His birth date is etched in American history. Kennedy Pola’s father heard the news, felt the heartache and instantly new what to name his newborn son.
“The nurse came in and said President Kennedy had just been killed,” Pola said of the story of his entrance into the world, on Nov. 22, 1963, in American Samoa.
Pola hopes his Jaguars running backs will author an exciting story this coming season, but the story of how Pola got from there to here is a fascinating read. It begins with an arrangement by Pola’s parents to move Kennedy and his younger brother, Aoatoa, to Los Angeles when Kennedy was a mere 14-year-old.
“My parents thought there was an opportunity for me and my younger brother. We lived with guardians that were friends of the family,” Kennedy said.
He spoke almost no English, which caused him to be shy.
“It was the hardest language to learn and I’m still learning. The hardest parts of the language are the tenses and the plurals. I feel for a lot of those young men,” he says of young players who lack verbal skills. “Some of that shyness is embarrassment.”
Broken English didn’t hold Pola back. His father shortened his son’s name from Polamalu when he sent him to California, an obvious attempt to Americanize his son’s identity. Kennedy did the rest.
“I was blessed enough to be good in sports. My guardian said there’s this really good program at Mater Dei High School. I played there; played basketball and football, became a student body president,” Pola, one of 10 children, said.
Pola accepted a scholarship to play football at USC, where he met Jack Del Rio and formed the bond that brought him to Jacksonville to serve as Del Rio’s running backs coach the past four seasons.
“I took my recruiting trips to Penn State, Notre Dame, Alabama, USC and Washington. Jack was a top recruit. Everywhere I went they said you’ll never play at USC. It was one of those, ‘I could play there.’ I ended up playing as a true freshman at linebacker,” Pola said.
He was moved to fullback for the final four games of freshman year and stayed there through the end of his college career. Pola’s father passed away when he was a sophomore at USC.
Kennedy’s brother, Aoatoa, carved out his own niche in college football. He was the nose tackle on the 1986 Penn State team that defeated Miami to win the national title.
An older brother, Faasasalu Polamalu, was a fire dancer at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu. Faasasalu now lives in Oregon and provided a stable upbringing for his and Kennedy’s nephew, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, the son of the oldest of Kennedy’s four sisters. Her husband abandoned the family when Troy was four years old and eventually Troy moved in with Faasasalu’s family in Oregon.
Between college and the start of his coaching career, Kennedy was a home builder in Los Angeles, where he also did mentoring work with gang members
“I was building next to a HUD complex that had a lot of gangs. I ended up building programs, tutoring and mentoring. It’s great when one of those kids writes to you and says you saved my life,” Pola said.
Since then, he has carved out a considerable coaching career that includes a national championship stint at USC.
“My goal has always been to lead a program; be a coordinator, be a head coach,” Pola said.
The Jaguars running backs he coaches will help Pola achieve recognition. Maurice Jones-Drew is on the cusp of stardom, Greg Jones is considered to be one of the top fullbacks in the game, and seventh-round pick Rashad Jennings is a mouth-watering prospect Pola ranked the fifth-best running back in the draft.
“I want the goal this season for my group to be to make every practice and play in every game. That means come to practice every day. When you’re not available, the game-planning, everything hurts. I used to say to Fred (Taylor), you may not get a rep, but the team sees you’re out there,” Pola said.
“They’re so talented that if we get them in that mindset, the stats will show up. Maurice Drew hasn’t missed a game. They’re going to be bruised, they’re going to be sore, but I’ve got to get them to the game,” he added. “I love them. They’re good guys. They’re good people and you can do a lot when you have good people.”