PITTSBURGH - It was suggested to Troy Polamalu that he might be the only Orthodox "celebrity'' in the United States. And considering his status as a Pro Bowl safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, his iconic flowing mane of hair, and the fact that said mane has been insured for $1 million by Head and Shoulders, which features him as its shampoo pitchman, Polamalu was hard-pressed to deny it.
"Maybe because I'm commercialized in a lot of ways,'' Polamalu acknowledged. "But the beauty of Orthodoxy is there's no superheroes. There's no real celebrities within Orthodoxy. There's a lot of prestige brought to a lot of other religions for certain people. But Orthodoxy has always been about the pure humility of it.''
Unlike so many professional athletes, Polamalu, 29, didn't set out in search of celebrity. It found him, a circumstance beyond his control. He has spent much of his adult life in search of pure humility and spiritual peace, a journey that led him and his wife, Theodora, to convert to Orthodox Christianity five years ago.
But the circumstances of his professional life and his personal beliefs have combined to make him the most unorthodox of Orthodox Christians. Polamalu is a pacifist who excels in a violent sport; he practices asceticism but is in the fourth year of a $33-million contract, and he strives toward the deepest spiritual truths amid an environment of crass commercialism.
How does he reconcile what many might perceive as jarring contradictions? Polamalu's answer is simplicity itself.
"Well, I don't think there's two different me's, if that's what you're asking,'' he said. "Who I am at church, who I am on the football field, who I am with my family is the same person. Otherwise, it wouldn't be any authentic person. If you're not real in one, then you're not authentic in all the other places, right?''
If there's one thing his Steelers teammates are agreed upon, it's that Polamalu is the real deal on the field and off. After missing their 22-17 loss to the Jets in Week 15 because of an Achilles injury he's still nursing, Polamalu will be with them for tonight's AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field, and they see him as the difference-maker.
"Troy brings this defense from I'd say a 'C' defense to an 'A' defense,'' linebacker James Harrison said. "He's someone you have to account for in the secondary.''
Polamalu is an instinctual player with a deep sense of the game and phenomenal range that has allowed him to pull in seven interceptions this season, but he also is a high-impact hitter at a mere 5-10, 207 pounds.
In between plays, you might see him praying and making the sign of the cross in Orthodox fashion. Why does he pray?
"It's because of the fear that I have,'' he said. "There's a tremendous amount of traps, given the occupation we have here as football players. There's deep spiritual traps. There's traps of pride, of ego, of arrogance, of these deep passions that the Orthodox fathers talk about. I have a great fear that I will fall into those traps, so I always have to check myself.''
Polamalu has two uncles who are Baptist ministers, and he attended Roman Catholic schools while growing up and later experimented with several Protestant denominations. That was the beginning of a spiritual journey that led him to the study of Daoism, Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism and even Freemasonry and Karl Marx.
"It had everything to do with the lack of what I felt was a spiritual peace and a spiritual experience of God that I was wanting but I wasn't getting,'' he said.
Ultimately, he found Orthodox Christianity. He took it a step further by studying Greek because that was the language of the world when the Bible was written and, therefore, the best way to read it without misinterpretation.
Polamalu has visited Orthodox monasteries from Arizona to Turkey and even made a pilgrimage to Mount Athos in Greece, the epicenter of the Orthodox world.
In his most humble opinion, Orthodoxy is "the purest form of the Christian faith.''
As for the violent nature of his business, Polamalu has no qualms, noting, "There were Orthodox saints and also prophets in the Bible that were soldiers. So violence in this respect [in the NFL] is obviously really relative.''
While he enjoyed winning two Super Bowls and hopes to win a third, Polamalu says the greatest joy is not necessarily winning a Super Bowl. "In football terms it is, but in the real-life terms, it isn't,'' he said. "That can't define you as a person. I don't want to walk around and be known as Troy the Super Bowl champion.
"I'd rather be in God's Hall of Fame book.''