PITTSBURGH -- Doug Whaley took the orders from general manager Kevin Colbert and hit the phones.
The 2003 Pittsburgh Steelers were prepared to make franchise history by moving up in the first round, and as Whaley began to call teams, he was greeted with disbelief on the other end of the line.
“A lot of teams were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’ll really come up,’” said Whaley, then-Pittsburgh’s pro personnel director who later became general manager for the Buffalo Bills. “And other teams were like, ‘What?’ At first, they didn’t believe us. It just showed the confidence Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher had in the player.”
That player was a game-changing safety out of USC, a speedy, hybrid defensive back before it was trendy, an eventual Hall of Fame talent who sent lightning through Pittsburgh’s defense with perfect hair and Marvel superhero leaps over the line of scrimmage.
This week’s NFL draft marks the 15-year anniversary of a trade that forced a traditional team to act non-traditionally to acquire Troy Polamalu with the 16th overall pick.
The Steelers never had traded up in the first round before that moment, nor had they drafted a pure safety in that round.
But the Steelers wanted to improve their secondary and got their guy for modest compensation, giving Kansas City their 27th pick -- which it used on running back Larry Johnson -- along with the 92nd pick (corner Julian Battle) and 200th pick (quarterback Brooks Bollinger).
The Steelers' draft room is known as businesslike, emphasizing consensus building over reactionary high-fiving.
That day, everyone sensed the satisfaction without saying a word.
“We’ve always had the philosophy, if you like a guy, you go get him,” said Ron Hughes, the Steelers’ longtime college scouting coordinator who retired in 2015. “We drafted the best player available to us.”
Here’s how it all went down.
The Steelers planned to upgrade the Lee Flowers-Brent Alexander tandem at safety, and Polamalu’s hamstring issues during the 2002 season had them hoping he would slide into the late first round.
Those plans were smashed once Polamalu smashed his pro day with elite athleticism. When the Steelers walked off the USC campus that day, they knew they had just watched a top-15 player in the draft.
“I remember [then-USC coach] Pete Carroll telling me ... 'I could wake up Troy at 3 a.m. and he’d wake up and run a 4.3 and jump 42 inches,'” said Marvin Demoff, Polamalu’s agent. “So I think the Steelers saw he was different than the people playing safety at the time. They believed in their eye.”
But Demoff hadn’t pegged Pittsburgh to his client, who visited the Steelers but didn’t have his hopes up either way.
Sure, Polamalu wasn’t a perfect prospect. Hughes cited a concussion history in his file, along with the lack of "corner fluidity." But Hughes knew Polamalu’s “special” playmaking was what they needed and would fuel draft-day drama.
“We ended up getting anxious on draft day,” Hughes said. “And it paid off."
Demoff also represented Johnson, an explosive running back out of Penn State who was convinced Pittsburgh would select him 27th.
He had the right number, wrong team.
The Chiefs had targeted Johnson early in the process despite that former coach Dick Vermeil was hoping for a linebacker.
“Carl [Peterson, the former Chiefs GM] was adamant about getting Larry Johnson, as was Lamar Hunt,” Vermeil said.
That presented an opening for Pittsburgh, which understood the Chiefs’ draft needs while trading notes with teams over phone calls a few weeks earlier.
Around the 14th pick, the Steelers brass -- Colbert, Cowher, owner Dan Rooney and son (now team president) Art Rooney II -- huddled in the corner of the room, then emerged with a plan and a ceiling for trade compensation.
“[Colbert] called me over, and the message was, ‘We’re getting on the phone, let’s do it,'” Whaley said.
The Steelers made several calls before reaching Kansas City, which felt fairly comfortable Johnson would be available at 27.
Turns out the presence of Cowher, a former Chiefs defensive coordinator, would help cement the deal, Peterson said.
“Both teams got what they wanted at the time,” wrote the now-retired Peterson via email while aboard The World residential cruise ship. “The Steelers needed and wanted a FS/SS, and the Chiefs wanted a big RB. Both players gave excellent production the first 4-5 years of their careers, but Troy P. went on to a very long, and a HOF career, and Larry J. did not play near as long in his NFL career. That’s OK, because some years earlier Bill C. assisted me in moving up in the first round, to draft a pretty good TE from Cal Berkeley (Tony Gonzalez), who should be a first-ballot HOFer this next year!”
Demoff got the call from the Steelers and relayed the message to his client, who appreciated the moment -- in his own way.
“He was so 'gosh, golly, gee whiz' about this,” Demoff said. “If he was picked in the second round, he wouldn’t have been unhappy. Once he got to Pittsburgh and got involved in minicamp and the business of it all, he had a greater appreciation.”
Efforts to reach Polamalu for this story were unsuccessful. Polamalu turned 37 on Thursday.
Backup quarterback Charlie Batch figured Polamalu must be darn good for the usually conservative Steelers to trade up for him.
He realized that the first day of minicamp.
“I said to myself, ‘Whew, he’s quick,’” Batch recalled. “He validated it quickly. He’s actually one of those guys where he intercepts you and you say, ‘Damn, I’m not used to that,’ because of the quickness.”
Polamalu was in a USC system that allowed him to freelance some, and though the Steelers’ defensive scheme required a level of nuance, Polamalu quickly found a sweet spot between assignment football and breathtaking playmaking.
Shortly after the trade, Cowher acknowledged a changing NFL game in which “speed is such an asset.” Polamalu proved Cowher right by doing a little bit of everything, from stopping the run in the box to covering tight ends on his way to four All-Pro nods.
Fifteen years later, traditional linebackers and safeties are becoming dinosaurs in favor of the sideline-to-sideline speed Polamalu possessed.
On April 26, 2003, the Steelers knew they were taking a bit of a chance because of the draft’s unpredictability. But the payoff was a defensive catalyst on the way to two Super Bowls.
“Maybe some teams thought we’d be stupid to move up and take a player who would have been there [at 27] anyway?” Hughes said. “But we’d definitely make that trade again now.”