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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Steelers' modern-day version of 'South Pacific' is big hit

Steelers' modern-day version of 'South Pacific' is big hit

Saturday, August 19, 2006

By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You'll find them most training-camp days sitting together under the goalposts on, appropriately enough, the far west corner of the practice fields. Or emerging from the Saint Vincent College dining hall three and four abreast. Or massing into one Rooney Hall dormitory room.

You'll find them chattering in Samoan, perhaps with native Shaun Nua playfully giving California-born Troy Polamalu the wrong interpretation, though he swears he never lets Polamalu accidentally call a family member "goat" or anything. Or you'll find them chilling out over the practice just waged, in a completely Pittsburgh way -- jagging one another. Or you'll find them talking about what matters to twentysomethings who descend from the same, small corner of the world: football, family, culture, tradition.

Tonight, in the aftermath of the Steelers' (0-1) 8 p.m. exhibition against the Minnesota Vikings (0-1) in Heinz Field, maybe you'll find Samoans Nua and Polamalu plus Tongan teammates Chris Kemoeatu and Marvin Philip walking to midfield to greet Vikings rookie defensive tackle Manase Hopoi, a fellow Polynesian and Tongan.

It's a Steelers tradition that started in 2000 with Kimo von Oelhoffen, half-Hawaiian, half-German, and a fellow Hawaiian of Samoan ancestry, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala.

In 2003, Polamalu joined von Oelhoffen and, until camp's end, Fu. Last year brought Nua and Kemoeatu. Now Philip.

"We miss Kimo a lot," Nua admitted wistfully. "When I came here, Kimo was like the father figure. The big father figure that you hung out with. Now Troy is the one you go to because he's such a well-balanced guy.

"It's a blessing, man," he added of the black-and-gold brotherhood. "It helps that much to have someone over here that you know and hang out with -- real friends with each other."

So what should you call them? Pittsburgh's South Pacific Islanders? The Samoan Steelers?

"We got two Tongans and two Samoans," Polamalu said diplomatically. "So 'Polynesian Boys' would be better."

In and of itself, such a bond is a testament to their mutual beliefs. With bloody war in the islands' history, with Tongans expelled from Samoa four centuries ago, there are no lingering feelings of differences or separateness.

Instead, they grow closer. They share words in their families' native tongues, which often sound alike but come from different alphabets. They share a familiarity and a familial attitude indigenous to their culture. Perhaps, this helps to explain why Captain James Cook once dubbed the Tonga archipelago as the Friendly Islands.

Nua is the native of the group, born and reared in Pago Pago, American Samoa. He played at Tafuna High School there, on less than ideal fields. He wound up venturing to Eastern Arizona Junior College, then Brigham Young, then the Steelers in the 2005 draft.

Kemoeatu joined the Steelers the same year, same draft, same fifth round (24 players ahead of Nua) and from the same Mountain West football conference and state, playing at Utah. He grew up in Hawaii to Tongan parents. A brother, Ma'ake, started at nose tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, where he had 40 tackles last season, and signed as a free agent in March with Carolina.

Polamalu is a southern California native, but raised in a Samoan family in both that state and Oregon, playing at Southern California and coming to the Steelers in 2003. He, like Kemoeatu, comes from a football family: He's the nephew of Jacksonville assistant Kennedy Pola and a cousin to Nicky Sualua, a former Cincinnati and Dallas running back, plus other college-football relations.

Philip is a northern California native so well-versed in his parents' native Tongan that he has been known to swear in the language on the field.

These four find less differences in their background than common ground together. And they spend considerable time that way -- sitting on the ground, together. "Just some of the boys," Kemoeatu said.

"Back home, we put family first," began Nua, who left Samoa at age 20 for junior college in 2001.

"When you come to the States, you get culture shock. You have no family here. The football fields here are better than they are at home. So, when you come here [to a Samoan/Tongan-friendly Steelers club], there's an understanding."

That's why you'll find them under those goalposts in Latrobe. "You sit and talk about what happened in practice," Nua said, "make fun of each other, just lighten up. We go through a lot together. It helps to keep our minds off playing, you know?

"Troy says every single day, 'How do you say this in Samoan?' " And sometimes Nua kids him and gives him the wrong word, only to confess soon after. "We just get silly with each other," he added.

Silly being the same in any language.

Concluded Nua: "It's great to have Polynesians around."

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