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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Polamalu picks Naval Academy

By Don Seeley
dseeley@pottsmerc.com

LOWER POTTSGROVE — Maika Polamalu discovered at a very young age it was a whole lot easier to block, tackle and run on a football field than it was to block out the comparisons, tackle the expectations and run away from all the gossip he heard off the field.

    Everyone throughout the Pottsgrove neighborhoods as well as around the country, for that matter, knew his last name.

    Understandably so. His father, Aoatoa Polamalu – better known as Al – made quite a name for himself as the starting nose guard for Penn State when the Nittany Lions won the national title in 1986. His uncle, Kennedy Polamalu — who shortened his name to Pola — was an outstanding fullback at USC and later, as he is now, the running backs coach for the Tennessee Titans in the NFL. And, of course, his cousin – Troy Polamalu – went from two-time All-American at USC to All-Pro safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    “It was very hard at first,” he said when asked about growing up with such a distinguished last name. “It actually was difficult in the beginning, difficult to live up to. It was tough because a lot of assumptions were made, and there were a lot of expectations.

    “I think probably by my junior year (in high school) is when I got used to it. From that point on it didn’t really bother me.”

    For good reason, too, because by then Maika Polamalu had already begun making a name for himself, as a running back and defensive back — not to mention outstanding academic student — at Pottsgrove High School.

    And Wednesday morning, during a press conference in the school’s administration offices, Polamalu continued to establish his own identity by signing his national letter of intent to continue his academic and athlete careers at the U.S. Naval Academy.

    The 6-foot, 205-pound Polamalu, who had received a number of offers from schools around the country, narrowed his choices to Navy, Temple and Villanova. However, he admitted, there was no passing up what Navy offered.

    “I know there’s a lot of discipline (in attending an academy),” Polamalu said. “But it’s worth it in the long run. When I visited there the players took me in. I thought they were good people. Plus the (football) program is very stable.

    “The degree you get from there also holds a lot of weight. (Navy’s) liberal arts program is one of the top educational programs in the country. That offers a great opportunity in the future.”

    Polamalu made quite a name for himself on the football field at Pottsgrove. He was a four-year starter, running for 4,388 yards and scoring 63 touchdowns overall. He was a three-time All-Pioneer Athletic Conference selection, a two-time all-state pick, and a big, big reason – on offense as well as defense -  why the Falcons won back-to-back PAC-10 championships in 2008 and 2009, earned four straight appearances in the District 1-AAA playoffs, and won the school’s first district title in 2009.

    However, even those impressive numbers and accolades pale in comparison to what he achieved off the football field and in the classroom. He carried a 3.6 grade-point average before completing all his high school academic requirements two months ago. And he’s doing that well, if not better, while attending classes for the second straight semester at Montgomery County Community College.

    At Navy, Polamalu plans to study mechanical engineering and, eventually, get into the academy’s post-grad program.

    “Maika has made a great choice,” head coach Rick Pennypacker said. “But he’s to be congratulated not only for what he’s given us in our football program, but for putting himself in the position he’s in today … going to the Naval Academy. A lot of kids dream about going there.

    “His parents stressed academics from the beginning, and Maika accepted that challenge. He’s going to get an excellent education and play for a high-caliber college football team, and I think he’ll be a mainstay for (Navy).”

    The 18-year-old Polamalu, who will report to Annapolis, Md., on June 30, has played in a pair of all-star games since Pottsgrove season-ending setback to Strath Haven in the District 1-AAA final. He scored a touchdown in the inaugural Chesapeake Bowl down in Va., two months ago, and the Polynesian All-Star Game out in Los Angeles last month.

    At Navy, he will play for head coach Ken Niumatalolo, the first Samoan head coach at any level in college football. He’ll join a team that was 10-4 a year ago, capping its season with an appearance in the Poinsetta Bowl.

    Recruited as a running back, he’ll be part of an option offense similar to what he was such a big part of at Pottsgrove. And because there is no red-shirting at any of the country’s academies, he hopes to be a part of the Midshipmen’s offense sooner rather than later.

    “That won’t be much of a factor,” Polamalu said about learning a new system. “It’s definitely a good thing knowing the (offense) pretty well, though. It’ll definitely help me a lot.”

    One of Navy’s offensive weapons – slotback John Howell, a graduate of Lansdale Catholic – was helpful during Polamalu’s visit.

    “I actually stayed with John when I was down there,” Polamalu said. “We talked a lot, and he was straight-up with me on a lot of things. He was a big help.”

    Perhaps not as big a help as dad and mom, Christine, who sat alongside their son during Wednesday morning’s press conference.

    “We’ve told Maika that it’s a life choice he’s making,” said his father. “There are no guarantees in life, but (the Naval Academy) offers a good education and five years on the job. After that, you’re coming out of a program where you’ll be leading men and women. Who wouldn’t want that type of person?

    “It’s going to be hard at Navy. Be we’ve reminded Maika that he’s making a life choice, not a football choice.”

    “There certainly will be a lot of challenges,” Polamalu added. “But I don’t feel there is anything I can’t handle.”

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