x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

More than hairy stuff from two leading defensive players in Super Bowl

They may not be the best players on the field, but certainly the most noticeable. Meet Clay Matthews and Troy Polamalu, the ones with long hair and who could a heavy impact on today's game.

Clay Matthews
Clay Matthews

In the NFL, hair is everywhere. Helmets cannot hope to contain all the locks and manes spilling out this season. It is so prevalent that rulemakers are being urged to penalise the grabbing of excess growth.

By coincidence, two players known for long hair happen to have finished first and second in voting for defensive player of the year.

Something else Troy Polamalu and Clay Matthews share: apart from the quarterbacks, they will be the most significant players on the field today when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers meet in the Super Bowl in Dallas, Texas.

Pittsburgh's Polamalu, with a cascade of dark curls, is a free safety imbued with a sixth sense. By looking at the opponent's formation, then into the eyes of the quarterback or a receiver, he gleans information about the upcoming play, then processes it with computer-like speed.

As a result, he positions himself with uncanny accuracy for an interception, a broken-up pass or a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

"I think it's important for any football player to first get a really good feel for the defence and to understand what the game plan is, or just schematically what the coach may be thinking when he makes the call," Polamalu said this past week. "After that, I think it's also really important to get a flow of what the offence is doing.

"When you compile all these different things, you can just go out and not really think, but make everything natural and instinctive to yourself."

His biggest plays seem timed to rescue a struggling Steelers offence.

In Pittsburgh's first game, back in September, the Atlanta Falcons were surging toward a tiebreaking score when Polamalu, displaying his closing speed on a receiver, picked off a pass from the quarterback Matt Ryan. Pittsburgh, without a touchdown in regulation, won in overtime 15-9.

Late in the year, Baltimore were on the verge of running out the clock with a four-point lead when Polamalu blitzed the quarterback Joe Flacco, forcing a fumble that set up the Steelers for their lone touchdown. Final score: 13-10.

The eighth-year player, whose team is 6-7 the past two seasons during his injury absences and 16-4 otherwise, is not only advanced cerebrally. On a team of ferocious hitters, he is a bone-rattler.

"He prepares mentally and physically and has the demeanour of a warrior. He was born to play professional football and he is one of the best I've ever seen," said the defensive co-ordinator Dick LeBeau, who, at age 73, has seen a lot, having played in the pros as far back as 1959.

At 5ft 10ins, 207 pounds, Polamalu is hardly imposing. If he does not gain strength physically from his hair - a modern-day Samson of sorts - it is from his upbringing. Among the first generation of Samoan parentage born in America, he grew up apart from his mother and father, reared by an aunt.

It seemed only fitting that Troy became one of the men of Troy, an informal appellation for University of Southern California players.

Enrolling at the same college three years later, Green Bay's Matthews hails from a contrasting background. The linebacker is a football blue blood, a third-generation NFL player who also had an uncle excel in the sport, and his family has prospered in business.

However, nothing was handed to him. In high school, Matthews did not start, though expectations for him may have been unreasonably high from the linebackers coach - his father, Clay, a 19-year pro.

Offered no scholarship by major colleges, he enlisted at USC without guarantee of making the team. Even entering his senior season, his biography, written by school publicists, guardedly said, "Matthews will push for starting time."

His rise has been startling; today's game ends just his second NFL season. A relentless pursuer of the quarterback, he elevated the Packers to second-best for points allowed, 15 per game, just behind the Steelers at 14.5.

The Packers general manager, Ted Thompson, a former teammate of Clay's uncle, Bruce, acknowledged that the bountiful Matthews family tree was a factor in drafting him.

"With Clay's physical ability, you can see the genetics that he has," Thompson said. "You can see some similarities in his play and his dad's play."

Matthews is well aware of the advantages of his football heritage.

"I've had to work to kind of get out of the shadow of my family," he said. "And I've been doing a good job of that.

"But it's a good shadow to be in because they excelled in this league for many, many years."

Just as his father did, the blond Matthews wears stringy hair down his back. Unlike Polamalu, who claims to spend 45 minutes daily on his coiffure, Matthews appears unkempt. Yet teammates have spotted him fetching a water bottle on the sidelines and spraying his hair.

Polamalu has turned his mop into an income stream, with a lucrative endorsement deal from Head & Shoulders shampoo. Supposedly untrimmed since his college days a decade ago, his hair is insured for US$1 million (Dh3.67m).

Matthews, who recently was signed to promote the shampoo Suave, submits that his hair should be insured for $5m. With today's Super Bowl-winners share of $88,000, he should be able to afford the premiums.

 

sports@thenational.ae