When Troy Polamalu won the team’s Most Valuable Player award two years ago, he gave one heckuva begrudging acceptance speech.
“It’s kind of uncomfortable winning anything like this,” he said at the time. “If I was ever a coach, I probably wouldn’t ever have an award like this, just because it is such a team sport.”
Polamalu looked even more uncomfortable than he said he was.
But at least he showed up.
Heath Miller didn’t even do that.
Oh, sure, there was that whole surgery thing, but if we go back to Miller’s senior year at Honaker High, in the remote hill country of southwestern Virginia, from a story his mother relayed to me, Heath was headed toward something similar, class valedictorian, when he learned he would have to make a speech. So he tanked his finals and finished third in his class.
The story elicited a chuckle from Polamalu.
“You know, in Orthodoxy,” Troy said of his religion, “that’s like a story from a saint. You hear of a saint who has the most beautiful voice but won’t sing because he doesn’t want to be praised for it.”
But, I asked Polamalu, doesn’t God want His children to display their talents? Wouldn’t that please God?
“But how can you know God without having a humble disposition or humility?” Polamalu said. “That’s what I would feel God wants, that sort of relationship. And how can you know that without humility? And if you sacrifice something that’s your greatest gift, as God sacrificed, that’s the ultimate, isn’t it?”
Probably so. And it just happens that the Steelers lost their greatest gift for the most important series of the season, and the regular-season finale, and the coming spring, and possibly the entirety of the next training camp when Miller blew out his knee late in Sunday’s game.
He was voted MVP by his saddened teammates a few days later, and I had hoped to ask Heath then about the importance of humility in sports as some sort of positive way to end a negative season. But he wasn’t around.
Heath would probably just say that he’s way too boring to be interviewed anyway. And he would mean it. So Polamalu attempted to take on the topic.
“Oh, man,” Troy said as his mind went to work. “Well, I don’t know if it’s a syndrome or a cancer, but there’s kind of an uprising of a more egotistical, ego-centric athlete in sports, the selfish athlete in sports who’s looking out for himself and is money-centered, really avaricious.
“But, really, Heath would be better to talk to about this. Heath to me is someone who’s innately humble. He doesn’t struggle to be humble.”
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Maybe as a reflex, I did what I was told. I went over to Heath’s locker knowing he wouldn’t be home. But his next-door neighbor was.
“Terrible,” was what Brett Keisel had to say about Miller’s injury.
I asked Keisel why he rushed onto the field last Sunday to help Heath off.
“Well, I know there aren’t a lot of guys as tall as him,” said a man who obviously knows something about humility.
But, because you’re tall?
C’mon, Keis. Let it out.
“Heath is a very dear friend to me. He really is,” Keisel said. “Not that when other people go down I’m not great friends with them, but I just wanted him to know that I was supporting him and if he needed help getting off the field that I was one guy who was about the same height as him that could help him.”
Keisel and Miller have dressed side by side in the locker room ever since Miller was drafted in 2005. Like most everyone else who’s ever dealt with Miller, Keisel’s developed a great deal of respect for him.
“He’s one of the greats,” Keisel said the day before the team voted for its MVP. “He’s getting my MVP vote. He’s one of those guys that if you had a whole locker room full of Heath Millers you would never lose.
“He’s just one of the greatest guys ever, one of the most competitive guys ever, one of those pros who’s always doing his job. That’s why we all love and respect him because of the way he carries himself, the way he comes to work. I told him he’s one of the few guys that I really look up to.”
He’s loved and respected, but the Steelers’ offense just might need someone who’s feared as well. The unit appears to be in need of more than a leader-by-example. It appears to need a leader by force, or at least by vocal force.
Does Heath ever get that charged up?
“He might just do a fist pump or something, but that’s all you’re going to get from him,” Keisel said. “Still, that gets us fired up because to us that’s like a dance. You see emotion from him from time to time, but he’s a very humble guy.”
But, would it be too much to ask Heath to become just a bit more rah-rah?
“I’m not going to tell Heath to change who he is,” Keisel said. “I don’t think anyone in here would ask him to do that. He’s the type of player he is because that’s how he was raised to play the game and that’s how he approaches the game.
“I don’t know who is going to be those other vocal leaders on that side of the ball, but it’s not going to be Heath. He’s going to lead by example and by showing everyone how hard he’s ready to go.”
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Why can’t Heath Miller just start knowing all, seeing all, and most importantly start telling all? Why is such deep-rooted humility so important in sports anyway?
“Well, spiritually, it’s obviously very important,” said Polamalu. “But it’s important in sports that everybody has a role, and sometimes you humbly have to accept it as a follower. Sometimes you have to humbly accept it as a leader.
“A lot of guys, I think, struggle with it, but I always think ‘Well, what is it that drives you to be better?’ What drives you to be better is you understand that people are better than you, and that’s a point of humility. That’s what makes you work harder. That’s what makes you study harder. But when you let arrogance seep into your game and you say ‘Well, I’m the best,’ then you don’t struggle at getting better at all, which in turn doesn’t help anybody on this team.”
Polamalu learned this at a young age. Before his senior year in high school, on a piece of paper listing his immense athletic and academic goals, he circled the phrase “Stay Humble” to set it apart as the overriding theme.
How did he come to understand such a concept at that age?
“Maybe it’s innate within a lot of different cultures,” he said. “It’s innate within our culture to be humble all the time, and probably more so with the youngest child in both my family and my adopted family. But, I don’t know. It’s not only humility. It’s also meekness and just being reserved within yourself.”
Isn’t that a difficult balancing act? Don’t we need great confidence to achieve, to thrive, in any endeavor?
“It depends on how you can view it,” Polamalu said. “You can view it and say, ‘I’ve got confidence in myself. I’m better than them.’ Or, ‘I respect him so much because he’s better than me and I’m going to give him everything I’ve got.’”
And then Polamalu came back around to Heath, who’s becoming as well known for his humility – or lack of wanting to be well known – than even Polamalu himself.
“Heath is humble in its purest form,” Polamalu said. “He’s just a naturally humble guy who from the outside doesn’t look like he struggles with it.”
And Polamalu does?
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “If people could read my thoughts they would say that I’m probably the most arrogant guy.
“Self-deprecation, they say, is a great spiritual exercise when people start puffing you up. That’s why I don’t read the paper or anything like that. I don’t like to read things that are good or bad about myself, because they both affect me.”
Heath Miller probably would agree, but then again he probably wouldn’t read a story about himself in the first place.
“Too boring,” he’d say.