Troy Fautanu idolized Troy Polamalu. Now he's following in Polamalu's footsteps in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Troy Fautanu grew up idolizing Troy Polamalu.

It wasn't just their shared Polynesian heritage. It was everything. The way the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame safety carried himself. The way he played football with a relentless passion. The way Polamau's No. 43 seemed to be in the middle of everything all the time.

Fautanu grew up wearing No. 43 too until his coaches at Liberty High in Henderson, Nevada, moved him to offensive line as a sophomore. Fautanu's number changed. His willingness to follow in Polamalu's footsteps did not.

All of which made Thursday night so surreal when Fautanu picked up the phone and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was on the other end, telling the massive offensive tackle Pittsburgh had just selected him with the 20th overall pick in the NFL draft, nearly 21 years to the day after selecting Polamalu in the first round.

Polamalu's career ended with a pair of Super Bowl rings and a gold Hall of Fame jacket. The 23-year-old Fautanu's immediate goals are more far modest, in the short term anyway.

“I’m just ready to kind of pour everything into this organization and get ready to work,” Fautanu said.

That shouldn't be a problem in Pittsburgh. Tomlin sees Fautanu as a bookend tackle opposite Broderick Jones, the Steelers' first-round pick a year ago.

While the 6-foot-4, 317-pound Fautanu is a shade (the slightest shade) undersized for a tackle, Tomlin doesn't view that as an issue. If anything, the perception that Fautanu is small in an NFL sense probably helped him stay on the board until 20.

“If he was a quarter of an inch taller (we're not talking about his height),” Tomlin said. “He's got great arm length and his tape is very, very impressive.”

So impressive Pittsburgh general manager Omar Khan resisted the temptation to trade down. Fautanu was too polished, too athletic, too impassioned to pass up.

“He was the highest-rated guy on our board,” Khan said. "That just speaks to our level of excitement.”

Fautanu started 15 games at left tackle last season as the Washington Huskies reached the College Football Playoff final against Michigan. He won the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the top offensive lineman in the country, in the process.

Now he joins an offense that hit the reset button in the offseason, signing quarterback Russell Wilson, trading for quarterback Justin Fields and hiring former Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith as offensive coordinator.

The Steelers still plan on relying heavily on one of the top running back tandems in the NFL in Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, both of whom topped 1,000 total yards last season.

Pittsburgh had several pressing needs coming into the draft, including at center after cutting Mason Cole and wide receiver trading Diontae Johnson to Carolina. The Steelers will address those positions later, pleased they were able to find a player with Fautanu's skillset to potentially start opposite Jones for years to come.

Who lines up where — Jones spent last season at right tackle but considers left tackle his natural position — will be determined later.

Tomlin said Fautanu caught his eye while casually watching Washington games last season. There was something about the way the Huskies utilized Fautanu in an offense that featured left-handed quarterback Michael Penix that struck Tomlin as unique.

Yet it wasn't just the way Fautanu could work in space that stood out. The Steelers did a deep dive on Fautanu, meeting with him at the NFL combine and bringing him in for a pre-draft visit.

Tomlin also opted to use Alabama's Pro Day as a chance to get feedback from Kalen DeBoer, who left Washington for the Crimson Tide in January. What Tomlin heard were tales of a player who enjoyed every aspect of the game, from preparation to performance.

“His passion is real,” Tomlin said. "It’s a calling card.”

Fautanu's arrival also means Jones could potentially stay at right tackle next season. Dan Moore Jr., who has made 49 starts at left tackle since being drafted in 2021, is entering the final year of his contract.

All of that will be settled starting next month when Fautanu comes in for rookie minicamp. While the Steelers considered trading down from No. 20, given the rating they had on Fautanu, they didn't think they could risk losing him.

“He's a black-and-gold type of guy,” Tomlin said.

A smart one too. Fautanu actually met Polamalu while on a recruiting trip to USC several years ago. Being in the same room as his idol left Fautanu momentarily speechless.

It did not, however, lead Fautanu to choose the Trojans.


“Honestly, because I knew Troy Polamalu wasn't going to be there every day,” Fautanu said.

He wasn't. And while Polamalu is not a regular in Pittsburgh either, he and Fautanu are already linked by their heritage and now, their employer. It's a lot to take in, one of the reasons Fautanu broke down while being surrounded by family after hearing Tomlin's voice on the phone.

“I was a little crybaby, I’m not going to lie,” Fautanu said. “It was it was very nerve-wracking. Just up to that point because you never know where you’re going to land. And, I’m just so happy that things happened the way they did.”