NEW ORLEANS -- Troy Polamalu was made fun of. Larry Fitzgerald was shamed.
They might be stars in the NFL, but when they were younger, they had to put up with discrimination, bullying and more just as millions do today.
"Dealing with racism, dealing with people making fun of our names is something that stuck with me," says Polamalu.
The Steelers seven-time Pro Bowl safety made that comment for a documentary called "NFL Characters Unite" that will be televised at 7 p.m. Feb. 8 on the USA Network. The program details stories of racism, bullying and other forms of discrimination each of four players experienced. The program pairs each player with a child undergoing current treatment for a similar condition.
Fitzgerald, a former Pitt star receiver who nearly ruined the Steelers' Super Bowl victory party with the Arizona Cardinals four years ago, witnessed discrimination during his late mother Carol's battle with cancer. He saw strangers avoid her because she was sick and cover doorknobs with their sleeves to avoid touching after she used it.
Polamalu, of Samoan descent, put up with taunts as a kid.
"I honestly didn't know how I could adapt," Polamalu says in the show, "but now I'm happy to be different."
Polamalu had to cancel his appearance Thursday to promote the show, but Fitzgerald and two other NFL players featured on the program, linebacker Jameel McClain of the Baltimore Ravens and defensive end Justin Tuck of the New York Giants, attended.
Fitzgerald also is one of three finalists for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award that will be announced today. He has just about everything a player could want in the NFL, including a $120 million contract and seven Pro Bowls.
And now he has a new head coach (Bruce Arians) for the third time in what will be his 10th year in the NFL. Arians called the plays that beat the Cardinals, 27-23, in the Super Bowl despite two fourth-quarter touchdown catches by Fitzgerald that helped stake Arizona to a late lead.
He sounds almost as excited as Ben Roethlisberger might be.
"He's got an infectious personality in terms of his charisma, his enthusiasm," Fitzgerald said. "He wants to get started and get us going and try to get us back in this playoff hunt again. As a player, that's what we want to do.
"I'm going into my 10th year now, and I'm not getting any younger. To have a coach who was able to accomplish such great things last year in Indianapolis -- they were 2-14 the year before, they lost their head coach during the course of the season. He essentially held that program together and made them a playoff team. That's very encouraging."
Fitzgerald is used to having former Steelers coaches around. Ken Whisenhunt's former staff included other ex-patriots from Pittsburgh: Ray Horton, Russ Grimm, Mike Miller, Kevin Spencer, Matt Raich and even former Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend. Arians has added former Steelers coaches Tom Moore, Harold Goodwin, Larry Zierlein and snapped Amos Jones directly from Mike Tomlin's staff.
"So much knowledge," Fitzgerald proclaimed. "Anybody who can help us, especially guys like that ... going into a new environment, a new coaching staff kind of like re-ignites you a bit.
"The coaches we have coming in, there are some gurus. You have to be excited about what they bring to the table, in terms of their experience and knowledge and understanding how to win. That's something we're all looking forward to, working with guys like that. I've talked to many teammates, they're all champing at the bit to get started."
Was it just four years ago that Whisenhunt and his staff nearly pulled off the upset in Super Bowl XLIII? The Steelers had one of the NFL's greatest defenses in 2008, yet Fitzgerald shredded them in the fourth quarter with touchdown catches of 1 and 64 yards, the latter putting Arizona ahead, 23-20, with 2:37 left. That lead held up until Santonio Holmes' magical touchdown catch with 35 seconds left on pass from Roethlisberger.
"I would be lying to you if I told you coming here is not bittersweet," Fitzgerald said of his activities at the Super Bowl site. "This is the Mecca of all sporting events. To be four years removed from it, having experienced it one time and coming up short, it's still kind of invokes mixed emotions. But we're a long way away from being in the Super Bowl ... that's frustrating."
Correction/Clarification: (Published February 2, 2013) A documentary on bullying and discrimination titled "NFL Characters Unite" will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday on USA Network. The time and date were incorrect in an earlier version of this story.
Steelers - mobilehome - homepage