Football is a business. We hear that all the time whenever a team or a player makes a decision that isn’t great for the other side. But it’s a business in every sense of the word—including the relationship business. That’s the kind of business that was at the heart of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ success in the 2000s.
At least that’s how former Steelers safety Ryan Clark feels about that era of the team. Rooted in his deeply-felt, brotherly bond with Troy Polamalu, he believes that was a catalyst for a wider impact throughout the team.
“We developed a relationship to where I wanted to see him do well more than I wanted to see myself [do well] and vice versa, and then we all got that”, he said on the Varsity House podcast last month. “The whole team got it. And because we could do that, there was just so much love in our relationships, that we learned to be one”.
Originally signed by the Steelers in 2006, Clark quickly bonded with Polamalu, his fellow starting safety. Their relationship grew immeasurably stronger after Clark grew gravely ill after playing in Denver during the 2007 season, a story he’s told many times.
He recalled how Polamalu who was the only one of his teammates who visited him in the hospital where it was just the two of them. Everybody else had come accompanied. But it was just them. And they cried together for the first hour, he said.
In case you don’t recall, Clark had to have his spleen and gall bladder removed after exertion at high altitude, symptomatic of possessing the sickle cell trait. He lost a tremendous amount of weight and suffered other complications as well. He didn’t play again that year. But it only brought him closer to his teammates, particularly Polamalu.
“Every game, from ’08 on, I rode to the game with him. We’d get to the game five hours early”, he said, for their many primetime games. “We just did everything together, all the time. It’s weird, kind of—my wife would laugh. But every step every week was the same, and he was a part of it until after we took showers. Then I’d see him in warm-ups. And that’s just what we did”.
The two go to play most of their careers together from 2006 to 2013. Clark moved on in free agency the following year after the Steelers signed Mike Mitchell. Polamalu played one more season before retiring. But that was far from the end of their tight bond. That relationship was built to last. That it was an asset on the football field was mere happenstance, a fringe benefit.