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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Polamalu the face of Polynesian football culture

TAMPA, Fla. - The hair of Super Bowl XLIII belongs to Troy Polamalu.
So does the face of football in the Polynesian culture.

Even if his name and jersey number weren't covered by flowing black locks, Polamalu would be easy to find in Sunday's title game against Arizona. No other NFL safety is deployed in so many different spots, let alone one possessing the athleticism and play-reading savvy that has Polamalu on track for a Hall of Fame career.

His distinctive look, game-changing performances and modesty amidst such success have made Polamalu among the most beloved players ever to wear a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform. But while he's a favorite with fans of all races, Polamalu's popularity is particularly strong among those of Hawaiian and American Samoan ancestry — including arguably the best linebacker in this year's NFL draft.

With his own dark tresses and hard-hitting style, Rey Maualuga looks and plays like Polamalu did during his days at the University of Southern California. This isn't coincidence. Both are of Samoan descent, which makes Polamalu's impact on Maualuga even greater.

"He's a big role model to a bunch of young Polynesian players," Maualuga said last week after a Senior Bowl practice. "He gives us hope."

Maualuga isn't the only one drawing inspiration from Polamalu. Similar affection can be found roughly 5,700 miles away from where Super Bowl XLIII is being played.

Leo Goeas, a former NFL offensive lineman, coached at a football camp in American Samoa last summer. The most admired player among the participating high school students? You can safely guess it wasn't Baltimore's Ed Reed, the only other safety worth being mentioned in the same breath as Polamalu.

"If you were to ask 10 Samoan kids who's your idol, I'd bet eight would say Troy," the Hawaiian-born Goeas said.

Samoan adults also dig Polamalu, according to his uncle. Kennedy Pola said he has received congratulatory emails and text messages from friends on the island after Pittsburgh reached the Super Bowl. One member of the Samoan government who was invited to President Barack Obama's inauguration even wore a Polamalu hat as a sign of support, Pola said.

"I've always believed he's a better person than football player," said Pola, who is the Jacksonville Jaguars' running backs coach. "He's truly humble. He plays with spirit. He's a family man and a man of faith. That's what our culture is.

"Everyone thinks we're kind of a little crazy. That's true on the football field. But off the field, we do things the right way. We're respectful and appreciative. Those are things he represents."

The soft-spoken Polamalu never sought such attention, but he has accepted the responsibilities that come with the territory. Polamalu began embracing his Samoan roots at the age of 8 when he moved from Southern California to Oregon to live with his uncle Salu. Polamalu learned Samoan culture, including a fire-knife dance, and took to carving Polynesian symbols into high school woodworking that he would give away as gifts.

"Every athlete realizes they represent something, whether it's their family, faith or culture when they step on the field," Polamalu said Monday after the Steelers' arrival in Tampa. "Me being Samoan, it feels very special, especially the fact that there are not many Samoan players who have the shot of making a Super Bowl and getting the type of prestige guys like Junior Seau and that get. It's really an honor."

Troy Polamalu celebrates with teammates after his 40-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed the NFC Championship for the Steelers. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

When Seau made his NFL debut in 1990, the self-described "coconut" was among a small group of Polynesian players in the league. The numbers have grown substantially since then. There are six current players who were born in American Samoa and dozens of others with Polynesian ancestry. Four besides Polamalu are playing in Super Bowl XLIII for the Steelers (guard Chris Kemoeatu) and Cardinals (safety Aaron Francisco, guard Deuce Lutui and linebacker Pago Togafau).

"You're seeing more and more Polynesian kids in the NFL," said Minnesota vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman, who has fullback Naufahu Tahi on his roster. "There's a lot more talent at the Senior Bowl and combine. Polynesian kids have a lot of passion for the game."

Polamalu's passion is evident every time he steps on the field. By bobbing between the secondary and line of scrimmage before the football is snapped, Polamalu creates chaos for quarterbacks trying to account for his whereabouts.

"He's a wild card," Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "He's supposed to be in two-deep (zone coverage) but he's running somewhere he has no business being. If you catch him, you can burn him. But the problem is that if you don't see him and he's someplace you don't expect, he'll make plays on you."

Baltimore rookie Joe Flacco learned that lesson the hard way during the AFC Championship game. With the score 16-14 in the fourth quarter, Flacco tried connecting with wide receiver Derrick Mason on an intermediate route. It wasn't until he was on the ground that Flacco realized Polamalu was reading his eyes the entire time. Polamalu's interception and 40-yard return for a touchdown sealed a Steelers victory.

"He has a knack for being around the ball," Steelers linebacker James Harrison said.

The 27-year-old Polamalu was arguably at his most dangerous in his sixth NFL season. The emergence of second-year linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons as pass rushers has allowed Polamalu to freelance in coverage more while blitzing less, resulting in less physical wear and tear. Polamalu finished the regular season with a career-high seven interceptions and started every game for the first time since 2005, which is also the last time Pittsburgh won a Super Bowl.

"I feel very comfortable, the most comfortable I've ever felt," Polamalu said.

That could change in a week, but in a good way. Polamalu should feel even cozier surrounded by rabid supporters in Hawaii at his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl — especially if he knows another Super Bowl ring is coming his way.

"He's one of those special guys you rarely come across because he's so humble and grounded," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "I'm like those young kids (who idolize him). I think he's the greatest thing in the world."

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