Steeler Nation: The Polamalu Trail

Troy Polamalu (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

An excerpt from Jim Wexell's new book "Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon" focuses on Troy Polamalu during his childhood days in Tenmile, Oregon.

"HE CRIED and cried and cried," said Shelley Polamalu.

She's Troy's aunt who became his mom.

"They came up to visit and he didn't want to leave, didn't want to leave, and it was the end of July and I told his mom to come back and get him on Labor Day weekend. So Labor Day came and he didn't want to go. He never wanted to go back. His mom didn't come up, so we went down there on spring vacation to see them all and he was so afraid we were going to leave without him that he wouldn't unpack his little suitcase."

Troy was enrolled in Tenmile Elementary School and so he asked Shelley – an administrative assistant in the school district -- if he could take her last name. "He's gone by it ever since," she said.

And the transition?

"I'm sure he'll tell you it went well," Shelley said. "He had seen his older brothers and friends have problems, gang related, drug related. It's all down there. Troy's direction? He wasn't headed anywhere. He couldn't even play sports because he didn't have anybody to get him there. His mom and dad were split. He got up here and saw how uncomplicated our lives are here compared to what he knew."

"When you get to their house, you'll kind of understand," said Jason Dickover, the athletic director at Troy's alma mater, Douglas High School. "Troy could just get outside and play on acres and acres and not worry about anything."

When Troy entered fourth grade, his oldest "brother" Joe was away at Oregon State, where he played linebacker. Darren was in Douglas High and Brandon was in middle school.

"My younger brothers spent a lot of time with Troy," said Joe Polamalu, a guidance counselor at Douglas. "He was a young kid who just really kind of fit right into our family. So many of the games we were playing we made up in the yard and he kind of fit right there. With the old man (Salu) it's pretty simple to understand. We all walked that tightrope making sure we did what we were supposed to do, and Troy followed suit. He took care of school. He was respectful at other people's homes. We all got along pretty good. Darren and Brandon pretty much took him in and made him a country boy for a while."

The elementary school, now closed, stands next door to the family's church – Tenmile Methodist – and the community ball fields. Troy loved baseball but he couldn't see the ball.

"We found out he was blind," said Salu.

Troy's coach at the time approached Shelley and asked if Troy ever had his eyes checked. "He's blind," the coach said.

"But he hits the ball," said Shelley.

"He feels it coming, or hears it," said the coach. "But he doesn't see it. Do you realize how much better he would be if he could see the ball?"

So Shelley took Troy to the eye doctor, who confirmed what the coach had said. "He's almost blind," the doctor told Shelley, so she bought Troy contacts in the fourth grade and he's worn them ever since.

Troy began playing football in the fifth grade. His best friend Erick Stookey and his best friend's dad, Curt Stookey, a lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan, coached the local little league team in nearby Roseburg. It was tackle football, and Troy scored a touchdown on one of his first plays.

"He jumped up and he was smiling," Shelley said. "He looked at us and he was just so happy."

But Salu wasn't so happy. "Don't you ever do that again," Salu told him. "Don't celebrate."

That year, the worst team in the league became the best. The team sensed what was coming the first time Troy played.

"By about the end of the first quarter," said Curt Stookey, "those kids, who'd never won a game, were really starting to feel like maybe they could play football. It was a big turnaround for that whole team. It was the same thing in basketball."

Opposing parents complained when Troy's youth basketball team beat their kids, 40-1.

"People wanted to know who those jerks from Tenmile were," said Curt's wife Kerri. "People thought they were dragging kids in from everywhere."

"I was trying," Curt said with a mischievous grin.

"They just dominated," Salu said in his distinct Polynesian accent. "Sometimes they yelled, ‘Take that kid out! You guys score enough points.' There was one guy, he was asking me, ‘I hope you're not bringing more Polamalu from California ...'"

Steeler Nation: A Pittsburgh Team, An American Phenomenon is available at PittsburghSportsPublishing.com.

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