Nov 30, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu (43) looks on from the sidelines against the New Orleans Saints during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Saints won 35-32. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Throughout the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, there have only been a handful of players who manned the position of safety that left their mark with the fans of Steelers Nation. It’s easy to spit out the name Troy Polamalu right off the bat. Troy is absolutely and undeniably, the finest safety to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Perhaps Donnie Shell would give him a run for his money, but aside from “The Torpedo” as Shell had become known, there are no other serious challengers.
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That is not to say there have not been outstanding safeties in the history of the Steelers, as there have. But Polamalu and Shell stand head and shoulders above the rest. Before profiling the best of the safeties both strong and free in the history of the Black and Gold, a quick review of Troy Polamalu’s career that concluded with his retirement this year.
Troy Polamalu was Pittsburgh’s first pick of the 2003 draft from USC and his highlight reel for the next 12 seasons was an ESPN regular episode. Polamalu made plays that were ooohh’d and aaahhh’d nearly every season of his career that was played entirely with the Steelers. His name was often mentioned as one of the NFL’s best at his position. He is certainly headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day and if there is any knock on Polamalu, it would be his durability. Perhaps it was his style of play or he was just injury prone, but Polamalu had troubles with injuries nearly every season from his rookie season until he retired last year.
The fact is, that in 12 seasons, Polamalu appeared in every game just six times or for half of his career. Once becoming a starter in 2004, Troy missed three games in 2006, five the following season, and then in 2009, started and played in just five. The next two seasons were nearly complete with 14 in 2010 and then a full season in 2011. But in 2012, the injury bug bit again and Polamalu was limited to just seven starts. Back to form in 2013, his final season last year saw him taking action in only 12 games. Ironically, as the NFL plays a 16 game schedule, Troy Polamalu missed exactly 16 starts in 12 seasons.
However, despite the injury bug, Polamalu made plays even though he was often accused of “overplaying” an offensive attack and subsequently missed a tackle. But he will never be forgotten for his high flying attempts at jumping over offensive lines or the infamous hit he put on his college teammate Carson Palmer a few years back following an interception of the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback. Known more for his constant moving around on defense and hitting opponents, Polamalu finished his career with just 12 sacks but to the contrary, forced 14 fumbles recovering half of those. Additionally, he made 32 career interceptions and had three pick sixes.
"“I’ve never thought about the end of my career. I’ve had this growing motto in my life to live day to day – and when you live day to day, it’s hard to talk years” Troy Polamalu"
The accolades for Troy Polamalu are many. He played on Pittsburgh’s championship teams of Super Bowl XL and XLIII; he is an eight-time Pro Bowler; a first-team All-Pro in 2005, 2008, 2010, and 2011; the Associated Press (AP) NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 as well as in the AFC; was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week five times; named as the NFL Alumni Player of the Year also in 2010; is a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for 2003; Pittsburgh’s Rookie of the Year in 2003; and that same year which was his rookie campaign, Polamalu won the Joe Greene Great Performance Award.
Not stopping there, Polamalu has also been placed on the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time team; was the team’s Most Valuable Player in 2010; and while at USC was a Consensus All-American in 2002 as well as making First-team All American; and twice made the First-Team All-Pac 10.
As for he too made his mark on pro football, this without being drafted. An undrafted rookie free agent, Shell came to the Steelers in that very famous 1974 NFL draft and would finish playing two more seasons than Polamalu did. From 1974 until his retirement in 1987, Donnie Shell was a shining star on special teams and in the secondary.
Shell was named to the Pro Bowl five times; was an AP First-Team All-Pro three times; played on all of Pittsburgh’s four Super Bowl winning teams in the 1970s; is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Football Hall of Fame; and more impressively, has had his jersey #31 retired permanently by the Steelers.
In the end, Donnie Shell walked away from the game with 51 career interceptions. Shell started in 162 of 201 games and had two interceptions for touchdowns. Having played in a total of 202 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers, that number ranks only behind the leader, Mike Webster who played in 220. Today you can find Donnie Shell in Charlotte, North Carolina where he is the Director of Spiritual Life at Johnson C. Smith University.
With the common knowledge that Donnie Shell and Troy Polamalu are tough shoes to fill, others have manned the position of either free or strong safety with much respect earned. Those names begin with one of the best free agent signings for the secondary in the history of the Steelers.
Ryan Clark: Like Donnie Shell many years before, Ryan Clark failed to get drafted during the process of 2002. Instead, he signed as a rookie free agent with the New York Giants. After two seasons in New York where he started only four games, Clark went to the Washington Redskins as again a free agent. Despite wanting to keep his career in Washington, the ‘Skins released Clark following the 2005 season and he found a home in Pittsburgh.
Teaming up with Troy Polamalu in the secondary, the Pittsburgh Steelers immediately had an impactful duo at the safety position. The two men would play together until 2014 when the Steelers wanted to make a change at safety and brought in Mike Mitchell to replace the un-signed Clark. But leading up to last season, Polamalu and Clark were a formidable pair that saw Ryan Clark start in 109 of 111 games he played. With 12 interceptions in that span and 448 tackles, Clark also added six fumble recoveries.
After just one season with the Redskins, Ryan Clark announced his retirement this year. Many Steelers fans will remember the 2007 season however, when during a game against the Denver Broncos out west, Ryan Clark suffered severe pain in his left side and the result was a splenic infarction that came about because Clark suffers from the sickle cell trait. High altitudes can trigger such an injury and the Steelers safety had to have his spleen and gall bladder removed which placed him on injured reserve.
Because of the incident, Clark lost 30 pounds but was able to return to the field in 2008. For future games in Denver, Clark and Mike Tomlin opted to put Clark on the sidelines instead of risking another incident like that of 2007. In 2008, Ryan Clark was presented with the “Ed Block Courage Award.”
Glen Edwards: Often playing alongside Donnie Shell, Glen Edwards was a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1971 where he would start in six of the eight games he played in. With Mike Wagner also playing safety, Edwards found it hard to be a starter, but he did so in every game from 1973 to 1976. 1977 would be Edwards’ final season in the ‘Burgh as he became a San Diego Charger in 1978 via trade. Twice for the Steelers, Edwards posted six interceptions in a season (1973 and 1976). In 1974, he made five. With seven years as a Steeler, Edwards picked of 25 passes.
Glen Edwards made his mark in Super Bowls. In the Steelers first-ever appearance in Super Bowl IX against the Minnesota Vikings, Edwards put a hit on John Gilliam at the goal line forcing the ball up in the air where Mel Blount was waiting. The final score was 16-6 in that game so Edwards’ play was a big one. The next year while facing the Dallas Cowboys in an effort to repeat as champions, Glen Edwards was the recipient of the game-ending interception in the end zone during Pittsburgh’s 21-17 victory.
Darren Perry: A likable player was Darren Perry that was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the eighth round of the 1992 draft. Perry would be in Pittsburgh’s secondary for the next seven seasons. During those years, Perry started in every game of every season except 1998. That was Perry’s final season with the Steelers and he played in and started all of 14 games. Perry would eventually sign with the San Diego Chargers but failed to play with them in 1999 before inking a contract with the Baltimore Ravens who he also did not take the field with. One final season came in New Orleans where Perry started in every game but retired following the season.
Darren Perry went into coaching following his playing days and began as the Cincinnati Bengals’ safeties coach in 2002 before returning to Pittsburgh to become Bill Cowher’s assistant defensive backs coach in 2003 which was followed by a promotion to defensive backs coach a year later. Perry would take on the same role in Oakland for the 2007 and 2008 seasons before heading over to the Green Bay Packers where is currently their safeties coach.
As a player for the Steelers, Darren Perry picked off 32 interceptions in seven seasons with one going to the house. Perry was an efficient tackler but his durability could be accounted for in his 110 starts in 110 games. In 1997, Pittsburgh writers presented Perry with the “Chief Award” given to the Steelers player who best exemplifies the spirit of cooperation with the media. For his rookie season in 1992, Perry won the “Joe Greene Award” as the team’s top rookie.
Mike Logan: In a previous article this writer posted on City of Champions, the subject dealt with players who wore a Pittsburgh jersey but left for either Jacksonville or Arizona. Mike Logan is the opposite of that having begun his career as a Jaguar but finishing in Pittsburgh. After four seasons in Jacksonville, Logan came back to his city of birth hailing from McKeesport where he graduated high school before playing college ball at the University of West Virginia.
Logan would remain a Steeler from 2001 until his retirement in 2006. For those six years, Mike Logan only started in 17 of 73 games but he made an impact on defense an on special defensive packages. Logan even remained in Pittsburgh following his retirement where he would co-host a radio show on 1250 ESPN with Scott Paulsen and Chris Mack.
Paul Martha: There aren’t too many players in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers that make the claim Paul Martha owns. Not only did Martha graduate from Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, he followed that up with a college football career at the University of Pittsburgh. Martha capped that off by being drafted by his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round, the 10th pick overall in 1964. The interesting fact about Paul Martha is not his hometown flavor, but instead he was not an original safety.
In high school, Martha was a lettered quarterback who then played the position his freshman year at Pitt. The Panthers however moved Martha to running back in 1961 and he would be named as a Consensus All-American. The following season, the Panthers’ leading receiver and scorer was Martha. The Pitt Panthers finished 1963 at 9-1 led by the senior Martha who would follow up the regular season with appearances in the East-West Shrine Game, the Hula Bowl, and he also played in the annual College All-Star game.
After a spectacular college career, Paul Martha came to the Steelers as a receiver. During his rookie season of 1964, the Pitt star caught just six passes and ran the ball four times, but he also returned 13 punts and kicks. After his sophomore season in the NFL, the Pittsburgh coaching staff made the decision to stick Martha on defense at safety.
Now playing on defense, Martha would finish his Steelers career with 15 interceptions. One more season followed with the Denver Broncos where the safety picked off another six passes. As a player in Pittsburgh, Paul Martha attended local Duquesne University and earned his law degree. For a time he was an attorney with the Reed, Smith, Shaw, and McClay in Pittsburgh before moving to Youngstown Steel as their lawyer.
Eventually, he met the infamous Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr. and became the shopping mall magnate’s Executive Vice President, General Counsel and CEO of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now retired at the age of 73, Paul Martha is living in a retirement community in St. Louis, Missouri.
Mike Wagner: These days in the National Football League, players come and players go via the free agency waters. Very few players start and finish with the same team. Many players of the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty years in the 1970s however, played their entire careers wearing only the Black and Gold. Mike Wagner is one of those. Drafted in the 11th round in 1971, Wagner would become one of the best safeties in the history of the team.
Like Paul Martha before him and Whizzer White from the early years of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Wagner was not just a football player, but a scholar. Owning a B.A. In accounting, Wagner also has his M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and currently works as a Vice President in banking in Pittsburgh. He also serves a defensive backs coach for Pine-Richland High School.
Also like Martha, Wagner switched positions on the field for the Steelers first as a wide receiver but then flipped over to the defense to man the safety position. In 1973, he finished in a tie for most interceptions in the league with eight. Wagner was also a member of all four Super Bowl winning teams of his era. In two of those championship games, Mike Wagner picked off passes (Super Bowl IX and Super Bowl X).
As indicated, his entire career was with the Pittsburgh Steelers from the time he was drafted in 1971 until his retirement in 1980. The final tally on his interceptions during the regular season was 36. If not for the names Shell and Polamalu, Mike Wagner would probably be considered the best safety in the history of the team. Wagner is a member of the University of Western Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame.
Thomas Everett: In the late 1980s the Steelers went into the fourth round of that year’s NFL draft and found the University of Baylor’s Thomas Everett. The safety came to Pittsburgh and immediately made an impact with nine starts in 12 games picking off three passes along the way.
With 72 tackles, Everett was primed to become a full-time starter in his sophomore year. In 1998, Everett played in 14 games starting all but two. Another three interceptions and 60 tackles and he was proving he could play in the NFL.
In 1989, Thomas Everett started every game of the season and for the next two seasons was a starter at safety in 30 of 31 games. 1991 would prove to be Everett’s last season as a Steeler as he would become a member of the Dallas Cowboys in 1992 and remain there for two seasons before concluding his career in Tampa with the Buccaneers in 1994 and 1995. Everett played in Super Bowl XXVII and XXVIII and while playing in Pittsburgh, started 67 of 73 games while intercepting 16 passes and making 315 tackles. Today Thomas Everett heads up an athletic camp appropriately called “Thomas Everett Athletics.”
Mike Mitchell: The safety talk concludes with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ second-year safety and veteran, Mike Mitchell. Allowing Ryan Clark to be released, Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau opted to bring in Mitchell as Clark’s replacement. Originally drafted in 2009 by the Oakland Raiders, Mitchell played in smaller college ball at Ohio University. The Raiders liked his skills however and he appeared in all 16 games during his rookie season. Unable to become a full-time starter with the Raiders, Mitchell only lined up at safety at the start of games nine times in 61 games.
Oakland told Mitchell to take a walk in 2013 and the Carolina Panthers decided to take a one year chance on the safety. For his one season in Carolina, Mike Mitchell started 14 of 15 games, made four interceptions and 55 tackles, and defended 10 passes. He showed a capability of being a hard hitter and brash on the field. Following the season, he once again became a free agent so on to the Steelers he signed.
2014 was certainly considered a major disappointment for Mike Mitchell while playing for the Steelers and many fans in Steelers Nation considered Mitchell a bust. Despite starting in all 16 games, Mitchell failed to intercept any passes, was often burned on passing plays, and defended only three passes. 2015 will be a make-or-break year for Mitchell although he still has four years remaining on his current contract. If he doesn’t produce, the Steelers may have to eat part of his contract and send him walking again.