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Breakfast With Benz

Starkey: Polamalu returns to ‘catch-22’

Tribune-Review
| Saturday, November 29, 2014 11:18 p.m
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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu runs onto the field before the Browns game Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, at Heinz Field.
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Former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley makes a tackle against the Colts a game at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.

“He is often depressed beyond the point of tears.”

That was the description of former West Virginia and Buffalo Bills linebacker Darryl Talley in a Buffalo News piece Wednesday. It quickly took its place among the most vivid and jarring in a long line of stories chronicling the declines of damaged ex-football players.

If somebody had interviewed Junior Seau or Dave Duerson just before they hit bottom, it might have looked like Tim Graham’s harrowing report on Talley, who is only 54 but appears to be deteriorating quickly. Seau and Duerson were ex-NFL stars posthumously discovered to have been suffering from CTE, a brain disease linked to blows to the head and possibly resulting in depression and dementia. Both committed suicide but made sure to leave their brains intact for science.

Talley’s tale was swirling through my mind Friday when I visited the Steelers locker room. I looked around and wondered if all of these stories, all of the new and terrifying research, weighs on players. Particularly older ones.

I focused on Troy Polamalu, partly because he is returning to the fray Sunday after missing more time with another injury. Partly because he has played 155 games of the most maniacal brand of football. Partly because he will turn 34 before next season and has a concussion history that dates, at least, to his college days. Partly because I’d recently interviewed his wife, Theodora, who spoke of how she longs for the day her husband calls it quits.

And partly because I know I’m going to get an honest answer to the question: Do stories such as Talley’s prey on your mind?

“Yeah, for sure,” Polamalu said.

I wondered what keeps him coming back.

“Unlike most sports, the amazing thing about football is that it’s physical, but you also get an opportunity to face an athletic giant like (New Orleans Saints tight end) Jimmy Graham, a guy that’s bigger, taller, stronger,” Polamalu said. “I think that’s the beautiful thing about football. It teaches you to overcome adversity and fight these things that kind of have losing odds going in.”

Polamalu spoke, too, of living up to his contract and to his role as a team leader. He is eager to see where the season goes, eager for the thrill of the next challenge. But he also knows that with every game comes suffering, not so much for him but for his wife, who watches every snap with dread.

It’s impossible to remove that image from his mind on game days.

“It’s a catch-22,” Polamalu said. “I know my children are watching what I do to commit to being a member of this team and to my occupation. You go out there and play as hard as you can. You sacrifice a lot. On the other side of the coin is my wife, who worries for me more than anybody. She’s a wreck (during games).

“But I also want her to understand that when I commit to anything, whether it’s our marriage or (football), I’m fully committed.”

Only the participants understand the level of violence inherent in an NFL game. And only their immediate loved ones witness the true cost of all the benefits they receive. Theodora Polamalu grew up in a football family, so nothing surprises her. But much of it appalls her.

She talked about that in a recent visit to our studios at 93.7 The Fan.

“Not only do I watch the physical abuse these guys take on the field, I see the side effects, what happens after a game when they are so beat up they can’t move, and they’re just kind of in this vegetative state for 24 hours,” she said. “It’s amazing to watch, and it’s sad, and it’s one of those things where as a family member of an athlete, you realize that’s the sacrifice they make.”

Her words evoked those of Brenda Roethlisberger, Ben’s mom, from a visit I made to Findlay, Ohio, on the way to Super Bowl XL. Her son, then in his second season, had the whole city excited. I asked what it was like for a mom to watch from the seats.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “Not everyone has to watch their kid get beat up every weekend.”

As players such as Roethlisberger and Polamalu move into their 30s in a young man’s sport, the once-blurry finish line comes into focus. My guess is that Roethlisberger has several more years. Polamalu is more of a mystery. He says he has “no idea” what kinds of clues will indicate it’s time.

“Are you trying to tell me something?” he joked.

Polamalu still can help the Steelers, even if he is no longer the superhero he once was. He’s still somewhat intact, despite all the injuries.

The thing about football is that only when the hitting stops does the hurt really set in. The best one can hope for, I suppose, is good genes, great luck and minimal damage.

I wondered if Theodora Polamalu will be pleased the day her husband tells her he is finished.

“Yes, very much so,” she said. “I look forward to that day.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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