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Steelers Steelers, first-round pick Polamalu dance to same beat

Sunday, April 27, 2003

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Kennedy Pola was in the backyard of his home in La Crescenta, Calif., waiting for his nephew to arrive for a Samoan family gathering. The guest of honor hadn't even arrived when Uncle Kennedy heard a loud roar in the house.

"I said, 'What happened,' and they said, 'The Steelers just took Troy,'" Pola said. "He wasn't even here. He was still on the freeway."

The reference was to Troy Polamalu, the Southern California safety whom the Steelers selected with the 16th overall pick in the NFL draft yesterday.

When Troy Polamalu arrived at his uncle's house, his family immediately yanked him outside and had him take part in a dance known as the Paualuga, which is Samoan celebration dance. He was dancing and celebrating with his family, something he does around loved ones, but something he doesn't do on the football field.

"He plays for his faith and he plays for his culture -- the Samoan people," said Pola, who knows his nephew as well as anybody.

Kennedy Pola is the running backs coach at USC. He knows his nephew on and off the football field. And he's not sure which side of Troy's personality is more impressive.

"He's a man of God," Pola said. "He's family oriented, but, on the field, he lays it all out. He gives everything he has."

Southern California has produced five Pro Bowl safeties over the years, including Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. It is a position at USC that carries tradition and greatness. Polamalu is the latest in that line, but his path to greatness actually took him from an Orange County suburb to a small town in Oregon before returning to Los Angeles.

Polamalu grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., but moved to Tenmile, Ore., when he was 9 years old. He was dispatched by his mother, Suila, who did not want him growing up like his older brother, Kaio, near the tough neighborhoods and gangs of Los Angeles. Polamalu moved in with an uncle, Salu -- his mother's brother -- and an aunt and cousins.

Talk about a change of lifestyle.

He went from the second-largest city in the country to Tenmile, a town of 150 people located in the southwest corner of Oregon. His school, Douglas High School in Winston, Ore., had an enrollment of 400 students. The closest big town had 4,000 people.

"My mom sent me to live with her brother, who is the chief of our family," Polamalu said. It was a curious reference for an uncle, but, as part of Samoan tradition, the chief is the person was holds the family together.

"He is a disciplinarian and kept me straight," Polamalu said. "It was a great move for me. My mom wanted the best for me.

"I think [it was] a very selfless decision my mother made. A lot of my siblings and cousins had fallen into adversity."

Polamalu is the youngest of five children. Kaio, his older brother, played at Texas-El Paso. He also had three older sisters.

"I had raised my children as a single mother, and my oldest son was not a good role model at the time," Suila said last night. "He was hanging around with different kids. I didn't want Troy to grow up with that life."

In Oregon, Polamalu learned more than just a simple life. He developed a hobby -- woodworking -- which continues to this day.

It is the second year in a row the Steelers used their No. 1 pick on a player with artistic talents. Guard Kendall Simmons, their No. 1 pick last year, enjoyed graphic designs and majored in visual communication/graphic arts at Auburn.

"It was something I always did to get away and indulge yourself with things and not get stressed out," Polamalu said. "Hopefully, somebody there will let me work in a woodshop."

But Polamalu does most of his carving on the football field.

He was a team captain and USC's first two-time All-American since offensive tackle Tony Boselli (1992, 1994). What's more, he developed a reputation as a big hitter -- "He plays safety like Junior Seau plays linebacker," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations -- making 281 career tackles at USC. Of those, 29 were for losses, totaling 106 yards.

But, in an age of players celebrating even the most mundane plays, Polamalu doesn't believe in being demonstrative after a big hit. He limits his dancing and celebrating to family functions.

"The first point anyone should get about me is I'm very spiritual," Polamalu said. "My Christian ethic causes me to give everything I have and be humble about everything. It's not just you that's the root for your success. To me, the most selfish thing anyone can do, not to judge those people, is to do that."

Getting Polamalu to move from Oregon back to Southern California was not difficult.

First, his uncle was the Trojans running backs coach, hired there by former Pitt Coach Paul Hackett. Kennedy Pola had his last name shortened -- it was Polamalu -- because "He didn't want to have to go through the same problems I have," Troy said, laughing about the pronunciation of his last name (Poe-a-MA-lu). Another uncle shortened his name, too. His name was Al Pola, who played at Penn State in the 1960s.

Hackett wanted Troy Polamalu, even though he missed all but four games of his senior season in high school because of a bruised kidney, torn back muscles and a sprained shoulder. He wanted him for some of the same reasons as the Steelers -- character.

And Polamalu wanted to come home.

"Southern California has a very distinctive smell," Polamalu said. "I smelled it as soon as I got off the plane. It's not a good smell, but it smells like home. The Oregon smell is beautiful -- pine needles and fresh air -- but Southern California is home."

Now Polamalu has a new home -- the strong safety position in the Steelers secondary.

The Steelers liked everything about their newest player. When he ran for NFL scouts in March at the USC campus, he was timed at 4.33 in the 40-yard dash and bench-pressed 225 pounds 25 times.

"He hits like a linebacker and covers like a corner," Coach Bill Cowher said.

It might not have happened if his mother didn't move him away from the gang-influence of Los Angeles.

"There are different types of adversity you face in Southern California," Polamalu said. "I think my mother made the decision for me because I had some older brothers and sisters who faced a lot of adversity, which took them longer to overcome. I didn't have to go through what they went through. They're all doing great now."

So is Troy, who might have to adapt his celebratory dance to the 'Burgh.

Perhaps the Paualuga Polka.


Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.

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