how impressed I've been not only by the way you play but by the way you conduct yourself on and off the field. You are the perfect role model for this program. It's been a pleasure to observe you over these past few years."

That gentleman could have been speaking for thousands of loyal USC supporters back then. And now.

You know, looking back, somebody definitely knew what he was doing naming him Troy.