DETROIT -- The first thing you notice is the hair.
The long, flowing locks hanging out of Troy Polamalu's helmet might be confused for a cape the way he seems to fly all over the field.
"When he's running around with all that hair flying behind him, he does look like Superman," Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "I don't know if anybody else could pull it off, but it works for him."
Polamalu says his hair, which hasn't been cut since 2000, is a tribute to his Samoan heritage. "It's like a fifth appendage," he said.
The hair might make him different, but his talent makes him unique.
There may not be a more versatile strong safety in the NFL than the Steelers' two-time Pro Bowler. The 5-foot-10, 212-pounder is liable to show up anywhere on the field, on any given play. We might see him at the line of scrimmage, deep in the secondary, lurking behind a linebacker or in front of a slot receiver. He might drop back into pass coverage or rush the quarterback.
Polamalu's ability to do it all has made him perhaps the most important member of the Steelers' aggressive, blitzing defense.
"There aren't a lot of safeties out there like him, if any," said Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, whose Seahawks must figure out how to deal with Polamalu in Super Bowl XL. "Because of how the Steelers use him, putting him in different spots, you have to know where he is on every play. He's a special player."
The Steelers hoped they were getting a good player when they drafted Polamalu out of Southern California with the 16th overall selection in 2003. But they couldn't have imagined just how good he would become.
Polamalu finished this regular season with 100 total tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries (one returned for a touchdown). He has been outstanding in the Steelers' three playoff wins, posting 19 tackles.
He has one interception, though another one was wrongfully taken away from him in Pittsburgh's win at Indianapolis. And while he has just a half sack in the postseason, his kamikaze missions into the backfield have helped the Steelers take down quarterbacks 12 times during their improbable Super Bowl run.
"His talent lets us do a lot of things that you could not do with many people," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "Many people might be good football players, but Troy's got that rare ability to play at all levels of the defense: deep, intermediate, at the line and blitz. Those people just don't come along every day. He's very motivated, he's very studious and he has tremendous instincts. That's a pretty good combination."
Polamalu is so active that he appears to freelance a lot. LeBeau said Polamalu plays within the framework of the defense, but LeBeau added that he gives Polamalu plenty of freedom to do his thing.
"I try to stay out of Troy's way," LeBeau joked. "We establish parameters for him, and he has to be in a certain place at a certain time. A lot of how Troy gets to that place and at that time is kind of up to Troy. Some guy said to me one time, 'Coach, you mean you don't know where he's going?' And I said, 'I always know where he's going. I'm never quite sure how he's going to get there.' "
In the AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos, Polamalu made a couple of plays that left his teammates in awe of his extraordinary physical skills.
"They ran a screen pass and I slipped around a guy and made the tackle," linebacker Joey Porter recalled. "But Troy was coming behind me and off a single bounce jumped over the lineman. All the way over him. The dude was like 6-3 or 6-4. It reminded me of that old Gummi Bear cartoon where they drink that juice and could bounce. It looked like he drank some of that juice, man.
"On another screen play, he had two offensive linemen in front of him. There was no way he was supposed to make that tackle. But he dove through both of them and made the tackle and stopped them from getting a first down. That's just the stuff that he does. He can do it all."
Except take credit for his role in the Steelers' success.
"I'm just one of 11 guys out there because I have a job just like everybody else has a job out there," Polamalu said. "I just carry out the role that Coach LeBeau allows me to play."
Polamalu's teammates say his humility is genuine. In this age of the look-at-me player, he goes out of his way not to draw attention to himself.
In a way, Polamalu is a walking contradiction. He is so soft-spoken his voice barely rises above a whisper. He's also a deeply religious person, who calls on his faith to be the engine that drives him through life.
But put Polamalu on a football field and he's transformed. His quiet demeanor gives way to an explosive style of play that speaks volumes. Teammates call him the Tasmanian Devil for the way he flies around, twisting and turning and hurling his body into one violent collision after another.
"When you see him in the locker room, he doesn't say much," said Porter, whose personality is a direct opposite to Polamalu's. "But out there on the football field he's a genius. He plays the game like you're supposed to -- 110 percent all the time. He's a nice guy, but on the field he'll hit you in the mouth and kick your [butt]."
Polamalu insists he doesn't have a split personality, saying he's the same person off the field as he is on it. Football is the most violent of sports and it brings out a player's aggressive nature.
But he sees the game from a different point of view.
"To me, it's a very spiritual sport, especially for a man and the challenges a man faces within the game of football: the fear of failure, the fear of gaining too big of an ego, of making a mistake and everybody criticizing you," he said. "I think other than the barbaric nature of the sport, with whatever you call it, there are a lot of challenges a man faces within the sport."
Polamalu may come across as a soft touch, but he's a hard-nosed player whose toughness was forged by his upbringing.
He was born in Santa Ana, Calif., the youngest of five children to parents from one of the three Pacific islands known as American Samoa. Polamalu's formative years weren't spent with his parents, who divorced a few years after his birth. His mother, Suila, determined that the drug- and gang-infested streets of Southern California were no place for her son and sent him to live with an aunt and uncle in Tenmile, Ore., when he was 9 years old.
Polamalu lived with his aunt and uncle, but he said he was reared by the entire community. Samoans believe in the philosophy that says it takes a village to raise a child.
Eventually he discovered sports. He played basketball, baseball and ran track. But he found his niche in football. A star running back and defensive back in high school, he wasn't heavily recruited after an injury-riddled senior season.
But Kennedy Pola, one of Polamalu's uncles and currently the Jacksonville Jaguars' running backs coach, convinced then USC head coach Paul Hackett to recruit Polamalu, who became a three-year starter and in 2001 was the Trojans' first All-American safety since Mark Carrier in 1989.
Polamalu is now one of the best players in the NFL, regardless of position. But he won't accept that. When he has a good game, all he thinks about are the mistakes he made.
Being great means never being satisfied.
"I don't know if you can play the perfect game, but that's what I'm striving for," Polamalu said. "Every day you wake up it's a challenge to be a better player and a better person than you were the day before. All you can do is the best you can, and if you're doing the right things and keeping God first, good things are going to happen for you."