In 1999, GQ Magazine yanked reporter Mark Adams out of his home in New York City and sent him to Pago Pago, the central city of American Samoa, situated in the South Pacific Ocean. His assignment: to report on why the tiny island of 62,000, that measures only 76 square miles, and is nearly 4,700 miles from Los Angeles, was responsible for what at the time were 20 NFL players and close to 150 Division One football players in the United States.
Adams calculated that “a Polynesian who probably played in the first football game his father ever saw is 40 times more likely to make it to the big time than the average corn-fed American boy.”
By 2009 those NFL and Division One numbers had grown by an estimated 40 percent, but still Adams wondered in 1999 what those numbers would be like if the kids in American Samoa actually had usable equipment and decent coaching.
He sought answers from a former UCLA quarterback who’d returned to “The Rock” to coach.
Samoa Samoa was a highly respected high school coach who introduced the option play to the island. But Coach Samoa Samoa explained to Adams that one coach with one play wasn’t nearly enough. He explained that his dream for the athletes of American Samoa was that “a million dollars will break the sky one morning.”
It seemed more like a desperation Hail Mary pass than a dream, but that dream may have come true last summer.
There are five islands, or island chains, that make up American Samoa. Troy Polamalu’s mother, Siuila, was born in Tau in the Manua Islands chain. After she was born, the family moved to the main island of Tutuila. There, her father worked as a carpenter for the U.S. government and helped the Marine Corps as a Barefoot Soldier.
“They helped them get familiarized with the islands during the war time,” her oldest brother Salu explained. “And they never wore shoes.”
Salu is the oldest of the Polamalu clan, which grew to nine in 1963 with the November 22 birth of Kennedy, the current offensive coordinator at the University of Southern California. The next and last child of the family was born in 1965. Al Pola, or Aoatoa Polamalu, went on to play nose tackle for Penn State’s last national championship team.
By that time, the migration to the states had begun for members of the Polamalu family. Tone left for Hawaii in 1965 to finish high school. Salu left for Hawaii in 1966 and began working as a knife dancer in Waikiki, where he met Shelley. The two married in 1970 and eventually settled in Tenmile, Oregon. By the mid 1970s, the rest of the Polamalu clan had moved from Samoa and/or Hawaii to settle in Santa Ana, Calif., just outside of Los Angeles.
“They figured their chances were better there,” said Salu. “There are a lot of Samoans in Hawaii, and they don’t have a good reputation. They became troublemakers, so my dad thought they were better off going to Santa Ana.”
In Southern California, the 18-year-old Siuila met Sitala “Tommy” Aumua, another Samoan, and they soon married. They had five children, the youngest of whom was born in 1981 and named Troy Benjamin Aumua.
But Troy’s father left the family at the hospital, and Troy eventually went to live with his aunt and uncle in Oregon. He honored them years later by officially changing his last name to Polamalu.
“What motivates anybody to do philanthropy?” was how Troy Polamalu answered his inquisitor. “That’s the real question.”
The un-real question was this: Did the 60 Minutes special that aired early in 2010, about the worn-out football equipment on the football-mad islands, motivate Polamalu to donate at least $100,000 worth of equipment to the Samoan high schools a year later?
That’s how family members remember the sequence of events that led Polamalu and a group of NFL Samoan players, teammate Ryan Clark, Polynesian coaches, family members and friends to host a week-long football camp in Samoa last July.
The answer, however, wasn’t quite that simple for Polamalu.
“Obviously, I have strong ties to my family back in Samoa,” he said. “I wanted to go back and get back to the culture that set the foundation of how I look at my life, how I view things in my life, and to appreciate that, and also for my family to see that.”
Polamalu has a wife, Theodora, and two young sons, Paisios and Ephram. They traveled with him, as did several members of his extended family. They were invited by the Samoan government because of Troy’s generous donation, and also because of his skyrocketing popularity among Polynesians.
“It was amazing,” said Clark. “As soon as we got there the whole island was at the airport. We met the first lady, the governor. You take pictures, do interviews. Then when we walked out, we were escorted to our cars like we were the Beatles or the Jacksons. It was crazy.”
“It was one of the most emotional, memorable trips I’ve ever been on,” said Kennedy Polamalu, who was still awash with emotion a month later.
“What he has become amid … that whole island was just abuzz, and this is … it’s so far away. The love that’s in his spirit, the way he handles himself, the adults and the Matais, which are the chiefs of the villages, I mean everybody – I mean, he just represented his family, everything.”
Kennedy – a recruiter, a coach, a communicator – chuckled to himself about his inability to communicate on this occasion. He simply finished with the same sentence Clark had. “It was just crazy,” he said.
Kennedy Polamalu sees two major hurdles for budding football players in Samoa: language and footwear. His nephew attacked both of those issues head on.
“Troy said, ‘Hey, let’s coach the coaches,’” said Kennedy.
“Right now everything is about winning but we can’t do that with the Samoan kids because of the language. We had to teach the language and the fundamentals. A lot of them still do their cadence in Samoan, so their transition from Samoa to junior college, or Samoa to division football scholarship schools, right now, their transition is way behind. They’ll go and hit you. And they’ll say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no coach’ and ‘yes coach’ and do the things that you want them to do, but the language barrier – lining up, learning how to fit, learning how to formation – was a real big thing for Troy. He saw that and he said, ‘Uncle, we have to do a better job because there are a lot of eager kids now.’”
On the first day 660 Samoan players put on their pads, “and they wanted to kill,” said Kennedy. “We had to spend half the time talking about safety.” And then Troy noticed the second major problem.
“The Nike shoes that Troy has given, they didn’t last because their feet are wider since they’re barefoot all the time in Samoa. The dirt, the grass, and then the rain, the weather, those shoes – they looked pretty for the mainland here because we have nice turf and manicured lawns and practice turfs, but in Samoa those shoes didn’t last. They were just ripped up. So Troy was hoping that maybe Nike could come out there and have Samoa as not only their test ground, but to build a shoe that will fit these guys. So his brain is all over the place.”
In the midst of meeting with governors and touring the StarKist plant and listening to songs and taking in the war dances of the island’s students, and of just staying up until 3 a.m. and waking again at 6 a.m., Troy Polamalu wasn’t just putting his NFL brethren (Clark, Rey Maualuga, Deuce Lutui, Domata Peko, Vince Manuwai, Matt Toeaina, Reagan Mauia) to work, getting credit for trying, and then heading back to the mainland with another line on his resume. No, his brain was all over the place as he thought about improving the Samoans’ chances for success.
“Football was kind of our foot in,” Troy said. “We hope to do a lot more out there, get more people involved, especially with the role that Samoans have had in football and how much of a percentage comprises this league. They go straight off heart and athleticism. Once we get the IQ to a standard that I believe we can get it to, I think you could have a very, very awesome football player.”
So the coaches coached the coaches from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., and the next day they taught the islanders about reading keys and using technique.
“We were teaching the very foundation of those things,” Troy said. “Then you start teaching these types of things and making them instinctual. That’s obviously the next level. But like I said, football’s kind of our foot in. Obviously the more people we can get out of there to get more higher education, the more positively affected the island can be.”
And then there were the shoes.
“We were on a good field,” Troy said. “We were at the main stadium. But the other high school field, from hash to hash, from 20 to 20, was lava rock. I’m not talking about patchy lava rock. I’m talking red middle of the field. And during the camp guys were playing barefoot. One guy was in socks. Very humble beginnings but they definitely appreciate the little things. They definitely use everything they’ve got and appreciate it.”
Polamalu himself enjoys working out in bare feet. He can be seen roaming the Steelers’ South Side practice facility at any time in barefoot sports shoes that fit a foot the way a glove fits a hand. He for one could appreciate what he was seeing in the young Samoans.
“I definitely could,” he said, “but not on the football field when everyone’s wearing cleats, or on lava rocks. But we’re doing stuff with Nike to create some barefoot stuff. Hopefully Samoan players could wear our prototypes, because they have a strong foot. They already have a solid foundation, but that’s another story.”
Troy Polamalu told ESPN The Magazine that at one point during his trip he was reminded of the documentary When We Were Kings. “Everywhere Ali jogged, there were a hundred people jogging behind him,” Polamalu told reporter Carmen Thompson. “That’s what I felt.”
There certainly was fanfare. “When those kids started singing, I could see Troy’s eyes starting to well,” said Kennedy. “Everywhere we went there was just this unbelievable, beautiful singing and respect.”
On the last day of the camp the kids performed their haka (war dances) and began singing traditional Samoan church songs before Troy danced for everyone. The Samoans wanted more.
“They wanted him to take his hair down,” Kennedy said. “They were like ‘Pull it out, Rasta’ because he had it up the whole camp. And he did that and the kids and everybody just went crazy. Right after he finished he put it back up.”
“You know, I’d done camps in the states and for the most part in New Orleans,” said Ryan Clark. “The kids see me walk around all the time. They see Reggie Bush and Drew Brees all the time. But none of those people are really those kids’ idol. Over there, you’re talking about a guy who’s their idol. He’s their one. So for him to come there was big. But I had never been around an atmosphere like that, with all of the excitement. And it was awesome because of the way I feel about him and wanting him to get that type of recognition and wanting him to have that type of reception. And him not really caring. He doesn’t care.”
At least Polamalu acted as if he didn’t care. It hid his embarrassment over all the attention.
“I wouldn’t say it was embarrassing,” said Troy. “It was definitely overwhelming, and definitely undeserved.”
So, what of the dream of Coach Samoa Samoa? Was Troy Polamalu’s visit the proverbial bolt from the blue?
“I think so,” said Kennedy. “What made it so was that he didn’t want it to be about Troy. He wanted it to be about all the Polynesians. But you need someone to spearhead it and I think he gave that spark to have that happen.”
Polamalu provided that spark on and off the field. He so impressed the Samoan people he was offered the position of Matai, or chief, of the Manua Islands, where his mother was born.
“One of my older brothers was the Matai of our family, and he passed away a few years ago,” said Kennedy. “I know my older brother Salu doesn’t want it. I don’t want to go back and live there. And so Troy’s thinking, ‘Uncle, I think I might take that title.’ And that’s a big title now. It’s the chief of Manua, which is the original island. If you read any book of Samoa, that’s where everything starts.”
Troy visited Samoa for the first time in 2001. He visited his mother and he came back and told a reporter he wanted to return again one day to raise his family there.
Today, of course, Polamalu is raising his family in the modern comforts of a suburban home some 7,000 miles away, where he’s revered by the people of Pittsburgh almost as fervently as the people of Samoa.
Does the sentiment he expressed a decade ago still apply?
“Yeah. I still would love to do that,” Polamalu said about living in Samoa.
“Life is so simple there. It’s so beautiful. Everything that you ever need, God gives to you. Food, shelter, everything’s there. That you can live off the land so easily is what’s beautiful.
“What’s also beautiful is island time is so much slower. And I figured out why it’s slow: In Samoa, you never bypass the process. And what I mean is you don’t think ‘OK, I’m hungry’ and you drive up to McDonald’s and buy a No. 1 and then you eat and you’re done. There, traditionally, you have to go find the fish, you’ve got to cook it, you’ve got to prepare the umu (earth oven). So you never bypass the process. Also, you don’t sit in front of the TV and vegetate. Those are the beautiful things about Samoa and our culture.
“Could I really do it? You know, it’s tough to say. It’s something that I look forward to trying to do, for sure.”
As a Samoan chief?
“That’s something that my family and I have kind of debated,” Troy said. “I don’t know. It’s an incredible responsibility but it’s also something that I feel that I’m almost motivated to do. But I don’t know if I can undertake such a huge responsibility – just because we’re losing a lot of our traditionalism and I love our traditionalism and I want to instill that. But, it’s such a huge responsibility. I don’t know if I could have that. And it’s a tremendous burden. Great leaders kind of look at these things as tremendous burdens and I don’t know if I could sacrifice my time and my family – my immediate family – for that.”