No, the guy was not Troy Polamalu, but he looked just like him.
Instead, this was January acquisition Ross Ventrone, and he was wearing No. 41.
That was actually the number Polamalu wanted to wear when he came to Pittsburgh. It's the number he wanted to wear when he went to USC. It's the number he wore at Douglas High school, the number his older cousin Joe wore at Oregon State.
But both of the times that Polamalu had requested the number he was rebuffed, and both times he was instead given No. 43.
He was destined for it, I suppose.
I know all of this because I probably know more than anyone should know about Troy Polamalu. He's been a research project of mine, and after this particular practice, after Polamalu had entertained a media throng with a rare breakdown of his medical condition, after I figured he was in the mood for sharing his thoughts, I approached and blurted out that it appeared he had finally been granted his wish and given his high school number.
Troy laughed and said this:
Of course I was hoping for more, at least a useful line about the number, something I could use in, say, a book.
So I tried another question.
You always wanted that number, didn't you?
"I did, yeah," he said.
And that was it.
Sometimes Troy will ramble philosophically, even spiritually, to me. But then sometimes, it seems, he thinks I just want more material for a book, and so he shuts it down.
The Universe's book.
The latter is the way I choose to look at it. It's not something I really have wanted to discuss openly, but I figure now is as good a time as any. I mean, I awoke early this Memorial Day morn and looked up at a TV screen emblazoned with the number 43 to describe the temperature at the time, which of course was 4:30 on the nose.
I figured it was the universe calling me again, that it was time to write this column to, I don't know, make another plea for Troy's help with this book?
For money? Well, sure. But for much more than that, as I tried to tell him a few years ago, after he had said no the first time.
So I tried a second time.
Kids need to know how you did it, how you beat all of the adversity.
I actually tried that one: For the kids!
"I'm sure you can find better examples than me," he said.
And he's probably right. Troy may have been abandoned by his father at birth, and then his mother before the age of 10, but he was raised in a loving environment by an aunt and uncle who provided him far greater opportunities than those which his older – and some say more physically gifted – brother did amidst a gang life in L.A.
So, really, Troy didn't have to deal with too much adversity. And he was right; there are better examples in that particular genre.
What I really should've said to him was that kids need his wisdom.
I think about my sports-crazed daughter and how her potential as a soccer goalie drove me to the brink of purchasing the biography of one Hope Solo. But I changed my mind after clicking through readers' complaints about how Solo had detailed in her book her lesbian experimentation, her hard-partying days, and in general her mistrust of authority.
Hey, I might want to read this myself, I thought, but my daughter can read something else. Like a book about Troy Polamalu.
If only ...
Last night my daughter and I watched a great documentary about soccer star Abby Wambach. Now, Abby didn't overcome any great adversity in her childhood. The documentary merely depicted her impressive work ethic, the obstacles she did overcome, the toughness it took to take staples in her forehead – on the field – and continue to play. It depicted how Wambach trained, how she ate, how she learned from having her heart crushed in her high school state championship game, and how, like all the great ones, she used that loss as an inspirational turning point.
Wambach was also depicted as eagerly taking lessons from the great Mia Hamm, and then giving back as a mentor, in turn, to future great Alex Morgan.
It was all such riveting and important stuff, and it made me think of a similar line of greatness I could draw from Donnie Shell to Carnell Lake to Troy and to the Steelers' next strong safety, Shamarko Thomas.
"He just wants to learn," Polamalu said last week about the rookie. "The great thing about the people that we have here is that all we are going to do is give knowledge. There is no hesitation."
But there is hesitation with Troy when it comes to his life story.
Humility is the reason Troy does not want to do a book. He told me to wait five years or so and he may give it some thought then.
Let's hope he chooses to do so, because the best way to learn, in my opinion, is from those who've done it. And I'm not just talking about football, but success in general.
Polamalu also has the added characteristic of deep spirituality. What he's learned in his quest for spiritual wisdom would no doubt interest, and benefit, many of us.
In The Mountain of Silence, a book that's said to have greatly impacted Polamalu's life, there's debate about the debt the monks, hermits, and saints owe society: Shouldn't they share the wisdom they've gleaned through ceaseless prayer?
But the legendary hermit Paisios was also quoted in the book as saying, "Woe to the monk who becomes famous. He can never find peace of mind. People will begin to weave all sorts of stories about him that are often not true."
While Polamalu would never consider himself a true holy man on a level with monks, hermits, or saints, he does share their dilemma of whether to share with society or wrap himself in solitude in, say, a hut in Samoa.
"A book?" he said with surprise upon hearing my initial request. "Oh, I just couldn't bring myself to do something like that."
But yet he continues his near daily battle with an oftentimes foolish and ignorant football media. Me included.
Is this a redemption year for you?
I think I asked him that in exasperation at one point last week.
"Well, I don't know," he said. "It's another year, which I'm very thankful and blessed for, for sure."
Perhaps exasperation wasn't enough on this day. So I tried to shock him.
Don't you read all the criticisms that you're getting old?
Instead of the hardness we might expect from the typical football star who's feeling the effects of the aging process, Polamalu remained gentle.
"No," he said politely.
He paused and added, "But thanks."
The group laughed; Troy smiled.
"No, I don't read any positive or negative things," he said. "They're both dangerous to deal with."
Maybe for you, Troy. Maybe for you. But I know a story that kids – and some of us immature adults – would really like to read.
I'm certain that money doesn't mean much to him, but a donation from every sale could go to his wife's charity for veterans, or any other charity under his umbrella.
And since I don't have an agent, a lawyer, or a publisher, the size of that donation is certainly negotiable.
But, really, it's not about the money. I just have to get this book out of my head, and sooner rather than later. Waking up at 4:30 in the morning in 43-degree weather is kind of freaking me out a little bit.