We know Troy Polamalu as one of the NFL's best defenders—a soft-spoken man who unleashes relentless intensity and power on the football field. His exciting style of play and respect for the game are why he finished 2010 with the top-selling jersey in the NFL. He is loved nationwide.
We now have another reason to admire Polamalu, and it has little to do with football.
It's Heather Miller.
In October 2008, eight-year-old Heather was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone and tissue cancer that generally afflicts children. The day she first took to her bed in the oncology ward of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, Polamalu happened to be visiting other children at the hospital. They met, and he and Heather hit it off immediately. A friendship was born.
A short while into Heather's battle, the Make-A-Wish Foundation became involved. Heather told Polamalu that she was going to ask them to grant her wish of spending a day with him. "But you already have me," he assured her.
As the relationship between Heather and Polamalu grew, the two spent time and communicated like friends do. Polamalu's frequent visits to the hospital involved marathon sessions of Guitar Hero and lots of joking. When he was on the road or unable to get to the hospital, Polamalu sent text messages to offer encouragement such as, "I miss you," or "I love you."
Heather's intensive treatment included chemotherapy and a barrage of surgeries, including an operation to remove several ribs and a portion of her lungs. As she prepared for her first major surgery on Jan. 26, 2009, Polamalu sent a message telling Heather he had left a special gift for her at the hospital. Instead of dreading the serious operation awaiting her, Heather became anxious and excited to find out what her gift was.
It was an autographed jersey—the one that Polamalu had worn as he scored a touchdown to defeat the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game and clinch the Steelers' appearance in the Super Bowl. Heather's mother recalls her daughter's demeanor that day as, "Yeah, I'm getting surgery, but I've got Troy's shirt on!"
Heather battled cancer like a champion for 15 months, but by late January 2010, doctors ran out of procedures to help her. During her final days, Heather would awake from her heavily-sedated state to ask about Polamalu and other Steelers players she had gotten to know.
After Heather's passing, Polamalu continued to be part of the Miller family's life. On Mother's Day, he offered comfort in the form of a prayer sent to Heather's mother. He periodically reaches out to let them know how much he cares about them.
The reason you haven't heard about Polamalu's relationship with Heather is simple. Like he does with most off-the-field topics, he avoids speaking about it publicly. When asked about it, he will simply say that Heather did as much for him as he did for her and her family.
Unintentionally, Polamalu has once again used his actions to teach other athletes the crucial lesson that they possess immense powers beyond the playing field.
Photos: pittsburghlive.com. steelernation.com
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock