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Steelers’ Troy Polamalu Is a Beast—and a Role Model

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The old saw that advises not to take work home with you suits Troy Polamalu just fine.

Polamalu, an American Samoan born in California, spends three hours a week careening around NFL fields with abandon as the strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His trademark flowing locks—which have landed him an endorsement deal and a $1 million insurance policy from Head & Shoulders shampoo—make number 43 easy to spot. Then again, since he’s generally found near the ball, you’d be hard pressed to miss 2010’s Defensive Player of the Year.

But while some of his fellow players fail to draw the line between the violent world of pro football and their personal lives, Polamalu is devoted to his religion and his family. He married his girlfriend, Theodora, in 2005, just two years after they’d met at the University of Southern California; they now have two young sons.

So how does the 30-year-old future Hall of Famer go from a man possessed to saintly dad? Polamalu put it pretty well six years ago, just before the first of his two Super Bowl wins: “I take pride in my life—my wife, my family. I try my best to not have football define the person that I am.”

Polamalu is a marvel. Just watch him: There he is, intercepting a ball 30 yards downfield. There he is, sacking the quarterback 10 yards into the opponent’s backfield. “It’s a voice for our Samoan heritage,” he told 60 Minutes. “It’s in how we hit people and how we run and how we carry ourselves on the football field. That warrior mentality is a warrior action on the football field.”

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But any pride that he takes in his achievements never shows itself in ugly bravado. Other players boast and strut after making a big play. Polamalu, by contrast, rarely reacts with anything more demonstrative than an occasional high-five. Or maybe he’ll hug a teammate.

If you still don’t think that Polamalu is one of his sport’s true role models, consider that he just earned his undergraduate degree in history from USC in May. Yes, a man who has already earned tens of millions of dollars went back to tie up a loose end.

But why?

“I decided to finish what I started and walked that stage today not only because it was very important to me personally,” said Polamalu, who left college for the NFL after his junior year, “but because I want to emphasize the importance of education, and that nothing should supersede it.”

Unfortunately in sports—as in other aspects of American life—the loudest and most controversial get the headlines. While this is as much an indictment of us as observers, it’s good to know that there are some superstars we’d like our children to emulate. Troy Polamalu is at the front of that group