Smallish defenders consistently making big plays

DETROIT -- Lofa Tatupu grimaced and forced a faint smile.

The Seattle Seahawks' rookie linebacker was holding court at Tuesday's media day at Ford Field when the subject of Troy Polamalu came up for the seventh time in about 35 minutes.

How much interaction did the two have when they spent the 2002 season together at USC?

"Very little," Tatupu said. "I did get to study film on him. Man, when they put him in the box as a middle linebacker -- that was pretty good for a safety."

Earlier, when the Pittsburgh Steelers' strong safety was asked about his relationship with Tatupu, he was similarly brief.

"He redshirted when I was at USC," Polamalu said, "so I never really got to play on the same field as him. We all knew that he was going to be a great linebacker in college, but he's definitely shown that he's a great linebacker in the NFL, especially in his rookie year."

The search for truly great stories at the Super Bowl is usually a futile one. Everyone is looking for that rare synergy or synchronicity -- a connection that transcends the mundane.

Tatupu and Polamalu have much in common. They are both of Samoan descent. They both have NFL players in their family tree. They both operated in the vortex of their particular defenses at the University of Southern California as All-Americans under Pete Carroll. Here, in the final game of the NFL season, these Trojan horses are the most important players, despite having modestly human dimensions, on their respective defenses.

What they won't share come Sunday is Super Bowl success. Only one will wear the ring of an NFL champion.

Critically massive

First of all, you have to get past the hair.

Since his freshman year at 'SC, Polamalu has gone without a trim and now it billows from beneath his helmet -- the signature of his helter-skelter style. But this is not who he is.

"It doesn't give me an identity," he said on Tuesday. "I think it gives the media an identity for me. I just let it grow, and I think it's become a part of me because it's like a fifth appendage now."

Off the field, he wears it up. On the field, when he lets his hair down, his teammates say he becomes the Tasmanian Devil.

"When his hair comes down, he changes," said Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. "He's a very emotional player on the field. He's kind of a guy with a split personality."

Polamalu is, by consensus, unique and the most versatile player in the NFL. He stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 212 pounds, but his speed and intuition carry him into the fray -- where he invariably becomes the critical mass of a defensive stop.

All season long, he has been wreaking havoc on the psyche of quarterbacks. His frenetic pre-snap gyrations are designed to disguise the Steelers' intent and inspire doubt in the mind of the quarterback.

"We always know where he's going," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "But I'm not always sure how he's going to get there."

Some longtime football followers say the Steelers allow him more freedom to roam than anyone they've ever seen who wasn't named Lawrence Taylor or Ted Hendricks. Polamalu can play deep safety, but more often Pittsburgh lines him up as a fifth linebacker in the middle of the field or in the slot, where he can blitz or drop into coverage. His signature move: With about six or seven seconds on the play clock, Polamalu sprints to the line and shows blitz. Then, about two seconds before the snap, he turns his back on the offense and starts jogging toward the deep position. But then, as the ball is snapped, he wheels and breaks through the line and flushes the quarterback.

Steelers guard Alan Faneca is a big fan.

"Sometimes," Faneca said, "he'll run from deep safety 20 yards down, pop out to the right side, 25, 30 yards out there, then come flying back across the field and make a pick. I mean, the guy ran 80 yards -- and the play hasn't even started yet."

All of the movement creates gaps in attention, not to mention physical space, for his teammates.

"Everybody's worried about him," said Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans. "You can see the center, the quarterback always pointing at him -- 'Watch number 43! Watch number 43!' -- and looking where he's at. I think he draws most of the attention, so everyone else flies below the radar."

Polamalu was born in Southern California and was raised by his single mother until he was 8, when he moved to Oregon to stay with his aunt, uncle and cousins. His uncle, Kennedy Pola, was a running back at USC and is currently the Jacksonville Jaguars running backs coach. Cousin Nicky Sualua was a running back with the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys. Polamalu was an important recruit for the Trojans and became the school's first two-time All-American since offensive tackle Tony Boselli. The Steelers drafted him with the No. 16 overall choice in the 2003 draft.

In his second season, he blossomed into the full-sized force he is today. He was in on 97 tackles and had five interceptions and broke up 12 passes on his way to the Pro Bowl. This season, he was even more disruptive.

Polamalu is a spiritual man and approaches the game from a different angle, just as he does on the field.

"I don't view football in that way -- as a violent, barbaric sport," he explained. "To me, it's a very spiritual sport, especially for a man and the challenges a man faces within the game of football: the fear of failure, the fear of gaining too big an ego, of making a mistake and everybody criticizing you.

"I don't think I have a split personality. I am the same person at home -- just relaxed, passionate about everything that I do, whether it's reading a Bible or just hanging out with my wife. On the football field, there's no difference. I play football with a passion."

Championship timber
If you are looking for a moment, a searing slice of reality that captures what it is that Tatupu brings to the Seahawks, try this one:

Carolina running back Nick Goings had the ball in the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game when he was confronted by Tatupu, a blur coming in from the Mike linebacker position. Goings lowered his helmet, which caught Tatupu on both the chin and sternum.

Goings (concussion) did not return. Tatupu (mild concussion) did, if only briefly.

"My head is doing well," Tatupu's head said on Tuesday. "I'm all right. Back to normal. All the cobwebs are gone."

This is bad news for the Steelers.

Listen to Seattle strong safety Michael Boulware: "I believe he is the reason USC probably lost the national championship [to Texas], and the reason why we are here.

"It has been amazing how he stepped into a leadership role and [how he has] been able to make the big plays and keep everyone calm."

All Tatupu has done as a rookie (he was the No. 13 pick in the second round) is take complete ownership of the defense. He started all 16 regular-season games and led the team in tackles, with 105, adding four sacks and three interceptions. He's the first rookie to lead the Seahawks in tackles since Terry Beeson in 1977

He also led Seattle with 10 tackles in the divisional playoff game against Washington and had three more, plus an interception, before sustaining that concussion against the Panthers.

At 5-11 and 226 pounds, Tatupu is unusually small for a linebacker, and only about a dozen pounds heavier than Polamalu, who effectively plays the same position.

Ask Tatupu if he is the leader of this team and he quickly defers to defensive end Grant Wistrom, an eight-year veteran who won a Super Bowl with the Rams.

"Lofa is a guy that puts the team first, that studies hard, takes his job very seriously, and when he steps on the field there is nothing on his mind but playing football," Wistrom said. "That's why he's been so successful this season.

"The first day of mini-camps, he came in and assumed control of the defense right away, and in the right way. He didn't come in and say 'I'm the man.' He was respectful and professional from day one."

Tatupu is the dominant middle linebacker the Seahawks have been awaiting for so many seasons. The story of his ascent is implausible, at best.

His father is Mosi Tatupu, the former Patriots fullback and special-teams maven. Lofa grew up in Massachusetts, played linebacker and quarterback for his dad in high school, and you would think his football pedigree would have landed him some serious scholarship offers. You would think.

There was one, from the University of Maine, of all places.

"No one wanted me but Maine," Tatupu remembered. "Maine came through with a scholarship offer, and a lot of it didn't work out."

Unhappy over his son's experience, Mosi put together a clip reel and sent copies out all over the country. One of them landed in Pete Carroll's mailbox in Los Angeles.

Tatupu transferred and sat out for the mandatory season while he recovered from knee surgery. In two seasons, he was in on 202 tackles, nine sacks and seven interceptions. While Polamalu was there, USC had an uneven four seasons, carving out a less-than-stellar 28-21 record. Tatupu was fortunate to win 25 of 26 games and two national championships. A win in Super Bowl XL would give him an amazing three consecutive titles.

And so, here they are. Two individuals, with eerily similar backgrounds, occupying virtually the same space on Sunday.

Pretty cool, huh?

"Yeah," said Tatupu, nodding without enthusiasm. "It is. Troy is a superb player. You can't put me in that category.

"I haven't spoken to him. I won't see him on the field -- I don't think he plays special teams. I'll say hello to him before the game."

There is one more similarity. After the game they both will fly to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. Polamalu is going for the second straight time. Tatupu, named as an alternate, replaces the Bears' Brian Urlacher.

Chances are, there will be more than a few opportunities to catch up.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.